“Being afraid is what’s kept us alive.”
As The Walking Dead returns for its fourth season, we find ourselves in the hands of yet another showrunner. Glen Mazzara relinquished the reins of the show after the excellent third season to Scott Gimple; but that shouldn’t be a cause for worry, as Gimple’s been a producer and writer since the show’s second season. This season premiere confirmed that the show’s in safe hands. It’s very much found its stride after the action and dramatic punch of last year, and this ep continued that trend, with enough character development to work as serious drama while not stinting on the undead action.
It’s not clear how long has passed since the finale of the previous season, though the title of the ep might be a bit of a clue. Having said that, Carl Grimes seems to have matured quite a lot in a month; one of the perils of having a juvenile lead actor is that they mature rather quickly. Chandler Riggs is now noticeably taller, but even more noticeably than that, his voice has broken since last time we saw him. All in the space of a month? Children mature so fast these days!
Be that as it may, the narrative continues pretty much where we left off last year, in what could actually have been an ending for the show. Of course AMC would have been mad to have killed it off, as this ep’s rating showed – 16.1 million viewers made it the most-watched ep so far.
The gang are living a more settled, idyllic life at the prison, with crops growing behind the now-repaired fences, livestock providing food, and the community swelled by the survivors of Woodbury. Why Rick and co didn’t just move into Woodbury itself rather than bringing its citizens back to the prison is still rather inexplicable; Woodbury was less bleak, had more amenities and was at least as well-fortified. Presumably there’s a production reason for it, but it still stands out as odd if you remember the last season.
Not everyone will, I suppose – judging by that audience, the show’s gained quite a few new viewers. Scott Gimple’s script did well at carrying on the continuity without alienating any who might be unfamiliar with the characters’ tortuous backstories, though Daryl Dixon seems rather chipper considering how recently he had to put down the zombie of his loved/hated brother.
Even seasoned viewers had quite a lot of new characters to get to know – though, this being The Walking Dead, two of them had been horribly killed by the end of the ep. The Woodbury folks are a stark contrast to the hardened survivor types our original characters have become; pampered by the soft living the Governor provided them with, they don’t seem to have had all that much contact with the undead and it was amusing to find them virtually hero-worshipping the embarrassed Daryl.
One of said worshippers was a sweet teenager called Patrick, who unfortunately seemed a stereotypical nerd. Obviously serving as a contrast to the survival-hardened Carl, he seemed a bit too sheltered to be entirely believable, given the apocalypse that’s been going on around him. Still, if you didn’t find his character convincing, at least you didn’t have to worry about it for long.
Other Woodbury survivors seemed more suited to the post-apocalypse life. They included Larry Gilliard as former medic Bob Stookey, altogether more sober here than his comic book counterpart, and Kyle Gallner as Beth’s gung ho new boyfriend Zach. He too was not destined to serve long in the show…
One of the good things about the influx of new characters is that it seems to put an end to the show’s history of racial tokenism. Even last season, it seemed to be a rule that there could only be one black male character at a time; ex-con Oscar replacing T-Dog, then Tyreese serving to replace Oscar, as each got killed.
Tyreese is, thankfully, still with us, as is his sister Sasha, and the ranks of black characters also include Bob and, of course, the ever-popular Michonne. I know a lot of people last year found her too much of a cipher, more at home in the comic book than the more introspective world of the TV show. But I thought Danai Gurira’s contained performance gave plenty of hints about inner complexity, even if none of it was spelled out.
Perhaps it will be this year, though there’s little evidence of it yet. She seems to be spending most of her time away from the prison, off out searching for her old nemesis the Governor. Having been reprieved from a comeuppance last year, we know David Morrissey is back this year, so presumably she’ll find him at some point; it’ll be interesting to see how his character develops, having effectively outlived his comic counterpart.
Apart from establishing the more idyllic community in the prison this year, the ep had two major plots – one of slam-bang action, one of introspective character development for the seemingly more well-adjusted Rick. The former had a small group off to a nearby army-quarantined supermarket in search of supplies, only to run afoul of a ferocious Walker attack – somewhat inevitably, this being the season opener and all. While that was a cool action/gore sequence, the latter plot was more intriguing, as Rick, foraging alone for snared animals outside the fence, met up with an example of how much worse off the survivors could have been.
In stark contrast to the pampered folks of Woodbury, or even Rick’s battle-scarred group, the figure Rick found crouched over a snared boar was intentionally made to seem like just another Walker – right up until the moment she spoke to him.
