It's rare we see Rick Grimes unencumbered by the mantle of leadership. But last night, as season 4 of AMC's hit series began, we witnessed the stressed-out sheriff enjoying some serious me-time. Last season, we saw Rick resist the role of tribe leader and sow the seeds of post-apocalyptic democracy by urging Hershel, Glen, Carol, and the others to vote rather than rely on him to make decisions about their combined fates. Now, it seems his words have borne some fruit. Hershel alludes to a "counsel" whose mandates trump even the sheriffs. And Rick finds some time to work with his hands.
There are still undead mashing their rotted flesh up against the gates, but the pace of terror seems to have slowed considerably inside the prison. As the episode unfolds, each member of the group handles this relative peace in his or her own way. As a provider for younger and greener additions to the population, Daryl has become a local celebrity worthy of his rock star haircut. Carol urges him to accept his Robin Hood-like status even while she steps into a more nurturing role around camp. It's nice to see these two still close, but they've each been through too much gore to let sap or affection overcome them.
Tyreese, on the other hand, seems almost too eager to forge a romance in the most inhospitable of times. Big and imposing though he may be, the man was never comfortable with the grisly violence that is now the way of the world. He confides as much to his new love interest, the woman who barely escaped the Governor's wrath in the final episode of Season 3. Let's be real. Were humanity's worst conceivable plague to strike without warning, those of us left in possession of our souls would most likely react like this gentle giant, with frustration, ambivalence, anxiety, and fear, rather than like Sasha who was, until recently, Tyreese's constant companion. Now, she's an Andrea-like enforcer, tough, efficient, and -- judging from how she dressed down newcomer Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) -- vigilant to a fault.
Not to say that Bob Stookey (just listen to the name!) wasn't earmarked for zombie failure from the moment he bargained his way onto the ill-fated scavenger mission that ended in corpses literally falling from the sky. This over-the-top set piece was A) exactly the type of tight-quarters, one-way-out action sequence that "Walking Dead" fans live for and B) precisely the kind of excessively violent ick-fest the show's critics rail against. While satisfying as A, it lacked a little zing simply because fan favorites Daryl and Glen risked their lives for a character we'd barely even met. Another newbie died simply to illustrate how numb young Beth had become.
The big-eyed blonde's reaction to news of her new beau's demise was already the second sign that the kids may not be all right. I don't know what was more disturbing -- the two wholesome, little girls naming walkers like pets or hatless Carl furiously chastising them for it. Rick may be anxious to pass the baton of leadership, but if his son ever reaches out to grab it, folks may find themselves under a dictatorship stricter than the Governor's. (Remember last season? That boy's cold eyes make me want to sing Queen: "Mama, just killed a man..." Also, he killed mama!)
It's too bad Patrick won't rub off on Carl. He seemed like a nice kid -- easy-going, got along with everybody, liked stories. I could speculate about the reason for his sudden death and subsequent turn. But I've already seen the next episode, so it wouldn't be speculation. Suffice it so say the explanation is so simple as to be brilliant. Honestly, it feels like one of those "Sixth Sense" moments where you're like, "Oh, of course Bruce Willis is dead." (If I just spoiled "The Sixth Sense" for anyone, please feel free to flame the hell out of me in the comment section. I would love to know who still hasn't seen that movie.)
This morning, much ado will be made about last night's episode's B storyline: Rick's trek through the wilderness with the desperate, treacherous Clara. She begged him to come with her to see her husband. Rick took pity on the shambling, soot-covered woman. She pelted him with questions about what one had to do to survive. Did this not feel all too ominous -- and obvious -- to everyone? By now, we know what people in this new world have to do to survive. And if it's not what Rick, Daryl and the rest are doing, it's something far more spirit-diminishing. Clara had clearly already gone there. There was no way this little journey wouldn't end in ruin.
So, Rick is left with his gun in his hand once again and the question: Can you come back from doing these things? In other words, does all the killing, looting, fighting, betraying etc. change a person for good? I think the episode demonstrates that it does. As sure as the zombie virus lies dormant in everyone, no one in the camp, or in this world, can remain unaltered or unchanged by the horrible events that surround them. Think of Carol and her efforts to teach knife techniques to the children during story time. Remember, this woman was a mother once. She learned that you can never be too ready.
Personally, I am far less interested in the question of whether you can come back. What struck me most about last night's episode is that, even after everything these people had been through, they were still looking to rebuild. Down to the most jaded of them all, they still want a society where they can eat as a community, make love, make babies, and raise them. I am fascinated by the notion that, no matter what, we will always want to come back.