The Walking Dead return in “30 Days Without An Accident” (s4e1)

In one of Jerry Seinfeld’s greatest bits from his Seinfeld-capping standup special I’m Telling You For The Last Time, he describes scuba diving as a “great activity where your main goal is to not die.” I couldn’t help thinking of that blissful state of passive survival—and his sing-song description of being underwater, “Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die. There’s a fish. There’s a rock. Who cares? Don’t die. I don’t want to die. Don’t let me die.”—as more and more confident positivity swept over the fourth season premiere of The Walking Dead. There are enough moments of a calm, happy, functioning society that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all a dream, since there’s no way life could possibly be this happy

Season three introduced the idea that the conflict between groups of survivors—as extensions of a conflict of governing style between the leaders—could be just as dangerous as the unrelenting hordes of zombies. The Walking Dead introduced that idea before, but in smaller doses and with lower stakes. One of the best scenes in the second season had Rick and Glenn going after Herschel in a bar near the farm, where they encounter Michael Raymond James and another stranger that ends in a bloody confrontation and yields the Randall debacle. The Governor is exactly the villain The Walking Dead desperately needed. Not to completely right the ship—this is still wildly uneven genre television with infuriatingly thin characters—but to at least provide crucial focus to the plot.

It initially looked like the Buffy style of season structure: introduce the big bad, set up the conflict, instigate heavy losses on both sides, concluding with a final showdown where the less crazily-doomed side wins. If there’s one thing TWD has been light on, it’s a large-scale victory for our “heroes.” But the show chickened out on properly punctuating the arc, granting the Governor a stay of execution, allowing him to massacre his own reluctant troops in a fit of rage and head off with his most loyal soldiers to fight another day.

Still, with the Governor lurking somewhere out there, no doubt plotting his overly raging revenge, the prison is a veritable Garden Of Eden. Instead of fighting amongst themselves, the remaining Atlanta survivors from the previous three seasons have adopted leadership roles in an authentic version of the Governor purported to provide with Woodbury. Rick tends crops and livestock, learning more every day from Herschel. Carol conducts story time for the kids in the library and cooks meals. New people are so thankful they shower Daryl with praise he’s not quite used to.

Romantic relationships have cropped up: Tyreese and Karen are shacked up, and Beth has a new boyfriend Zach (played by Beaver Casablancas himself, Kyle Gallner). Rick is even comfortable enough with the day-to-day operations that he doesn’t carry a gun to check traps anymore—so rashly unsafe that Herschel commands him to stop at the behest of The Council, the oligarchical leadership group that replaces Rick’s dictatorship in peacetime, made up of Daryl, Glen, Carol, and Sasha. Michonne comes and goes as she pleases, traveling on a horse and bringing Carl comic books when she returns. She’s even smiling and laughing a bit.

“30 Days Without An Accident” doesn’t give a hard and fast time-jump, but considering all the progress that has been made to make the prison habitable, it takes place at least a few months down the road, enough time to establish a firm high point and then spend the entire season punishing the characters for how long they’ve staved off the inevitable. This is the season starting point: prison as Elysium, or as close to it under such dire circumstances. And because this is the series that takes an asymptotic view of a zombie apocalypse, this blip of paradise can only last for so long.

The line that cut through the happiness most effectively is Herschel telling Rick the settlement is nearly self-sufficient for food on the crops alone, making runs out of the prison almost unnecessary. That just about dooms the party heading out to the outlet store to some gory action. And sure enough, an unknown pack of walkers on the roof and a broken wine display case later, and zombies are caving in the roof, letting stark shafts of light pepper the dark store. It’s visually astonishing and arresting, but The Walking Dead has a penchant for creating infinite variations on the same basic scenes. This is yet another impressive facet of a core device that depends on the writers’ ingenuity, which has been a point of weakness.

And that emphasis on Rick carrying a gun takes a Chekhovian turn when a ragged and distraught woman asks for his help out in the woods. This is a great example of the isolated parables The Walking Dead loves to let play out. It’s another illustration of just how unhinged people get under these circumstances, but once again it’s clear that the positive feelings can only extend so far into the season. She’s gone insane, protecting her husband who recently turned, and Rick must make good on his initial threat. The strongest and most revealing part of the entire exchange is that it forces Rick to unfurl the three questions the new pocket of civilization asks of any person who wants to join them:

How many walkers have you killed?
How many people have you killed?

The first two are empirically based factual questions from which more qualitative observations can be made. The council presumably wants to judge whether someone keeps track of the killings or has lost track, how they’ve managed to survive, if they will be useful in patrolling the walls—which is quickly growing unmanageable. And if someone has been a ruthless killer, out to sacrifice the living to benefit their own chances of survival, they’d like to weed that out too. But the third question seems like a Rorschach test, with a suspicious council trying to weed out problematic people—though perhaps they should think about uncovering vices, as Bob’s drinking could pose an issue. They are cautious but confortable in their inscrutable questions, and that comparatively lofty position cannot last.

But as this is The Walking Dead, there are many seeds planted—like Herschel showing Rick how to prune tomato vines to kickstart new plants, a nice little metaphor—for the doom and devastation that still haunts humanity at every turn. Accidents still happen. Danger is still out there as it has been, and it’s been brutal enough that people like Beth don’t cry anymore and simply remove a number from a calendar like it’s the sign at the nuclear power plant in the Simpsons title sequence when somebody dies. With a few notable exceptions, they’ve learned not to let anyone get too close, but to appreciate the time spent with another person in the hellscape of the outside world.

Then there’s Violet the pig, who meets a mysterious and ominous end. This confuses Rick, but it’s sure to add up relatively quickly, now that the walkers are multiplying, and something about the water supply seems fishy. Patrick leaves story time feeling sick, and by the middle of the night, he falls over dead in the shower after contaminating a bunch of water, a walker inside the supposedly impenetrable confines of the prison. Something wicked is brewing, and it will force the survivors out into the harsh elements, into yet another exodus.

And Michonne has her map, and keeps tracking down some anonymous person—likely the Governor—which should shape up to be another Big Bad plot for the season. As much as I like David Morrissey in the role, the bold deviation from the comic would be to kill him off after a sound defeat and move on to building another villain. Instead, he’s still around somewhere, and knowing this show, waiting to turn up at the point the audience most expects it. But as a premiere full of table setting that lulls the characters into complacency, it’s effective. Now The Walking Dead gets to kick the boulder down the hill and see how much steam it picks up before the midseason finale in a few months.

Extra Brains:

• Maggie is not pregnant, after some heavy symbolism as Glenn looks at picture frames with advertisements for baby photos in the store. He doesn’t want to bring a child into the world after what happened to Lori, and considering they probably won’t have the safe confines of the prison (irony) much longer, I don’t blame him.

• The number of actors from The Wire popping up on this show is awesome and I hope it continues.

• Welcome to coverage of The Walking Dead! I’m excited to roll through another show with you. In the interest of full disclosure: I have read up through the fourth trade paperback of the comics, but I’m familiar with plot lines much further into the series, up through about the 100th issue. I probably won’t be discussing much of the dichotomy between the show and the comic series, but in the random event I do catch up on that reading, I’ll clearly delineate potential spoilers.

• The news from the NYCC Walking Dead panel yielded the best possible news for me as a television fan: Michael Cudlitz joins the cast this season. He’s one of my favorite television actors, and I’m still bitter he didn’t score an Emmy nomination for the final season of Southland.