Even the most avid fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead would admit that season three had its fair share of problems. Take a glance at the reviews online and poor Andrea gets ripped into like a herd of walkers grabbed her! For me, one of the great things about The Walking Dead is also one of its biggest problems: it loosely follows Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels. In many ways this works brilliantly; in the graphic novels, Shane goes from Rick’s best friend to crazy jealous guy in a couple of pages, and very quickly ends up snuffing it. In the TV series, Shane’s decline (faultlessly performed by Jon Bernthal) is shown over two seasons. Also, in the graphic novels, Carl and Sophia gradually become closer, but, in “Pretty Much Dead Already”, one of The Walking Dead’s finest episodes, we discover that Sophia has been locked up in Hershel’s barn all along, now one of the walkers.
Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, occasional clunky dialogue aside, are a fantastic read, however Frank Darabont and co. made the wise decision not to lazily copy them frame-for-frame. At the same time, especially considering how popular the graphic novels are, AMC did not want to push that audience aside. Half of the appeal, certainly for me, is to see how key scenes and characters transfer to the small screen.
Hopefully I’m not ruining the party for anyone by saying that one of the volumes for The Walking Dead graphic novels is entitled, “The Calm Before”. For the most part, life is happy inside the prison, with no retaliation from the Governor; Rick and the rest of his group believing that they can safely live out their lives behind the prison’s fences. Then the Governor returns and all hell (almost literally) breaks loose. The end of season three bravely mirrored the comics. This would have been fine if season three had not felt like it was building up to something, that the season finale was going to be one hell of a show. Sadly, with the exception of Andrea breathing her last (poor Laurie Holden, all she had to do for the majority of season three was put her hands on her hips and look annoyed!), and the Governor cutting down half the population of Woodbury, it felt like very little happened in the finale. When the survivors of Woodbury march into the prison, the sun shining down on them, you felt they were starting a week-long holiday at a caravan park.
I am very much down on my knees, hoping and praying, that season three’s final scenes were a teaser for what is about to happen in season four, a knowing wink to the camera, telling the audience, “It will never last”. Having watched the opening episode of season four, “30 Days Without An Accident”, it very much looks that way.
To begin with, things look bright and breezy inside the prison: Tyreese has a love interest; Beth seems to have skipped puberty altogether and now has a boyfriend; there’s even a pig wandering around called Violet. Things start to go awry when the survivors decide to leave the safety of the prison fences. You have one group of survivors exploring a makeshift army camp at a supermarket, while Rick wanders the forest outside the prison. This is where things get very interesting.
Rick stumbles upon another survivor (Kerry Condon), a nameless woman who asks if she and her husband can seek shelter inside the prison, and follows her. For most of this episode I wondered if this is another of Rick’s hallucinations. You would think the writers of The Walking Dead had run out of ideas to make you question Rick’s sanity, as this was a key sub-plot in season three, but here you really do start to wonder if this woman is real. You know something is not quite right; you’re just not sure what. When the answer is revealed, it is an upsetting twist. Rick gets to see how he could have ended up. Despite all the terrible things he has had to do to protect Carl and his friends, Rick has still managed to cling to his humanity, to not to let this new world change him. This woman, on the other hand, is exactly like the walkers, except she has a pulse.
Meanwhile, Darryl, Michonne, Glenn, Tyreese, and a cocky new character from Woodbury, who you know will get chomped on by a zombie, search an overrun army camp for supplies. Here you have one of the finest set pieces The Walking Dead has seen so far. Everyone in the group is right to be worried about where the walkers are: they’re on the roof. When the ceiling collapses, it’s like a grisly version of the hit Weather Girls song. Anyone who complained that previous seasons were not action-packed enough will have their mouths firmly shut after this scene.
In the hype leading up to the season four premiere, Robert Kirkman promised us a new twist to the zombie plague, and in the final moments of this opening episode, we get a glimpse at what this could be. Poor harmless, nice as pie Patrick falls down dead, having somehow been infected (is it the water? Is the virus airborne? Is it Carol’s cooking?), only to come back as one of the living dead, with Beth and plenty of other major characters all sleeping soundly nearby. This poses plenty of questions to keep you watching and, fingers crossed, Robert Kirkman and the army of writers on the show have not squandered this.
I won’t be giving this episode a score out of five; instead I will wait until the mid-season break to look back on what has happened so far, and then finally review season four as a whole. What I will say is that this is a near-perfect episode, reminding fans of how, when on form, The Walking Dead is one of the finest series on TV. It does what every season opener should do, make you hungry for more. While I am counting down the days until the next episode, I am a tiny bit cautious. The first half of season three was faultless television. It wasn’t until after the mid-season break that season three started to wobble, with Andrea feeling like a spare part; the Governor going from the other side of the coin to Rick, to full-on unsympathetic evil bastard mode; all leading to a mildly disappointing season finale. Hopefully the team behind The Walking Dead have learnt their lesson (they’ve certainly had plenty of controversial reshuffling, most controversial of all being Frank Darabont being shown the door) and the series is back on shuffling form (in a good way!).