At a certain point in most zombie narratives, when the survivors have managed to hack out a small security bubble, human nature begins to assert itself. If the story can play out long enough, and humans start to rebuild civilization, writers have ripe allegorical ground to explore how we — for better or worse — govern ourselves.
Even the title of TWD‘s season 4 premiere, “30 Days Without an Accident,” seems to indicate we’ve entered a new era with a semblance of peace. Half a year removed from the showdown in Woodbury that ended Season 3, and safely ensconced in the prison, our (now much larger) group has stopped surviving and started living again. They’ve set up a governing council; they’re farming in the prison’s small fields; Beth keeps a tally of the days since someone has died using a factory “Days since an accident” board.
Our first glimpse of this new reality is one of the series’ best opening scenes yet. In the subtle opener, Rick steps out into the early morning, tosses water on his face and gets to work tending the ground with a small hoe. Farmer Rick has a very modern method of ignoring the zombies outside the fence: an MP3 player; listening through headphones, he drowns out the snarling horde with the country-gospel classic “Precious Memories.” It’s only when he finds a buried pistol, a remnant of his former life as a lawman and zombie fighter, that he takes pause, long enough to drop the gun’s magazine, and toss the weapon into his wheelbarrow.
Rick, we learned a bit later, has gone full-on Cincinnatus — he farms and traps to help feed the ever-expanding population, and as far we know now, plays no role in governing the small community. These early scenes tell us a lot about how much things have changed. The prison is now a well-managed mini city-state, in which everyone has a job. The walkers don’t pose too much of a threat unless they swarm outside the fenceline, but our survivors have a nifty way of dealing with this too: small teams of exterminators armed with long knives or pieces of rebar — stabbing the zombies through their faces, they dispatch them by the dozen. They even wear aprons to keep the carnage off their clothes. There are regular meals; there is story time. Life, it seems, has reached some kind of equilibrium as they’ve learned to manage the threat.
Yet outside of the prison gates, it’s still a dangerous world. There are still supply runs — risky missions behind enemy lines that can go bad at any time. The majority of the episode’s action took place on two of these operations: Daryl’s squad raiding a still-intact big-box store, and Rick’s venture into the woods to empty his traps. Let’s start with the former. We knew this thing was going to go south somehow, but for those of us who love the battles against the walkers, this one was a particular treat.
Daryl and company, having cleverly set up a boom box to lure the zombies away from the main part of the store, somehow, in all of their reconnaissance, entirely missed the fact that there was a crashed helicopter on the roof. When all hell inevitably breaks loose in the form of newcomer Bob Stookey getting trapped under a shelf, walkers literally fall from the sky. It was one of the more impressive zombie battles we’ve seen in a while.
Rick, meanwhile, having come across an Irish refugee who somehow managed to survive in the woods, had a quieter, but no less profound afternoon. He tells the woman that she and her husband can join their group, but first he has to ask them three questions. She takes him to their (amazingly unfortified) campsite, while she worries out loud about the things they have had to do to survive. Her husband turns out to be a walker, but much like the Governor, she couldn’t let him go.
The woman stabs herself in the stomach, asking that Rick not end her and let her turn, so she can be with her husband. As she lays dying, she asks him about his questions. Rick asks her how many people has she killed? She answers, “Just me.” Her husband, it seems, has done much of the dirty work, but she still can’t shake the guilt of what was necessary for survival — leaving people behind, hiding from people that need help. “You don’t get to come back from things,” she says. “You don’t.”
It’s a devastating scene. Rick has just seen another person die tragically, but he’s also faced with the guilt of all he’s had to do in order to survive. Andrew Lincoln played the scene beautifully, giving some involuntary shock, but letting his eyes do much of the talking. It’s a theme I’m sure we’ll come back to again and again this season: Can our battle-hardened survivors live with everything they’ve had to do just to stay alive?
But before we can ponder philosophical questions, we have to deal with another existential threat (you thought we were going to get off that easily?) At the end of the episode, one of our newcomers becomes violently ill, dies in the shower and turns into a walker. He hasn’t been at the prison long, which suggests that he brought with him some kind of plague. We not only have a new enemy in the form of an illness, but now we have at least one walker loose inside the prison walls. What’s going to happen? Next Sunday can’t come fast enough.
And now, a hail of bullets:
Zombie Kill Report: Several dozen, between the systematic extermination on the fence line and the battle inside the store. Like our survivors, the audience has seen so many zombie kills that it’s become harder to get our attention. But this fight really packed in the carnage, from a walker dangling from the ceiling by his intestines, to another who exploded into a pile of goo on hitting the floor, to Daryl getting the Clever Kill award by stomping a zombie head into sticky oblivion. On the one hand, I’m happy to see some ingenious details in these fights, but gratuitous carnage just for the shock value — remember the bloated walker in the well? — won’t keep us happy for very long.
True Romance: Given a respite from the existential threat of violent extermination, life, it seems, reverts to the basic rules of a high-school dance. Everyone has grabbed someone — Tyrese and Karen, Beth and Zach, Daryl and Carol (the jury is still out on this one, but she did call him “Pookey.”) Alas, these romances can sometimes be short lived, as Beth learns when Zach becomes an unfortunate casualty of the store battle. She’s seen enough to know that death is always a possibility, which is why she didn’t tell him goodbye, and she doesn’t seem too broken up about losing him.
A Peaceful Childhood: One of our big questions for Season 4 was whether Carl could recover from the carnage of his adolescence. He seems to be doing okay — we see him reading comics by flashlight, naming farm animals. He might even be compensating too much, getting mad at the kids for toying with the walkers and at Carol for teaching them how to use knives. We hope we see Carl develop a lot more over the course of this season.
Newcomers Step Up and Step Off: We meet three new characters this episode. Zach, Beth’s squeeze, wasn’t long for this world, but he plays an important role in showing how numb she has become to violence, death and loss. Patrick became the first victim to what appears will be a fairly violent plague. The only character to stay with us is Bob Stookey, who we learn was an Army medic. We can guess the meaning of his long, longing pause in the store’s liquor section — at the end of the episode, he’s wracked with guilt. His story will be one to watch in coming weeks.
Zits of Life: Another big item on our to-do list was for the writers to give Danai Gurira more to work with in Michonne’s character. She wasn’t in the episode long, but it looks like we’ll see more from her. Best line, when she hands Rick a razor she’s salvaged: “Your face is losing the war.”
They Won’t…at Least for Now: For much of the episode, Glenn had babies on the brain, until Maggie informs him she isn’t pregnant. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see a little one at some point. “I don’t want to be afraid of being alive,” Maggie tells him.
Setting Details: The writers and production designers did a great job of reminding us that our story takes place is what’s left of central Georgia. Rick and our Irish refugee talk about the sculptures at the Atlanta Airport (I, too, have spent a night sleeping near those sculptures), and in the store’s liquor section there are cases of two of my favorite beers: Atlanta’s Sweetwater Brewing Company and Athens’ own Terrapin Beer Company. One of the falling walkers smashes some of the beer cases, lending the scene an extra level of tragedy.
In Other News: It’s great to see they finally fashioned a prosthetic leg for Hershel. Now if only we could do something about that pony tail.
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