“I don’t cry anymore.”
If you’ve been a reader of my Walking Dead recaps, you might have detected a certain amount of ambivalence towards the show. It’s hard to retain enthusiasm for a television show that is so poorly plotted and poorly written, no matter how spectacular the zombie effects are. The show has an issue with women, an issue with race, and certainly an issue with consistency. However, there are some humdinger episodes that keep me coming back, along with strong performances from Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, and Melissa McBride among others.
So I entered into season four with my usual sense of excitement and dread. And found myself tentatively pleased with the tone and direction “30 Days Without an Accident” has set as the first episode. It’s rather apparent that the current showrunner and writing staff have listened to the onslaught of complaints about the show’s problem with women and minority characters. With the twin albatrosses of Lori and Andrea cut free from the show’s neck, “30 Days” took pains to reset us with the old Camp Fear crew, give depth to some minor operators from last season, and introduce a couple of intriguing new characters. It wasn’t a firecracker entry, packed with exciting zombie fights but it did something the show is very good at — slow building character studies, at least where Rick is concerned.
When we last left everyone, Rick had brought the Woodbury survivors into the fold of the prison camp. The first three seasons explored Rick’s de-evolution from stalwart white hat Sherriff, who believed deeply in no man left behind, to desperate father-to-be hunkered down on Hershel’s farm while the group engaged in a fruitless and devastating search for a lost child, to an isolationist widower barely hanging onto sanity. As the colloquialism goes, by mid-season 3, Rick was out of fucks to give about anyone outside his group. In the S3 episode, “Clear”, Rick, Michonne, and Carl drive right past a living hitchhiker, who chases their car in desperation as they ignore his pleas to pick him up. Over the gang’s shoulders, through the rear window, you can see the hitchhiker fall to his knees in desperation as his figure gets smaller and smaller. On their return trip, the group passes by the hitchhiker’s remains, torn to shreds by zombies, reverses, and takes his backpack before driving on. It’s a devastating episode. Bringing that busload of orphans, elderly, and injured back to the prison was symbolic of Rick’s re-embracing of his humanity. But the specter of that hitchhiker still haunts “30 Days”.
What we’ve discovered is that the gang didn’t stop with saving the Woodbury refugees. Rick and Daryl have been bringing back people they’ve been finding on supply runs or patrols, increasing the headcount of the prison. That’s the right thing to do in desperate times, but as Rick points out, it’s also a practical choice: more living people means more defenders against the walker onslaught. The extra hands have been put to good use around the prison. There’s a burgeoning crop of plants in the outer fields, two small sheds for livestock, and plants crammed into every pot big enough to hold them. Teams of people kill the walkers who cling to the outer fences. The kids have storytime every day. Personal touches have been added to the cells — real sheets on the beds, decorations on the walls, and lamps for reading. They have some sort of electrical power as well, since Rick listens to a charged ipod in the first scene. There’s no explicit statement of how much time has passed since Woodbury, but bet on a chunk of time — changes like this don’t happen in a week.
However, we find out from Hershel’s helpful exposition, Rick is no longer going on runs. He’s playing at being a gentleman farmer, keeping close to the prison, and importantly, refusing to carry his gun. Rick’s connection to his gun is deeply symbolic but it’s also important — he’s the best trained shooter they have, but living on the other end of the gun almost destroyed him last year. When all you see are targets and threats, you no longer see the people who need your help; you no longer see hope and possibility. Distancing himself from his gun seems to be Rick’s attempt to distance himself from the soul deadening burdens of leadership. Importantly, when Hershel names the prison’s leadership council — himself, Glenn, Daryl, Carol and Sasha — Rick isn’t a part of it.
While a small group heads out on a supply run, Rick heads to the woods to check his snares. In the woods, he sees what appears to be a walker fall on a wild boar his trap has caught, but when he walks away, the “walker” calls out to him for help. She’s so dirty her skin has turned green, but she’s alive and desperate, and pleads with Rick to help her and her husband. As they make their way back to the camp, the woman rambles about her life since the walkers came. She and her new husband were trapped in Georgia when their flight was grounded and have been on the run since. Once with a large group, it’s now just the two of them. She asks Rick if he thinks that they can “come back” from the things they’ve done to survive — she’s left people behind, hid from those who needed her help, and done desperate and terrible things, all in the name of living. Rick’s expression is haunted.
There’s no surprise when they get back to the camp and find out that her starving husband is a walker head in a sack. Losing her husband, fighting her way through walker infested Georgia, starving and desperate — this is alternate path Rick, Rick if he had given in to his visions of Lori, if he hadn’t chosen to live for his children and the other survivors. After trying to kill Rick to feed her husband, the widow tells him tearfully that no, you can’t ever come back from what you’ve had to do in this life and begs him to not “end it afterwards”, stabbing herself in the stomach. Rick stays with her as she bleeds out and then keeps his promise — he doesn’t destroy her brain. But he takes back the food he had given her — supplies are supplies. They’re for the living.
- There are noticeably more minority characters on screen in this first episode. Several of them have lines and none of them die, which is a massive improvement over Walking Dead’s Highlander problem. Sasha, Tyreese, Karen, Michonne, and Bob all have multiple speaking parts in the episode, far more than some of them got all of last season. Michonne’s new comfort with the group is a welcome change from her stoic anger of last year. Bob is an intriguing new character — the writers do a good job of sketching him out in very brief moments. We know he was with the military, that he’s a medic, and he has a drinking problem and not all of that was spelled out for us.
- Daryl’s leadership role and place as a savior of the needy is a great development of his storyline with his brother from last season. So much of Daryl’s character has been built on how damaged and worthless Merle made him feel. Back in season 2, Carol once told him he was “worth as much as any of them,” and she was dead on.
- Speaking of Carol, how much do we love her? Often a background character, she’s, for my money, one of the most interesting people on the show, with the most satisfying development. A meek, terrified domestic violence victim in season 1, she’s grown into a smart, cool, and integral part of the group. Under the guise of “storytime”, Carol’s been teaching the prison’s children guerrilla survivalist tactics. I just love her.
- During the zombie fight at the box store (the mystery of the army base/using music to lure the walkers away from the camp is obviously a seed for this season), I felt like I was sitting right in the middle of the writer’s room. “Well, we’ve chased them with herds, bloated well walkers, their dead wives, so what do we do to up the ante? How about we rain walkers on them?!”
- We can see that several months of relative safety have made the group lackadaisical about security inside the prison. When Rick goes out to the field in the beginning of the episode, the interior gate to the complex isn’t even latched. Inside, people sleep with their cell doors open, it looks like all the passage doors are open, and no one appears to be on watch. We already know this is going to cause a lot of deaths, since someone dies inside the prison at the end of the episode. But as a broader issue, it seems just downright stupid to have abandoned these precautions when you have a building where an entire wing is overrun with walkers because the wall to the outside world has collapsed.
- Let’s take our bets on what offed Patrick. I’m betting they’ll figure out it’s a mutation of the virus. He seems to get sick very quickly and the shot of his corpse showed that he bled from his eyes and ears before he died. Is it connected to the death of Violet the pig in a practical (non-symbolic) way? We don’t actually know anything about how the virus affects animals — we have to assume they don’t reanimate, since we haven’t seen any walker wolves, for instance.