Don’t you just love October? The leaves are turning, whiffs of spiced pumpkin lattes fill your local Starbucks, and the decapitated heads are ripening at the zombie patch. That’s right, fanboys and hate-watchers: Basic cable’s highest-rated show is back. But after Ranger Rick and his ever-shifting backing band ended last season by vanquishing the one-eyed, surplus Nazi better known as The Governor, then incorporating the survivors of his demented Mayberry into their prison paradise, it’s a whole new game. This season already feels radically different, even if it looks fundamentally the same. Most of the characters we loved to hate — [cough, Andrea] — are gone, taking selfies alongside Gus Fring and ASAC Schrader in TV heaven. Scott Gimple has taken over as showrunner. And Rick — he of the agonized facial hair — has finally found that precious balance between survivalist lunacy and Hamlet-esque handwringing.
Maybe it’s those Three Questions that Rick and his Jedi Council have come up with to determine who gets to feast on their homegrown, 100 percent organic kale and who’s left to fend for themselves. So, in honor of this thin thread Rick has found to keep a leash on his fragile sanity/humanity, I figure Three Questions is a pretty good lens through which to examine the nihilist community garden that is The Walking Dead.
If constitutional government fails every time we hit the debt limit, how will it fare post-apocalypse?
So, it seems like the opener’s deliberate pace was designed to emphasize the fact that Rick & Co. have transformed the prison into what passes for a utopian kibbutz in post-zombie Georgia. (I’ll admit, I got some bad flashbacks to Season 2’s life-sucking farm sojourn, but judging by Hershel’s relative brevity in this episode, I hope the writers have learned their lesson.) Rick has traded the gun for the plow while Carol and Daryl are making like college sweethearts just sooo delighted they got into the same prison dorm. Katana-badass-in-residence Michonne has also suddenly learned to speak (and smile) all while hunting for traces of the AWOL Governor. Even serial killer–in-training Carl has apparently swapped his quickly corroding morality for comic books. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, the real fun will come when something does go wrong. Not that it was all pig-farming and zombie-canning in this opener: You could just tell Beth’s new boyfriend Zach was about to get snapped into like a Slim Jim from the way he was kissing up to Daryl as they went a-scavenging. And I guess Carl’s short-term buddy Patrick will miss story time from here on out after being felled by some mysterious fever in the closing scene, but not before spraying Undead Virus all over the water supply — which is exactly what I’d do when feeling ill, sneeze into my friend’s limited water reserves. That, plus Carl’s dear departed pet pig, makes me wonder if we’ll be treated to a mini-Contagion story arc as Rick’s Jedi Council grapples with the total breakdown of its tentatively civil society. (At the very least, Carol’s secret kindergarten knife-lessons speak to vast differences in educational policy among the elders.)
To paraphrase Chekhov, if you put an ominous dead pig in your opener, you damn well better spread an airborne zombie pathogen before the curtain falls. So, on my wish list of plot developments: lots of backstabbing and conniving; Beth’s nifty coping mechanism, i.e., the Days Without an Accident sign, never gets above single digits; and Carl must take Zombie Patrick out with only a butter knife and a tattered copy of Goodnight Moon. And most important of all — the H1Z1 virus compels the group to leave the prison and hit the road. Because we all know there’s nothing less dramatic than stability.
Does this mean Weird Al can’t come out with his “It’s Raining Zombies” parody now?
And onto the night’s set piece! Sweet Jesus, has any recovering alcoholic ever been more punished for nearly falling off the wagon than newcomer D’Angelo Barksdale — sorry, Bob Stookey — when he put that sinfully sippable Chardonnay back on the shelf during the group’s daily scavenger hunt, only to trigger a zombie typhoon pouring down through the roof? Despite the clue-in provided by the bottom half of a corpse outside the deserted Big Box store, this week’s attack felt just a little bit like zombie ex machina. Where else aside from an early Woody Woodpecker cartoon does a collapsing shelf cause the roof to cave? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed watching Bungie-Entrails Zombie dangle from the ceiling, and Daryl’s good old-fashioned head-stomping definitely sated my splatter-lust, but I’d argue you don’t want to risk making too transparent the show’s engine by literally throwing zombies at your protagonists. Still, Greg Nicotero clearly had fun directing this sequence with zombies splashing down like gut-filled water balloons. Talk about giving Tremors a run for its money. It’s always nice to watch a man who loves his job throw everything and a kitchen sink full of zombies at it.
How can you tell when you’ve recovered a small shred of your fragile humanity?
Apparently, if you are Rick Grimes, when you’re willing to follow crazy-eyed Irish ladies deep into the woods after offering them a sandwich. At least Rick’s not leaving hapless hitchhikers as zombie chow in a ditch by the road anymore. That’s progress! Or maybe it’s just now that the ghost of Lori is no longer appearing in Tide-fresh white linen, Rick’s getting a little lonely. And Clara did have truly bewitching eyes, despite some skin-tone issues. (I initially thought Gimple & Co. were throwing us a moral curveball by demonstrating that the undead could possibly be cured. You never know …)
But alas, how can you compete with the ghost of your new flame’s ex, especially when she carries his flesh-devouring head around in a burlap sack everywhere she goes? It kind of kills whatever mood you can summon by way of a sleeping bag and a pup tent in the wilderness. So, Rick’s first date in too long a time ended when his new crush committed hara-kiri after trying to feed him to her decapitated zombie boyfriend. Let’s just hope this doesn’t leave Rick gun-shy about putting himself back on the market: (a) Apparently everyone else in the prison is getting lucky, and (b) it would be nice to see Andy Lincoln emote things other than maltreated puppy/bewildered brooding. Besides, a brand new stepmom would be just the thing to push Carl back onto his potential mass murderer trajectory!
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. At least Rick got his sandwich back.
Zombie Kill of the Week
The Costco’s worth of corpses that fell from the sky provided a surplus of excellent zombie deaths. It’s almost too hard to choose. I mean, how can you praise the beauty of a zombie literally dangling from his small intestine without acknowledging the pure splatter perfection of the undead bursting open on the linoleum, or peeling themselves off the floor, again, literally. What about Bob, shelling a walker skull like a boiled pistachio? You can’t single that out and ignore Daryl’s authoritative boot heel. Maybe it’s a cop-out, but I’m going to go with Karen’s simple repurposing of a quad-cane into her utensil of choice for the daily zombie culling. After all, it was enough to catch the eye of Tyreese, and what’s more beautiful than a zombie slaughter that brings two lovebirds together? Perhaps only the expression of relief on Glenn’s face when he learned Maggie isn’t pregnant after all.
The Next One to Go
Killing off three guest stars in one episode shows The Walking Dead is ready to keep its brisk human-sacrifice pace. Again, with all the fresh blood, there’s an excess of options for who’s set to exit next. But for the moment, I’d split my wagers between Karen and Bob. Stookey, if only because the wine bottle almost tolled for thee; and Karen, because, well, Tyreese looked far too happy locking lips with her. Beware all ye who dare to fall in love with series regulars! It just makes you that much more appetizing to the most bloodthirsty members of the show: the writing staff. They make Beth look positively sentimental.