Let the Scott M. Gimple era of The Walking Dead begin. With all the creative and behind-the-scenes changes the show has undergone over the last few years, wondering what will be different under a new showrunner has become one of the primary talking points for a show that is only now entering season 4. And that's not necessarily a bad thing; the show has run into its fair share of storytelling issues, and bringing in a new showrunner gives the audience that same feeling devoted fans of a beloved, but beleaguered, sports team get when a new coach is announced.
Sometimes a little fresh blood is all that matters, and as we see in the early parts of the season 4 premiere, '30 Days Without an Accident,' fresh blood isn't only welcome and promising from a behind-the-scenes perspective; it can give the onscreen story a sense of vibrancy as well. There are so many new faces being introduced and the setting of the prison just carries with it such a different vibe that watching Rick (Andrew Lincoln) quietly tend a garden while listening to an old country song is the least conspicuous tonal shift the premiere brings to the table. But along with slowly demonstrating Rick's aversion to violence, Gimple and his crew also go to great lengths to make all the new faces and shifting circumstances feel pleasantly familiar. This is not a radical re-imagining of something that had stumbled at times creatively; it's simply a necessary progression.
Instead of ghost Lori wandering around, there is a sense that last season's superlative episode 'Clear' is the real lingering presence on the show. Season 3 ended with a long shot featuring a busload of Woodburians walking solemnly into a prison. Many a discussion was had about the subtext of that image, in relation to exiting showrunner Glen Mazzara and what his feelings about the series and his situation with the network might have been. Whatever the case may be, Gimple's first episode as new showrunner also seems interested in talking about the show, with more than one allusion being made about the past - and particularly, how the path Rick was headed down was a little wide of the mark. Interpretations aside, Gimple's effort here is clearly intended to reiterate some of the ideas presented in 'Clear,' but tweak them just enough in the delivery that Rick finds himself looking for that speck of light at the end of the tunnel, rather than the endless expanse of inky darkness threatening to swallow him whole.
That idea is felt in the scenes around the prison, too. This time, rather than a sense of despair in the survivors, the desperation is felt most strongly in the throngs of walkers crowding the fenced perimeter of the prison. For those inside, it’s a combination of pragmatism and cautious optimism. Beth's (Emily Kinney) new squeeze Zach (Kyle Gallner) tellingly gets a kiss, but not a goodbye when he heads out on an ill-fated supply run with Daryl (Norman Reedus), Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and fellow newcomer Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.). When Daryl returns with news of her beau's demise, Beth observes the occasion by methodically setting the 'days without accident' board back to zero - a not-so-subtle shift in tone for the series as a whole. Zach was one of the first new characters in a long time who managed to instantly ingratiate himself, and feel like he could be a welcome addition to the cast. Instead, his death is a reminder that whatever changes have been made, The Walking Dead reserves the right to eliminate anyone at any time, regardless of how the audience might feel about that individual. Zach wasn't around long enough to wind up on the audience's hit list, but his immediate removal suggests the series isn't interested in only getting rid of the characters nobody seems to like.
However, Beth's reaction is also a sign of how repetitious story points and endless nihilism can just wear a person down – whether they're in the story or just watching it. At a certain point, the show is going to have to offer up some sort of new wrinkle to make the stakes of the narrative engaging beyond the notion that anyone is potentially on the proverbial chopping block. Watching zombie heads explode is popular enough that it's practically become a mid-October Sunday night pastime, but without some sense of hope in all that bleakness, the law of diminishing returns goes into effect on even the wildest of kills. The collapsing roof of the big box store made for a terrific set piece, as it provided some intense action - and the sight of zombies raining down from the ceiling was a nice bit of nightmare fuel. While it adequately demonstrated the continuing hostility of the show's setting, it was, ultimately, another example of how hopeless the overall situation actually is.
...Which is why Rick's encounter in the woods works out to have some importance beyond underlining the character's fluctuating mental health by demonstrating where it is he could end up (a point that had already been expressed far more poignantly in 'Clear'). At any rate, when the despondent woman attacks Rick, she mentions how her zombified companion Eddie has begun to slow down on account of not having anything living or "fresh" to eat. While this detail may seem innocuous, it ties into the aforementioned notion of the living impaired being on the verge of desperation, and it gives the series that one tiny glimmer of hope on which it can pin its future.
Maybe these beings aren't running on an endless battery. Despite their unexplained existence, perhaps even these walking dead have an expiration date. If that's the case then it gives the idea of merely surviving, or simply getting by, more meaning. It's a small hope that is still buried under an incredible amount of danger, suffering, and loss, but in a world in which hope is almost entirely absent it means everything.
It also makes spoiling that feeling of hope and calm - by killing off and resurrecting Patrick inside the prison - feel far more important and significant than it would have been, otherwise. Hopefully, that notion of creating calm and then shattering it to see what comes of the pieces will continue throughout the season.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Infected' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Gene Page & Frank Ockenfels/AMC