The Walking Dead faces some tough dilemmas this season. It must flesh out characters we already know, while accommodating new faces at the prison. It has to avoid Hershel’s-farm levels of talky tedium without devolving into a repetitive slash-fest. And it must get us to root for survivors who often bicker or self-sabotage when we just want them to move forward.
Sunday night’s season premiere, written by new showrunner Scott Gimple and directed by Walking Dead veteran Greg Nicotero, was in its best moments exactly the exciting return we hoped for. The battle at the department store was ambitious and intense, and Rick’s interaction with a suicidal woman was memorable in the way that his run-in with Morgan was in last season’s “Clear.” The Walking Dead is capable of reaching such creative highs and the potential is still there in the premiere. The trick now, of course, is to sustain that momentum all season long.
“30 Days Without an Accident” begins at the now-serene prison. Rick and the gang have welcomed the remaining residents of Woodbury along with other strays into the prison, forming a bizarrely quaint little community. There are animals, crops, designated story times and a “council” that now calls the shots. There are even other children for Carl to compete with in terms of budding sociopathy. The only hitch seems to be the herds of walkers swarming outside the prison fence.
Rick, meanwhile, is in full farmer mode. He plants things and kisses horses. When he was a leader at war, murdering people and making decisions that lost him his wife and friends, it drove him literally insane, justifying why he might prefer sitting on the sidelines now. But dodging your demons isn’t that easy, as Rick soon finds out. He heads outside to check his traps and finds a sick boar—but before he can reach it, a dirty, shuffling human figure stumbles onto the animal and Rick turns away, defeated.
What happens next is a brilliant visual prank on viewers, who have come to expect a kind of standard uniform for female walkers (bedraggled hair and long skirts; the women in Georgia were conservatively dressed when the apocalypse hit). Complacency is turned against us as the figure bending over the hog suddenly looks up … and speaks.
This is way scarier than if she had just been another walker. At this point, walkers are so normal that sticking pointy things into their skulls through the fence is a type of chore for people at the prison. But every minute that goes by without this not-undead woman trying to rip out Rick’s throat is nerve-wracking.
Our mistrust is soon redeemed, as the woman makes a flailing attempt to stab Rick. He fends her off and, instead, she buries the blade in her own stomach. She begs Rick not to shoot her after she turns because she wants to “be with” her husband, whom we see has long since turned into a walker (or a piece of one anyway—we never see what’s under the bundle). Rick is beside himself at causing yet another person’s death and, upon her request, asks three questions he said he would to determine if the couple could come back with him to the prison.
“How many walkers have you killed?”
“Eddie killed them all, until…” she trails off.
“How many people have you killed?”
“Just me,” she says.
“Because you don’t get to come back from the things you do.”
She dies and Rick leaves her body, brain untouched.
Whether you can “come back from” or escape the terrible things you’ve done to survive remained an unresolved question last season. Merle told Michonne that he never killed anyone before he worked for Woodbury, but he “can’t go back now.” Morgan became obsessed with the notion of being “clear.” And Rick almost lost his mind because he couldn’t let go of the past. It’s fitting that the three questions Rick asks the dying woman are some of the same questions that he imagined the voices of dead friends asking him over the phone in last season’s “Hounded.” In the not-so-distant past, Rick was just a few hallucinations away from ending up like her.
Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, Sasha, Tyreese and a few new guys, meanwhile, went on a run for supplies at an abandoned apartment store. Army vans, tents and a helicopter are scattered around, reminiscent of when we saw a National Guard chopper crash outside Woodbury. There’s even another soldier cut in half, the bottom half on the floor and the top half on the building’s roof, where we see hordes of walkers milling about. Inevitably, someone accidentally gets the walkers’s attention by tipping over an entire rack of alcohol, setting off a chain of events that result in one of the series’s most exciting, masterful action sequences yet. With walkers falling through the ceiling, there’s no easy predicting their slow movements anymore. We get to see Michonne, now an accepted and beloved member of the group, go full-on samurai again. And Daryl and his crossbow are as lethal as ever—though for a minute there it looked like a falling helicopter might do him in. A few new characters are lost in the fray (but no one you’ll miss). And we’re left prying our fingernails from our seats, reminded of why we keep watching The Walking Dead: for the joy of seeing a walker hanging from his entrails.
Back at the prison, we get a brief look at the new, different threat this season has been promising. A boy, bespectacled and only a little older than Carl, wakes up sweating so much that he leaves wet footprints behind him. He splashes cold water on his face in the bathroom, but collapses. When we next see him, he’s dead and blood is pouring from his eyes, ears and mouth. Death here means reanimation. And reanimation in the prison means chaos.
Whether whatever sickness claimed this kid’s life can provide enough momentum to get the show through another season remains to be seen. We also have the re-appearance of the Governor to look forward to. But seeing a National Guard chopper again reminded us that there’s a big world outside of the prison. Four seasons in, we still have no answers about what caused the outbreak, how the world has been dealing with it, or what, if anything, can be done about it. Rick and his group are understandably more occupied with surviving than finding answers, but for the audience at home, the lack of characters like Milton (who was at least attempting research on the undead) or the CDC scientist feel like missed opportunities.
In the meantime, though, there’s blood and guts to look forward to. It’s zombie-slicing season, guys.