What We Learned From The Heart-Pounding Season Premiere Of ‘The Walking Dead’

AMC and Robert Kirkman haven’t made a lot of friends based on the way they’ve acted behind the scenes of The Walking Dead, which remains the highest-rated cable drama on television. After the first season, they either dumped the series creator, Frank Darabont, or he ditched the series because of executive meddling (depending on who you believe), and then after the third season, Glen Mazzara left based “on a difference of opinion” about the direction of the show, leaving The Walking Dead in the hands of Scott Gimple, who had worked his way up from the writer’s room, where he began in the second season.

But here’s the thing: The changes have worked for The Walking Dead, and the series has been able to evolve into a better series with each new showrunner. Darabont is what the show needed in the beginning to slowly (too slowly, perhaps) lay out the premise and introduce the characters, and after one disastrous half season spent almost entirely searching for a little girl, AMC handed it off to Mazzara, who layered in more walkers and picked up the pace, transforming The Walking Dead into a bloody, dark action-driven series. With the series’ most irksome characters — Lori and Andrea — finally killed off, AMC handed the reigns over to Scott Gimple, who wrote three of the best episodes in season three, “Hounded,” “Clear,” and “This Sorrowful Life,” which saw the exit of Merle Dixon.

Based on those three episodes, and the fourth season premiere, “30 Days without an Accident,” Gimple feels like the perfect happy medium between the more reflective Darabont and the faster pace of the Mazzara seasons. With the introduction of a series of new characters, plus an entirely new threat, it seemed necessary to slow it down, refocus on the characters, and build the newly populated universe, but Gimple does so without sacrificing the best part of the show: Zombie kills (and Greg Nicotero’s spectacular make-up effects). The season premiere was exactly the episode The Walking Dead needed right now. We can feel certain that the character deaths will keep coming, but with better written, more developed characters now that Gimple is the helm, you can be sure that their deaths are going to hurt even worse.

You’re Going to Have to Live with the Love — The fourth season opens several months after the events at the end of last season. The Woodbury citizens have successfully transitioned into the prison. Carol is running a school for the kids, which includes a subject on zombie survival skills. Hershel — who has an artificial leg now — is tending to the garden, and there are even farm animals inside the prison. Everyone seems to have a role. All things considered — there are thousands of undead people outside the prison gates, after all — prison life is pretty good.

But there is a sick pig, and that does not bode well.

While the Scowl’s Away, the Katana Will Play — It was nice to see Michonne — who actually has a few lines in this episode — do something besides scowl and swing her katana. She’s on horseback now, and has spent the time since the Governor left trying to track him. No luck yet, but she’s considering a solo trek to Macon to get her man.

Sorry Pookie — Carol and Daryl are still in the sweet, flirtatious stage of their relationship; in fact, it almost seems like they’ve driven straight into the adorable friend-zone. Meanwhile, the numbers of walkers approaching the fence is approaching an unmanageable level. There are prison citizens whose job it is now to take shifts killing walkers outside the fence, to keep them from achieving numbers big enough, presumably, to break through or climb over the fence. This seems like table setting for later in the season.

That’s Not Living, That’s Breathing — Glenn and Maggie are still madly in love, but their relationship suffers a small threat when Maggie has a pregnancy scare. It turns out to be nothing, but it encourages Maggie to push past the fear, and attempt to try to find more to life than being scared. She wants to live, not just stay alive. Again, that seems to be more table setting: Establishing the community’s desire to move past daily survival, and try to extract meaning out of their lives, to enjoy the moment, not just live for the next one.

Love: Apocalypse Style — Two new romantic relationships blossomed in the intervening months. Tyreese has found himself a girlfriend, Karen (Melissa Ponzio), while Beth is hooking up with Zach (Kyle Gallner), who is a fairly well known actor for a guy who only survives one episode, because …

Big Spot — A group in the prison gang, where Sasha is now a significant force, scouted out a grocery store, and we were introduced to Bob Stooky (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), who may have a crush on Sasha. During the field trip, however, Bob knocked over a shelf of wine bottles and the walkers came calling, crashing in through the ceiling in a thrilling action sequence. Bob, a former Army medic (which should be helpful when it comes to medical treatment on the show) survived the ordeal. Unfortunately, Zach — who saved Bob — did not. No matter: Beth wasn’t too terribly broken up about it, having decided to appreciate the time she has with the living, instead of the time she’s missing with the dead.

Three Questions — Rick, meanwhile, is trying to encourage Carl to act his age, and capture a bit of the childhood he has missed. Carl has taken a leadership role among the children, while Rick has stepped back as leader of the adults. All the same, Rick goes out to look for some food, and runs across Cerena, who is creepy as all hell. She looks enough like a walker to create a layer of tension, in case walkers had somehow gained the ability think and speak. Turns out, however, that she wasn’t a walker; she just wanted to be one, so she could be with her undead husband. After nearly taking out Rick, she decides instead to take her own life, and Rick allows her to transform. WTF? Will we eventually see the walker version for Cerena? Will Rick’s decision not to kill her come back and bite him in the ass? LITERALLY?

Zombie Kill of the Week — This one was totally self-inflicted.

The New Threat — What’s worse than a physical force outside the prison, trying to get inside? How about an invisible force inside the prison? There’s an illness spreading inside the prison — perhaps originating with a pig — that has a fairly short incubation period. Until a cure is found (Bob Stooky?), we can expect people inside the prison to start dropping like flies and returning seconds later as undead flies. The disease’s first human victim? The guy who voices Phineas in Phineas and Ferb? ZOMBIE PHINEAS.

Now, that is a terrifying new threat. I suspect that the threat posed, and the helplessness of the survivors to fight it, is going to create a new layer of internal friction and paranoia.

The calm is over, folks.

(Thanks, as always, to Chet Manley for The Walking Dead GIFs)