At last, we return to the world of The Walking Dead. After an uneven but mostly strong third season, Season Four finds us back at the prison, the ranks of allies having swelled to surprising numbers. The prison is more than a simple refuge now — it’s a community, replete with a council of representatives, farms, livestock, and children. It’s everything Woodbury was meant to be, before the psychosis of The Governor warped it into something dark and twisted.
It’s that sense of community, of safety, of home, that this first episode wants to convey, and it does so quite nicely. “30 Days Without An Accident” darts all over the place, giving quick yet in-depth little vignettes that help the viewer understand the changes that have taken place in the last few months since the Woodbury raid ended in carnage. Rick Grimes still wrestles with his demons, so far as to not even want to carry a firearm anymore. Yet he’s also achieved some level of calm, in part because he appears to have completely given over any semblance of leadership, instead choosing to focus on Carl and Judith and on the simpler tasks that present themselves. There’s a sense that Rick hasn’t quite come back yet, but there’s also something satisfying about this new incarnation. Without the trappings of leadership and its incumbent forced nobility, Rick is a much more interesting character, one who can teach his son the value of pragmatism, who can open himself up to new possibilities (like, interestingly, Michonne?).
Even more interesting is the gradual metamorphosis of Daryl Dixon. Daryl’s fierce sense of loyalty has never been in question, yet he’s always remained somewhat apart, at least mentally from the pack. Now we find him a true leader, with people looking up to him, respecting him, thanking him for his contributions. Daryl, more than anyone else, has found the home in this post-apocalyptic hell that he never had before. His relationship with Carol Peletier (“Pookie!”) still appears in a fledgling state, but there’s an easygoing charm to it that continues to be enjoyable to watch. This is in no small part due to the showrunners giving Melissa McBride room to breathe, to allow her character to take on a life of her own beyond simpering victim or lovestruck, um, victim. Carol is a real person now, who understands what needs to be done and is willing to take some pretty serious risks to do it. Her unexpected — and yet also perhaps quite crucial — defense and weapons classes show a new dimension to her. Carol is no longer simply a follower, she’s a mover and a woman of action, and McBride is doing a solid job with the character’s evolution.
There was so much more going on, and we haven’t even talked about the story yet. Tyrese and Karen (Melissa Ponzio), his newfound lady love, a brutally practical woman if there ever was one. Beth, finally becoming more than a porcelain doll, taking a darker, more interesting turn. Bob Stookey (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), a former army medic who may have more enthusiasm than common sense, and who also may be harboring his own demons. The continuing wonder that is the relationship between Glenn and Maggie, perhaps one of the best television couples out there, a mix of raw passion and roughly hewn practicality that makes every moment with them interesting.
But lest we forget, this is a dark and treacherous world, and the storyline of “30 Days Without An Accident” was one of the best one-shots that the show has had. Focusing on a few different, disparate stories, it did a terrific job of using each narrative thread to show us the new order of things while also creating a sense of heightened tension. Giving us a glimpse of the placidity and charm of this new, lively community allows the eventual gut punches to hit that much harder, and there was shock and horror aplenty in this episode. Rick’s journey through the woods was a tragic nightmare, even though every fiber of my being screamed “TRAP!” It served as a perfect way to illustrate the inner journey that Rick has gone on, showing us the dark roads traveled while still showing his unrelenting willingness to help — perhaps even to his detriment.
At the same time, the “run” was almost a miniature action movie, full of bullets and mayhem and horror. Yet it also hearkened back to the first episode of Season Three, where we get to see how the skills and tactics of the group have evolved (a nice touch that’s been a part of each premiere, seamlessly showing what they’ve learned). Even the best laid plans can fall apart, and in this case, due to a simple misstep by Stookey in his moment of weakness, hell breaks loose and the dead literally start to fall from the sky. It’s a hectic, heart-pounding orgy of chaos and set a fantastic tone for how the action might pan out going forward.
But most importantly, “30 Days Without An Accident” served as a reminder that no one, no matter where you are, no matter how skilled your leadership, how prepared your teammates, how cautious you are, how well-fortified your walls are — no one is ever safe. We are given two brutal examples — Beth’s short-lived boyfriend Zach (a shocking death if there ever was one, given that actor Kyle Gallner was expected to be a full-time cast member thanks to some hints from the writers — those bastards), goes first, dying in the midst of the bedlam at the shop. Far more alarming is the death of the sweet, friendly Patrick. Between him and poor Violet the pig, we now know that there’s a new kind of danger facing them, one far less overt, yet perhaps far more insidious. Oh, and now there’s a walker loose in the compound. So that should be fun.
It’s no secret that there have been some sweeping changes on the production side of The Walking Dead since midway through last season. New showrunner Scott Gimple showed great promise during his run in Season Three, and if this episode is any example, we’re hopefully in for a stronger, more consistent fourth season. The show is certainly quite beautiful this time around, full of striking shots and spectacular strides in costume design and special effects. The shot of the downed helicopter on the roof, the makeup and costume of the woman that Rick encounters, the dead falling through the roof and their bodies rupturing like some hideous, overripe fruit, and the new ingenuity displayed at the prison, are all intriguing and unique glimpses of what may come. But more importantly, the writing felt stronger, with characters — especially the women — feeling more real and honest. There’s a kind of gutsy toughness to everyone now, yet also a sense of softness, and it was balanced quite well.
We know nothing about what the future holds for this group. The story has now veered far away from the road that the comics took, and I feel like that’s a good thing. Gimple and company can now create their own stories with the world that Kirkman’s books helped build, and they are no longer constrained by the need for fidelity to the original. The characters are changing and evolving, their ranks are growing, and while we don’t know what, if any, new singular threat there may be, there’s an ominous, grim tone that’s been set and a dangerous road ahead. It’s only one episode, but “30 Days Without An Accident” was one of the better ones, and so we can all hope for more to come.