It’s been a crazy three years for Walking Dead fans.
Three Octobers ago, we watched Sheriff Rick Grimes wake up in an abandoned Atlanta hospital, saw “Don’t Open, Dead Inside” scrawled on cafeteria doors, and met Bicycle Girl and Morgan, the man who couldn’t bring himself to shoot his zombified wife. A year later, we visited Hershel’s farm, saw the long-lost Sophia stumble from a barn, and laid eyes on the ugliest walker ever. (Remember Well Zombie? The water-bloated, stinking mass of rotted guts that burst in half when hoisted out of the farm’s well? Fun!) And in season three we met katana-wielding Michonne, the deranged and despotic Governor, and discovered the seemingly idyllic town of Woodbury.
After season one though, The Walking Dead got…uneven. Hershel’s farm could be tedious; the war against the Governor often felt petty; and oh my god, Andrea, it doesn’t take 30 minutes to use a pair of pliers. There have been three showrunners in four seasons. You’d have reason to worry about season four.
But you shouldn’t. Scott Gimple, the guy who wrote some of the series’ flat-out best episodes, is in charge now. And if the season premiere is any indication, Gimple’s more than living up to expectations. But before we dive into season four, here’s a primer on what’s happened so far. Obviously, if you’re not all caught up, stop reading now.
1) The Deaths
Remember all those who were eaten or shot or stabbed? T-Dog, ever the hero, died saving Carol when the prison was overrun by walkers. In the same episode, Lori died during a crude C-section while giving birth to her daughter, Judith. Four prisoners, Axel and Oscar (who turned out to be good guys) and Tomas and Andrew (thugs), all died as well. Allen was killed by the Governor along with most of the residents of Woodbury. His son, Ben, was accidentally shot when Merle attempted to assassinate the Governor. Milton, the Governor’s resident scientist, died when he tried stabbing the Governor with the knife he was ordered to kill Andrea with—instead, he turned into a walker and bit Andrea. Rather than turn, Andrea put a bullet in her own head with Michonne by her side. And, perhaps most heartbreakingly, Merle died trying to take out the Governor on his own. We had just begun to feel for Merle: He was immensely loyal to Daryl, and we glimpsed the depths of self-hatred that motivated the terrible things he did. In one of his last scenes, the bad-guy veneer breaks momentarily and he tells Michonne, “I can’t go back.” He’s not just talking about the prison.
2) The Prison
The first time we saw the prison, miles away from where Rick and his group made camp for the night, it looked like a boon from heaven. It was a place to call home, deliver Lori’s baby, and stay safe from walkers. Of course, it was more complicated than that. Even after clearing one cell block of the undead, Rick’s group accidentally found a band of prisoners who had been locked in the cafeteria since the outbreak began. Two of those prisoners proved deadly. Tomas tried to kill Rick during a battle with walkers before Rick axed his head in half in one of the most explosive scenes of the season. And Andrew ultimately caused Lori’s and T-Dog’s deaths by breaking a lock on the fence and luring walkers in. The prison also became the ultimate point of contention between Rick and the Governor. Though the Governor didn’t want the prison, he wanted Rick out of it. And don’t forget poor Hershel’s right leg! Or the half that was brutally chopped off.
Despite all this, as season four begins the prison is still home for Rick and his group. Not that you’ll recognize the place when you see it again—but that’s all I’ll say for now.
3) The Governor Is M.I.A.
We spent most of season three alternately fascinated and horrified by the secrets of Woodbury and its leader, the Governor. (Or if you’re Andrea, you can call him “Philip.”) Andrea and Michonne are brought to the shiny, happy town and handed food, shelter, medical care, and an invitation to stay. Forever. Of course, it turns out the town is full of sickos who cheer for a fight to the death between brothers, and the Governor is the sort of guy who dunks severed heads in aquariums to prepare himself “for the horrors outside” and keeps his zombie daughter Penny locked in a closet. (The Governor had Milton conducting experiments to see whether “trace memory and human consciousness” still exist in walkers.)
But the Governor has a crippling inability to let things go. Throughout the season, he’s painted as the anti-Rick, a ruthless and deranged totalitarian. Though the Governor did not want to colonize the prison and there was no real reason why they couldn’t just co-exist, all threats to the Governor’s pride and rule had to be eliminated. Ultimately, that included Andrea, Milton, Merle, and all but one of the adult, able-bodied residents of Woodbury. The Governor shot his own people in cold blood, except for Martinez, Shupert, and one woman who played dead and got away with it. The three men drove off together and that’s the last we heard of them.
You can bet that’s not the last we’ll see of the Governor. He’s a guy who holds grudges. Michonne sliced zombie-Penny and stabbed him in the eye, while Rick basically destroyed everything he ever built in Woodbury. Just know that the Governor is out there, lurking. Wearing an eye patch.
4) The National Guard
Episode three of the third season, “Walk With Me,” opened with a military helicopter spiraling out of control and crashing outside Woodbury. One young soldier was cleaved in half by the chopper’s rotor blades, though the others, for all we know, were just knocked out. Not that the Governor cared: He shot or stabbed them all in the head anyway, bringing just one back to Woodbury and fooling him into revealing where his soldier buddies were (the Governor killed them, too).
This short sequence is significant. First, it means there may or may not still be a National Guard out there. The Walking Dead has taken the micro approach to a zombie apocalypse, unlike World War Z’s macro one. We don’t know what’s become of the rest of the world—we only see what happens in and around Rick’s group. But the surviving soldier tells the Governor about being stationed somewhere before the place was overrun and his team abandoned it. We don’t know where they were headed, how long it had been since they last heard from superiors, or what, if anything, they knew about the state of the rest of humanity. Keep your eyes open early in season four—we haven’t seen the last of a National Guard helicopter.
5) The New Guys
With the shock of seeing the Governor single-handedly massacre his own people, it’s easy to forget what happens at the very end of season three’s finale. Rick and the others load what’s left of the citizens of Woodbury (mostly women, children, the sick and elderly, along with Tyreese, his sister Sasha, and the woman who played dead, Karen) into a bus and welcome them into the prison. It was a huge step for Rick, who had become increasingly shut-off from feelings of sympathy. “You’re cold as ice, Officer Friendly,” Merle remarks in “This Sorrowful Life” after learning of Rick’s plan to hand Michonne over to the Governor. And in “Clear,” Rick drove right past a hitchhiker, ignoring his desperate, heartbreaking pleas for help—only to drive back later and take the young man’s bright orange backpack from his now-mangled corpse. That coldness had begun to reflect in Carl, who shot and killed a teenage boy from Woodbury even as the kid was surrendering. When Rick accepts complete strangers, it reels himself, his son and the others back from savageness.
6) The Greater Good
Season three asked us if you can “clear” from the terrible things you’ve done in order to survive. Rick has killed four people, including his best friend Shane, and made decisions that led to the deaths of friends and, most importantly, Lori. The weight of these memories almost unhinges him as he deals with the perceived ghost of his dead wife and a phone call from the voices of Amy, Jim, Shane, Jacqui, and Lori. The voices ask him questions, three of which will matter in season four: Is anyone in your group infected? How many people have you killed? Why?
Leading the group ended with Rick becoming haunted and unfit to lead. In “I Ain’t a Judas,” Hershel reminds Rick of the sweeping declaration he made in the final moments of season two: “If you’re staying, this isn’t a democracy anymore.” By the end of season three, Rick realizes he can no longer live up to those words. He isn’t the prison’s Governor, he says. They can’t sacrifice their humanity for the greater good. They are the greater good.