A couple of months ago I wrote a review of The Walking Dead Complete Third Season Blu-ray set and said, "Looking ahead, Season Four's first episode, "30 Days Without an Accident" is written by Gimple and directed by Nicotero, so could someone please tell October 13 to hurry up and get here?"
Well, it's here, and it's awesome.
While not the most exciting season opener, this was the most fundamentally sound piece of work since writer/showrunner Scott M. Gimple's Season Three instant classics "Clear" and "This Sorrowful Life." Greg Nicotero's direction was subtle and controlled, leading up to a simply horrifying final moment.
This is exactly what I was hoping for with Gimple in charge. Quiet stories of madness and desperation, with horrible things happening for a reason, rather than just lurching out of the darkness. Everything that happens in this episode is set up and then delivered, while also setting up themes and conflicts (both internal and external) for the coming season.
Things are looking good for our survivors as the episode begins. The influx of people from Woodbury has been supplemented by other survivors over the six or seven months that have passed since the Season Three finale. Tyrese (Chad L. Coleman) is involved with Karen (Melissa Ponzio), the woman who survived the Governor's slaughter; Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride) have settled into a flirtatious friendship — and Daryl's kind of a rock star in the community; Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are dealing with a possible pregnancy; Hershel (Scott Wilson) has a prosthetic leg!!; Michonne (Danai Gurira) is out hunting for the Governor, bringing back supplies when she can — including a flirty gift for Rick; Beth (Emily Kinney) is flirty with a new boy, Zach (Kyle Gallner); New character Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) is ready to pull his weight and come along on runs; and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is farming, letting the newly formed council run things, and trying to be a better dad to Carl (Chandler Riggs) who is becoming less of a cold-blooded killer and more of a normal kid again.
That's a helluva lot of exposition and it all plays out smoothly with as little overt attention as possible. This is a tight script that gives you just what you need and the actors don't overdo anything along the way. We've also got a fleshed-out multi-racial cast that doesn't rely on stereotypes for a change. And you'll notice that there's a lot of flirtiness going on. People are showing affection for each other casually and believably. Gimple and the cast are laying emotional groundwork that we haven't seen really done so far in three seasons. You actually feel that while it's the zombie apocalypse, things are going to be okay.
Of course, that won't last.
Once this is all established (and in record time, I might add), the episode moves into two main storylines, both of which echo Gimple's work last season. While clearing snares, Rick happens upon Clara (Kerry Condon), a half-starving mad woman who is an immediate thematic call-back to both Lennie James' Morgan and Rick's own bout of insanity last season. It's a quiet look at how bad things can get without help and a support community that allows Andrew Lincoln to work through Rick's fears and guilt without sitting around talking about it with someone.
That really is one of the biggest strengths of this episode; the lack of people sitting around hashing things out with dialogue. The use of dialogue is sparse and effective, revealing character and plot without bludgeoning the audience.
The second main focus is on Daryl's supply run. We know how these go. Our heroes find an abandoned store that somehow still has enough stuff that they can use, but even though they think it's clear a zombie (or a pack of them) will lurch out of the darkness or around a corner having made no sound up until that point. It's one of the things that bugs me about the show sometimes. The reliance on these jump scares is cheap and breaks the realism of the situation.
Well, it's like Gimple and Nicotero read my mind.
Not only is the supply run conducted like professionals, utilizing a radio hooked up to car batteries in the distance to draw off the walkers over a few days until the site is practically empty, and then patiently drawing out any remaining zombies in the store and quickly and efficiently dispatching it. What they don’t know and can't prepare for is what's on the roof.
This is the set-piece of the episode. A helicopter had crashed onto the roof of the store who knows how long ago, weakening the roof, where there just happens to be a stash of zombies shambling around without an obvious way down. They're effectively trapped up there, harmless. Except for the water damage that the helicopter crash has allowed to set in.
There are small moments as characters notice the damp, but keep looting their supplies (including a nice, quiet moment as Bob reveals though his actions — again, no words — that he is fighting alcoholism), until there's a loud crash, Bob is pinned under a shelf, and zombies start raining down on them through rotted spots in the ceiling.
All the professionalism in the world wouldn't have prepared them for that.
And if you're
waiting on the gore, you get it in buckets as one zombie dangles by his guts from the ceiling and others burst apart like entrails-piñatas. This also brings us back to the episode title, "30 Days Without an Accident" as that gets reset to zero with the loss of Zach. And that in turn brings us to one of the most disturbing moments in the episode, as Beth takes the news with barely a tremor. Death is just accepted now, and she says she's just glad she got to know him. Then she hugs Daryl just a second or two too long and things get a little weird.
But before we have time to ponder that little possibility, we end the episode paying attention to another newbie to the group, Patrick (Vincent Martella). He'd been feeling bad earlier, having to leave Carol's Reading Group for the Kids (which, once the grown-ups leave, turns into Carol's Top Secret Knife Fighting Academy) before he throws up on someone, and the night brings a disturbing revelation.
After coughing all the way through the barracks to the bathrooms, he hacks into the water used for showers, tries to cool himself off with an impromptu hose down, and then collapses dead, with blood streaming from his eyes, ears, and mouth. A moment later he opens his eyes, which are now blood red — similar to a walker on the fence Rick noticed earlier — and he's about to get up in a barracks full of sleeping people.
Patrick, the walker on the fence, and the death of a hog the group had been raising for slaughter all point to something very, very bad for our little community. It looks like something along the lines of Swine Flu or Spanish Flu, either of which would be devastating. So all that quiet emotional connection and casual acceptance of death and the zombie apocalypse that works so well all through this episode is about to go to hell, brutally.
Next week should be a living nightmare. In a good way.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.