It’s literally raining zombies in an excellent Walking Dead premiereS

I’m not ready to say that new showrunner Scott Gimple has finally made The Walking Dead the great show we always knew it could be, but man, the season 4 premiere of TWD was most auspicious. It wasn’t flashy, and it wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was so fundamentally good I can’t help but have high hopes for the season.

But first, the recap! It’s many, many months after the season 3 finale, and the prison has actually become a bit of a home. Rick has put away his gun and traded it for a hoe to tend the crops. There’s a council in charge of the group, which includes all the Woodsbury survivors. Daryl and Carol have a fun, quiet affection, Beth is flirting with Beaver from Veronica Mars, Tyreese is trying to impress a lady whose job it is to kill the Walkers who crowd against the fence… yep, life is good. Except it isn’t, because there’s the whole zombie apocalypse and it’s The Walking Dead and happiness is just a brief respite in-between moments of horror and agony.

The two main storylines are of Rick, who discovers a very spooky lady in the woods, and Daryl, who leads an expedition to whatever The Walking Dead’s equivalent of Costco is. Daryl definitely has the big setpiece, because the Costco’s rotting roof — which has a ton of zombies on top, as well as a crashed helicopter on it — leads to a scene where zombies are literally falling from the sky onto the survivors. It’s a bit goofy, but it’s new and unusual and pretty well-handled — plenty of zombies just burst into a pile of gore when they hit the ground. Newcomer Bob Stoovey gets trapped under a shelf of wine — more on that in a minute — and the group frees him from it, but lose Beaver in the process.

Rick, meanwhile, encounters easily the craziest person we’ve met on the show, a woman who asks Rick to help her husband and bring them both to the camp. Rick is suspicious — why wouldn’t he be — but he’s too close to his own brush with insanity to not sympathize with her. Of course, the woman tries to kill Rick once they arrive at her camp — she had led him there because it was easier to let her food follow her than drag it herself — but Rick is ready. The despondent woman stabs herself in the gut, so she can “join” her husband, who is never seen, except as some small movement underneath some canvas. It’s nicely creepy.

But the real problem is at the end, when The Nerd (I don’t know his name, and as you’ll see it doesn’t really matter) slowly gets ill over the course of the episode, eventually dying in the shower. I don’t know if the virus has mutated into something more offensive, or if this is just a regular plague that’s going to rampage through the prison, but it bodes poorly for the survivors. (A pig died, so I’m assuming it was a non-zombie-based illness.)

Again, it was about a simple as an episode where zombies literally fell from the skies could be, but it was so fundamentally improved that I think season 4 is extremely promising. Here’s how:

1) First of all, now the survivors have something to lose. The prison is actually really nice, and is a genuine home — it has crops, and farm animals, and they’ve rigged an elaborate but effective system to let people in and out. Everyone, including the new survivors, is working together. They have a system for keeping the zombies from getting to concentrated by the fence, everyone has a job, people work together and its actually as nice as we’ve seen things can possibly be in TWD. This leads to…

2) Everyone is competent. The biggest problem with The Walking Dead’s characters is that they were so self-defeating, it was hard to get concerned about them dying when you felt so many of them deserved it. But now that they’re working together and making good decisions, it’s actually going to be scary and/or sad when things go to hell. How much time have we hated TWD characters for being moronic? There is literally no one in “30 Days Since Without an Accident” that I thought was being stupid or even disliked (admittedly, the crazy lady probably made some bad decisions, but she was crazy and her subsequent actions made sense in that regard).

3) It’s building off the past. I don’t think any of us were thrilled to watch Rick’s descent into semi-madness last year, especially because it meant Ghost Lori popping up and being just as irritating as when she was alive. It didn’t feel earned, it seemed (and was) a big waste of time, and it was hard to root for Rick or the survivors who put their fate in the hands of a lunatic. But now Rick is sane and he’s haunted by his brush with insanity, which it turns out is pretty compelling. He saw himself near the brink, and now he’s worried about returning, and can’t help but be worried for others who are suffering in the way he did. Whenever the completely insane Governor comes back, this should be a genuinely interesting dichotomy.

4) But first and foremost, this episode was quiet. It showed things, but did not tell us these things, slowly and repeatedly, and it was glorious. TWD is always at it’s best when it’s quiet — see last season’s episode “Clear” for that — and it seemed like this episode had half the dialogue of previous episodes. For instance: Bob Stookey apparently has a bit of an alcohol problem. In the first three seasons, this would have been addressed with 20 minutes of conversation about Bob being an alcoholic. In “30 Days Without an Accident,” Bob passes by a shelf of wine, slowly returns to it, picks up a bottle with loathing and need in his eyes, and then sets it down (a bit too hard, resulting in the shelf falling on him and the aforementioned zombie rain). Not a word is spoken, but we get all the information we need without it directly being told to us. Another example: Carol and Daryl’s light teasing at the beginning of the episode completely reveals where their relationship is at, briefly, without ever saying it directly. Seriously, this would have been a 15-minute scene, minimum, in any of the earlier seasons.

Honestly, I almost don’t care about an overarching plot, the Governor, or anything else if TWD can keep up this trend of showing instead of telling, and letting the mood be the show’s main statement. Again, it’s just the season premiere and it could go to hell again like most of the previous seasons, but I’m feeling more optimistic than ever that The Walking Dead could achieve the greatness we always knew it had in it.

Assorted Musings:

• Near-Zombie Kill of the Week: I thought Bob Stookey, who I will probably only refer to as D’Angelo Barksdale, was going to get this prestigious award when he opened up the skull of the zombie who was crawling towards him while he was trapped underneath that shelf. I fully expected him to reach into the zombie’s head and kill it by forcibly scooping out its brains, but alas, t’was not to be. It would have been awesome, though.

• So many great, chilling, but subtle moments in the episode: Carol ending the kids’ storytime with a lesson on how to use knives. Beth unable mourn Beaver because he's just too used to death. Even Rick seeing the same zombie from the day before was a wonderful reminder of the omnipresent threat that surrounds them.

• Carl has backed down from his path to becoming the deadliest psychopath in the zombie apocalypse, and is even doing kid stuff like reading comics. Also, he's not wearing Rick's hat, which I think is probably for the best.

• I guess Michonne's katana was set to "bludgeon" this episode, because otherwise I have no idea how a vertical slice would knock the head off a cardboard stand-up of a monster backwards without cutting it.