Michonne smiles. This isn’t the first time, of course. There were moments near the end of last season when the writers threatened to offer Danai Gurira a chance to demonstrate more range than the near-silent rage she’d been running with for most of her time on the show. But for the first time, those good moods seem less like sunshine peeking through a week of Mondays, and more like the signs of an actual personality. She’s getting along with Rick and Carl now, even making it a point to bring the kid comic books when she comes back from a run. (Her solo expeditions outside the prison sound like they’re less about supplies, and more about finding the still missing Governor.) Before a foray into a grocery store, she teases Daryl and laughs at the new guy’s joke. We still don’t know who she was before the world died, but it’s a start. She’s not a walking frown anymore. There’s some life in her, and that’s a small step forward.
“30 Days Without An Accident” is full of small steps. As premieres go, it’s less about plot than about table-setting, establishing how things stand at the prison now that Rick and the others have (apparently successfully) integrated with the Woodbury survivors, and checking in with familiar faces. Daryl is apparently a big hit among the much larger colony population; there’s a nicely meta moment as he comes to get a meal, only to have to deal awkwardly with a sudden rush of fanboy-and-girling from the crowd. There’s a ruling council at the prison now, and Herschel is part of it, although it doesn’t sound like Rick is; when the former group leader heads outside the fence to check traps, the doctor tells him (politely but firmly) that the council is insisting he go out armed. Oh yeah, and Rick is, well, who can tell what’s going on with Rick these days. He’s not unlikeable or anything, and there are moments in the episode when he achieves a kind of everyman grace, but every scene he’s in, what’s happening to him is more interesting than he is himself. That’s kind of a problem for everyone, though.
“Accident” has two big story arcs, one action-based, the other more of the poetical variety. In the former, a run goes sour when a herd of walkers starts falling through a store roof; in the latter, Rick meets a deeply disturbed woman in the forest and follows her back to her camp, only to watch her take her own life. Both sequences sit firmly in The Walking Dead’s comfort zone. The store attack is the kind of tense, inventive action set-piece the show has been adept at since the start. I have no idea if a roof would actually collapse this way (maybe the helicopter crash weakened its integrity somehow? Or else the zombies have been leaking, I dunno, juices), and don’t really care. The sight of holes punching through the ceiling overhead, letting shafts of light into the darkened store along with a hailstorm of ambulatory death, is a fantastic visual, as memorable as any of the mournful, quiet interactions that punctuate the rest of the hour. The gore is, if anything, just as creative. Late into the attack, Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gillard, Jr, or as we know him around these parts, “D’Angelo from The Wire!”) reaches out to push a crawling attacker away, and ends up getting a fistful of forehead as the thing’s scalp just slides straight off. Shows develop their own languages after a while, and this one has never been shy about speaking in the simplest, most basic terms: Attacking or not, dead bodies rot, and the result is a fascinating ugliness.
The Walking Dead also likes its parables, and Rick’s short adventure with the crazy lady is yet another in a long line of, “Boy, it sure does suck to be alive now, doesn’t it?” Ostensibly, this sequence has more depth than the attack on the store; there are more quiet moments, and the “message,” if there is any, isn’t as simple as Do Not Turn Your Back On Open Spaces. If the zombie freak-out represents the show at its loudest, this is the writers working with their inside voices, and it’s effective, even if somewhat predictable. Things rarely end happily for anyone on this show (to paraphrase Fight Club, on a long enough timeline, everyone is fucked), and unhinged women with vague stories about “desperate” behavior do worse than most. But the details hold up, largely because we don’t get a lot of them. It’s not a surprise that Crazy Lady’s companion isn’t actually a living person anymore, but we don’t ever see what’s squirming around under that burlap sack, and Rick doesn’t stop to check. It’s a nifty, spooky little short story about the kind of thing you’d see after the end of the world: bad things, and messed up lost people who have no hope of ever being whole again. It’d be like living in a haunted house, only you can’t go outside to escape the gloom, because it’s house all over.
As an episode of television, then, this is solid—nothing remarkable, exactly, but entertaining. (And the store attack scene really is swell.) But as an episode The Walking Dead—or, more importantly, as the first episode of a new season of The Walking Dead—it’s somewhat troubling. The stuff that works in “Accident” has very little to do with the recurring ensemble. Apart from the fact that we recognize the faces, the store attack could’ve happened to anyone at any point, and despite Rick’s agonized expression, the encounter with the Crazy Lady was most compelling for what we learned about a character we'll never see again. Sure, it turned out to be another excuse for Rick to wonder if anyone can possibly hold on to their humanity in the midst of all this horror, but by now, the answer to that is pretty obvious, isn’t it? You can’t, although you’ll try for a while, and then something awful will happen, and you’ll curse and promise yourself you’ll never care again, only you will, and the whole thing repeats until you are dead. That’s a card that still has some power left in it, but it’s one of the only cards the show has ever been able to play. Michonne is smiling again, which is great, but apart from a few shadings, the characters remain as opaque as ever. Rick is troubled. Daryl is a badass. Carol likes him. Herschel is a wise old man. Glenn and Maggie are in love and are worried about each other, because they know they live in a world where being in love is like making sure the target on your chest comes in neon. Oh, and Bob is a recovering alcoholic, which is less a character trait than a loaded gun getting hung on the living room wall.
It looks like the new threat this year is going to be some kind of sickness; poor Patrick (who I think is supposed to be around Carl’s age, but looks like he’s going past the other side of 30) dies of it, and a virulent plague is going to be doubly dangerous in a world where corpses don’t just wait around to be buried. That could be cool. The Governor is still out there, and he is definitely not a nice man, so that might also lead to something. What’s worrisome, as it has been for a while now, is trying to imagine what this story might be like without an immediate danger. Big Bads are important and necessary to this kind of serialized narrative, and I would never argue that The Walking Dead should leave them behind. But it’s frustrating to realize that coming back to this season, I was more excited to see moaning monsters and calamity than any of the recurring characters. I’m not interested in them, I’m interested in what happens to them, and that’s a shaky foundation to build a show on. Still, though: Michonne smiles. That’s something, at least.
- The schism between Rick and the ruling council has potential; the reveal that Carol is using “Story Time” as a way to teach the kids about knives without Rick knowing is especially intriguing.
- A bit more racial diversity this year. Huzzah!
- The new kid, the one who likes to guess what Daryl used to be in the normal world, is named Zack. He dies horribly. This has to mean the people who work on this show know my name, right? Of course it does (not).
- So Maggie isn’t pregnant. Huzzah! again. (Her and Glenn really need to find a different gear for their relationship than “grim dread.”)
- Rick’s three questions for potential new recruits: How many walkers have you killed, How many people have you killed, and Why? (I’m assuming “why” is one of the questions.)
- There's something awful in the fact that Bob's struggle with temptation ends in disaster only after he's decided to resist. Like, congrats on putting the bottle back! You're still screwed.
- “You know everything’s gonna work out, right?”