Rick may no longer be hallucinating his dead wife, but he seems very withdrawn and introspective. Having abdicated his former ‘Ricktatorship’ in favour of a council, he seems content to tend the crops alone, and refuses to carry a gun until Hershel talks him into it. In short, he almost seems to be withdrawing from humanity. But not as far as Clara, the emaciated, filthy survivor who’s almost indistinguishable from a Walker. Played by Irish actor Kerry Condon with a distinct Tipperary accent, Clara had an unnerving thousand yard stare that made you wonder whether she was traumatised or psychotic.
That it turned out to be the latter was no surprise; even in the midst of hope, this show is usually pretty bleak. But her trek through the woods with Rick, to collect her husband Eddie, was one of those excellent character sequences, giving Andrew Lincoln some acting meat to chew on as Rick was shown a mirror of what he could have become. And the three questions he proposed asking her – as a potential new member of the community – were very revealing: “How many Walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? WHY?”
It was no real surprise that Clara’s beloved Eddie was one of the undead himself, bound in a sack while Clara searched out meat for him, with Rick the intended main course. It was an unnerving moment when we saw just how broken Clara had become; having been stabbed in the gut, she would rather come back as a Walker to be with her beloved Eddie. Perhaps Rick’s had enough of killing zombies, or perhaps it was a point of honour, but he gave her her wish. Still, with the hordes gathering outside the fences, what’s one more Walker more or less?
One of the lessons learned from the show’s rather ponderous second season was that a zombie show really ought to include a few zombies. That balance was redressed in the bigger-budgeted third season, with each ep featuring loads of the undead. It was good to see the head count maintained this ep; if nothing else, so lots of said heads could be hacked, squished and generally mashed in an extended sequence of clearing those nearest the prison fence.
Still, one had to wonder – with so many gathering outside, how do our heroes manage to go out and clear up the ones who are genuinely dead before their decay starts to spread disease? For that matter, the still-active ones are getting more and more decomposed – it can’t be hygienic having so many of them hanging around near your crops.
Gore of the week
Oodles – this ep was directed by makeup effects honcho Gregory Nicotero, himself a veteran of Tom Savini’s tutelage on Day of the Dead. Aside from the aforementioned fence-clearing, the majority of the gore came in the fairly spectacular set piece battle in the darkened supermarket. Nicotero built it up well with the direction, panning upward from a severed pair of legs to show that the roof was positively teeming with Walkers, stuck up there next to a crashed helicopter.
Said roof was looking none too solid as Bob (in presumably a nod to his comic counterpart’s alcoholism) havered over whether to plunder the booze aisle before noticing the moisture dripping from the sodden ceiling. Unfortunately before he could mention this, a wine rack fell on him. And then Walkers started dropping from the roof – and the gore began in earnest.
The first was none too lucky, getting strung up by its own intestines, which eventually snapped so it could tumble to the floor. Others simply burst on impact – sploosh.
But enough got through to give our heroes a bit of a hard time, and we got another chance to see that old standby, the boot in the improbably squishy head.
But the gore wasn’t just reserved for the dead. Beth’s unlucky boyfriend Zach found himself bitten on the ankle, but before anyone could call out for an amputation, he’d been dragged down and had half his face bitten off.
Life is cheap after the apocalypse, and in another example of how the characters have hardened, Beth’s response was simply to shrug and reset the “Days Without an Accident” sign to zero. It made you think about how it would be to grow up in this grim world. Just look at Carl – concerned enough over an ill pig to name it Violet, but full of contempt for the younger children’s affectation of naming the teeming Walkers.
The pig was another casualty of the episode, and perhaps a portent of things to come. At the very beginning, Rick had found his gaze drawn to a Walker with bleeding eyesockets, a point of which the camera direction made a great deal. And at the very end, nerdy, innocent Patrick staggered coughing into the showers, only to collapse and die, reanimating with those same blood-streaming eyes. Just what kind of illness is about to be unleashed on the prison community? Should they have cleaned up those rotting corpses outside the fence more quickly?
This was a sterling season opener, striking the balance between drama and action just right. With the Governor set for a return, at least one Walker loose in the prison and what could be an epidemic about to start, it looks like the stakes are high already. It’s an encouraging sing that the new showrunner knows the template established by the third season was a surefire winner, and looks likely to continue. Providing sponsors Hyundai aren’t too displeased that they FINALLY let the Tucson SUV actually get dirty.