Thirty days without an accident -- and it's all falling apart, all at once. "The Walking Dead", the hit adaptation of Robert Kirkman's longrunning Image Comics series, returns to AMC on October 13 for its fourth season, with an episode called (you guessed it) "30 Days Without an Accident." Months have passed since the collapse of Woodbury and the rise of Rick Grimes' prison as a new survivor sanctuary. The hopeful dawn glimpsed at the end of season three has manifested in the form of a fuller-functioning society. It's not just the tight-knit, Rick-led remnants of humanity occupying the cellblocks anymore; there are more men, women and children than can possibly be identified in a single episode. Beyond new characters to keep track of, there are new roles for our old favorites, and enhanced screen-time for the bit players from the final acts of season three. There are farm animals, too, and thriving agriculture, and even the occasional barbecue or two.
As the episode title implies, things are going relatively well in the prison -- until it all goes wrong.
That foreboding set-up aside, there is a lot to like in "30 Days Without an Accident." The time-gap between seasons three and four yadda-yaddas its way through the nitty-gritty of the prison's evolution, and the show is better for it. Part of the fun of the episode comes from observing all of the changes. Many of them are overt -- you know it's a whole new world when pigs are happily grazing on the prison field once populated by endless walkers -- and some are subtle, like the shifting power-dynamics in the group.
Indeed, the group's growth is just as important as their environment's evolution. Gone are the days of the Ricktatorship. As the season begins, Sheriff Grimes occupies a new role within the society, a more peaceful role. It's as much a reflection of his own failures as leader as it is a testament to the leadership abilities of his comrades. Characters like Daryl and Carol have grown tremendously since their first appearances on the series, and the writers are rewarding them with more important roles in the "Walking Dead" universe, and brand-new types of material to work with as actors.
What doesn't work so well is Rick Grimes. It's not a problem with Andrew Lincoln's performance; he's as solid as ever. There's a twinkle of trauma in his eyes, a sense that this is a man who doesn't see a hero in the mirror anymore, but a fool who caused countless deaths through recklessness and indecision. It's an interesting position for the character. There's something worthwhile in the idea of a born-leader who refuses to lead anymore. It opens up new avenues for Rick, subtle shades of the character that the audience hasn't seen just yet.
But Rick's story in "30 Days" isn't subtle. It's as blunt as an arrow to the brain. It's also difficult to talk about without getting into spoilers, but let's give it a try.
The episode puts Rick on a violent journey with a mystery woman -- a journey that feels like a bad version of "Clear," the season three episode that reintroduced Morgan Jones. Both "Clear" and "30 Days" were written by Scott Gimple, the new "Walking Dead" showrunner, and both episodes use guest stars like Morgan to reflect Rick's own mental and emotional duress. "Clear" pulled it off by taking the familiar Morgan and twisting him into something darker and more extreme, if not entirely unrecognizable. "30 Days" fails because it attempts the same thing, without earning the character. It's a shame, because Lincoln's work in the episode is so sharp otherwise; his scenes in and around the prison are fantastic. Bringing Rick outside of the compound walls proves to be a poor choice in more ways than one.
In season two, "The Walking Dead" took heat for staying too close to the farm, for saving the guns-and-gore for the final few episodes. In response, season three hit the ground running and rarely looked back, pumping out bloodstained episode after bloodstained episode. It didn't always work, but when it did, it worked wonderfully. At its best, "Walking Dead" produced episodes like "Clear," and the mournful Merle Dixon swan-song, "This Sorrowful Life." Those episodes succeeded not just because they featured guts by the gallons; they succeeded because they were character studies and talent showcases for the inimitable Lennie James and Michael Rooker, set against the bleak backdrop of Hell on Earth.
"30 Days Without an Accident" has the crimson-red blood that coursed through season three's veins, but not enough of its heart, and not enough of its brains. The final minutes of the episode trigger a chain of events that looks likely to dominate at least the early going of season four. When you soak that scene in, and think back on the external trauma Rick faces in the episode, as well as the zombie-filled B-plot, you can't help but wonder: does all everything need to hit the fan at once?
Still, there is potential. The society of the prison is full and brimming with life (for the moment, at least), positioning the show to tackle territory it hasn't had a chance to address quite yet: questions about authority and shared responsibility, about how to reboot civilization, about children's roles in the new world. There are some fantastic additions to the cast in newly-minted regulars Chad Coleman and Sonequa Martin-Green as Tyreese and Sasha, as well as whole-cloth newcomers like Lawrence Gillard as Bob Stookey, one of the prison's newest and sketchiest arrivals. The zombie effects are as gory and glorious as ever, and the performances are solid. But the Rick story is misguided enough that it weakens the premiere as a whole.
Going forward, Gimple needs to tap back into what made an episode like "Clear" so successful, without outright aping that action, as we see in "30 Days." If he can't, season four could be a rough ride for all the wrong reasons.
"The Walking Dead" season 4 premieres October 13 at 9/8 p.m. central, only on AMC.