*Just another heads up, big time spoilers ahead.*
The return of The Walking Dead seems to be all about tentative steps, both for the characters and for the writers of the show. The Governor is out of the picture for the time being, and the competence that the prison community display at dispatching ‘walkers’ indicates a new dawn of sanctuary. The influx of refugees that Rick admitted to the prison at the close of the last series allows the writers to examine an important moral aspect of the show: how a society can function at the end of the world. The prison has established a system based on honour, each member seeming desperate to do whatever they can to maintain their haven, whether it be serving food, removing ‘walkers’ from the prison boundaries, or going on ‘runs’ for supplies.
The problem is that Rick, nominally the show’s protagonist, isn’t really involved in any of this. He spends the episode on a side adventure, admittedly an interesting one, but his alienation from the group does not help the accusations that he is the least interesting character out there. His story involves his attempt to help a desperate woman he stumbles across, only to discover she’s been driven insane by life after the apocalypse. Here the writers raise the question at the heart of the show: can you retain your humanity in this environment? The further the show progresses, the more obvious the answer becomes, but Rick’s encounter was nevertheless a disturbing scene. Rick doesn’t stop to check what’s under the burlap sack, leaving the woman’s ‘husband’ unseen by the audience, but at this stage it doesn’t even matter. We know what he is, we know how she’s been feeding him, and we know that the message we’re taking away from this miserable little parable is: that the living are worse off than the dead.
Back with the rest of the group, the main action of the episode plays out as the show settles back into its comfort zone. A supply run goes awry when a herd of ‘walkers’ fall through the roof of the store. This is really where the show excels; creating visually striking set pieces that differentiate the hundreds of attacks we’ve seen previously. The scene is lit by shafts of light from the holes in the buildings collapsing infrastructure, which, when combined with the absolute chaos on the ground, makes for a truly arresting visual. The gore is arguably used more liberally than it has been in previous seasons but, interestingly, not at the expense of effect. If a character is ending up with a handful of zombie forehead after a tussle, it’s unlikely that the writers are running out of innovative ways to keep the show interesting. This episode also indicates that the death toll is unlikely to be dialled back either. Beth’s boyfriend barely gets a line before a hefty bite is taken out of his calf. By this stage the mauling of beloved characters has become such a frequent occurrence that the death of one we don’t know doesn’t really register as a loss. What does hit home, however, is Beth’s reaction to being told of his death. Her cold acceptance of yet another death is quite without emotion. For a character that has always been the innocent, this is a sad, effective change of register.
That isn’t to say The Walking Dead hasn’t had problems in the past, or indeed with this episode. The stellar first season deteriorated on its return for a second, with the interminable search for Sophia and real emergence of a problem with the writers dealing with female characters – does anyone remember the argument about who had to do more laundry? The third season largely addressed the criticisms levelled at it and gave the show a compelling villain in the Governor. It really did make a difference, having a villain who was sentient. However, the show has always had a problem with pacing in that, for every episode that something big happened, there were four episodes preceding it where the characters discuss what might happen which usually has no bearing on the event itself. It remains to be seen whether the fourth season will be able to sort these issues out but, based on the season premiere, steps are being taken in the right direction, particularly with character development. Carol is coming into her own, teaching the children of the prison how to use knives effectively during ‘story time’, Darryl is assuming more responsibility since Rick is still slightly absent and, most importantly of all, Michonne is smiling. The writers seem to have finally figured out that a surly expression and eccentric weapon does not a well rounded character make.
’30 Days Without An Accident’ is not a jump for The Walking Dead. It’s a continuation of the same routine we got used to last season, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem yet, a show must evolve in order for it to retain its audience. This may be an unfair criticism as previously each series was set in a different location, be it the road, the farm or the prison, which has led its audience to expect reinvention each year. We’ve stayed put this time though so it’s down to the new inhabitants of the prison to keep the momentum up. From the trailer it seems that this year’s threat will come from within the prison; somebody letting the ‘walkers’ in at night, so let’s hope that the writers are able to keep the show away from simplistic ‘whodunnit’ territory and transform it into something more sophisticated than an easily mock-able zombie show.