Fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead have been readying themselves for a whole new world at the prison ever since we watched the busload of Woodbury residents arrive at the end of Season 3. Some six months later, what a world it is — comparatively speaking, anyway. Solid steps back toward civilization.
The Rick-tator (Andrew Lincoln) — brought to the brink by the brutality of his new reality and its effect on him and his family — is now Farmer Grimes with pens of ponies and piglets and thriving vegetable gardens. He’s also refusing to carry a gun, throwing one he find buried in the dirt into his wheelbarrow with the weeds and other refuse.
And vegetables aren’t the only thing blooming. Gentle giant Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) has found love with comely Woodbury transplant Karen (Teen Wolf’s Melissa Ponzio, the sole survivor of the Governor’s roadside massacre in the Season 3 finale), and stalwart Beth (Emily Kinney) is being romanced by a studly lad named Zack (Smallville‘s Kyle Gallner).
Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) seem closer than ever, too, the former now a calm, confident member of the Prison Crew who oversees the open-air cafeteria and serves on the council that governs the place now that Rick has pledged himself to more peaceful enterprises.
Still, for those of us wondering if Carol got over daughter Sophia’s horrific end a little too easily, it turns out maybe not. She’s also running a sort of post-apocalyptic Boy-and-Girl-Scout troop disguised as “story time” in the prison library. Read a few minutes of classic kid lit. Learn how to use a knife to slash and stab. Children must be well rounded after all. And the way the world works now, that involves much more than readin’, writin’ and ‘rythmatic.
As for the walkers, it’s become the Woodbury transplants’ job to tend to the crop that gathers at the fence like gnats to a streetlight — a manageable, almost mundane task these days. Still, Carol takes Daryl to survey the size of the horde, noting that they’re not spreading out the way they once did and eventually the fence will not hold against the crowd, no matter how many they stab through the fence. “Sorry, pookie,” she says, patting Daryl gently.
The exchange begs several questions. Do the walkers congregate because there are fewer and fewer survivors — human or animal — out there in the world, thus fewer options to find a living meal? And does Carol’s tender statement to Daryl — who used to relish taking out any moving enemy — mean he, too, has softened in the wake of Merle’s and Andrea’s deaths?
The newly engaged Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are still wrestling with Glenn’s determination to be a knight in ragged armor to his intended and her family — and Maggie’s determination not to need protecting. One other thing — Maggie might be pregnant. She placates her man by agreeing to sit out the day’s planned supply run.
Tyreese tells Karen he is going on the run because, while he can’t stomach killing the walkers — who can’t help how they got to be his enemies — at the fence, when they’re a direct threat to his safety, it somehow makes it easier. This is after all, the guy who would not follow the Governor go to war against the prison, staying behind to protect Woodbury’s weakest members. An unfailingly honorable man, even now.
There’s also a new resident at the prison that didn’t come from Woodbury — Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), an army medic brought into the fold by Daryl. He’s been at the camp for a week and wants to earn his keep. Tyreese’s tough-cookie sister Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) is skeptical. “When Daryl find you, you were alone,” she says. “I just want to be sure you can play on a team.”
Meanwhile, Hershel (Scott Wilson) — who is sporting a spiffy new artificial leg that allows him to amble about without crutches — is teaching Rick about pruning and transplanting, noting that something can be broken and still grow.
And there we have our potential thesis statement for Season 4 in the form of a small sprig of tomato plant. Will the notion grow or wither?
When last we saw Michonne (Danai Gurira), she was at Andrea’s side as the latter committed suicide, having been attacked by zombie Milton in the Governor’s dungeon — which has refreshed the lady warrior’s determination to exact revenge on the on-the-run Governor. At least, we think he’s on the run. No one seems to know where he and his few remaining acolytes have gone. Michonne returns from her latest search on horseback. She didn’t find the Governor. But she did score some comic books for Carl (Chandler Riggs, who has grown up in near astounding fashion since Season 1) and a shaver for Rick.
Even after his gentle lesson in the garden, Hershel tells Rick that the council — made up of himself, Daryl, Glenn, Carol and Sasha — feels he should still carry a gun, especially when he heads out to collect the animals he captures in snares. No more hunting with guns for Farmer Rick either.
After snagging a few bunnies, Rick comes across a boar dying in the grass. As he approaches, someone — or something — else approaches. And at first I think I’m getting my first look at the new wave of walker — a talking walker — since she is so filthy that her skin is as mottled as a freshly reanimated zombie.
Whomever she is, she has a sweet foreign lilt of a voice and asks Rick if he can help her drag the animal back to her husband, Eddie. She says they’ve all but starved. She doesn’t introduce herself and Rick doesn’t ask, so Talking Walker she shall be, even though she isn’t one. (OK, I just found out via Talking Dead that her name was Clara and she was played by Kerry Condon. But by now I’m sort of wedded to Talking Walker, so humor me. )
Rick hands her the sandwich he has brought along on the trip. Noting the carefully wrapped food, Talking Walker asks if he has a camp nearby and if they might join him. He says he has to meet her husband first and the pair must agreeably answer three questions before that can happen. Then he takes the knife she has strapped to her side and warns her that if she tries anything, she’s guaranteed to be the one who loses.
“I don’t have anything else to lose,” she says.
“No,” Rick says wearily. “You do.”
But he gives her back her knife anyway and follows her further into the woods.
Back at the camp, the younger kids are waving to the walkers at the fence, calling out to ones they’ve named. Remembering the lesson his father just gave him about naming the pigs and piglets that will be killed for food, Carl tells the kids that the walkers are not pets and they’re not people. They’re dead.
No, they’re not,” protests a girl who looks to be about 12. “They’re just different.”
Carl reminds her that they kill and eat people and the girl retorts that people kill people, too. And they still have names. (Remember the boy, Carl? The one who was handing you his gun when you shot him point-blank in the face?)
Meanwhile, the supply runners — which includes Michonne — have arrived at the Big Spot, a box store that the army had fortified into a camp and has since been overrun by zombies. Glenn and Daryl have drawn some of them out using a boom box juiced up by car batteries. Still the roof of the building is crawling with them. But we’ve figured out how to manage this threat.
As they continue to march through the woods, Talking Walker tells Rick and she and Eddie had been headed to Puerta Vallarta for their honeymoon when the apocalypse struck, stranding them at the Atlanta airport. She says they were once part of a much larger group; now it’s just the two of them. Eddie has shown her what she needs to do — to be willing to do — to survive. But that is not the issue.
“If he wasn’t still here, I couldn’t be,” she concludes. Such a curious statement — a far cry from “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him” and almost certainly a harbinger of what Rick will encounter when they reach the strangers’ camp.
Rick asks her about the things Eddie taught her, the things they’ve had to do to survive. Eating less than palatable things, she begins. That is clearly not what has gotten her to the emotional state she is in. “Leaving people behind,” she stammers. “Hiding from people who needed my help.”
Rick sympathizes about what is required to survive the walkers. “You call them walkers,” she says. It’s a statement, not a question. This is a survivor unlike any we’ve met yet.
At the Big Spot, we get a better clue into the runners’ preoccupations by where they linger in the store. Tyreese and Bob hesitate before going inside. Glenn’s eyes fall on baby supplies. Encountering the liquor section, Bob hesitates, then sticks a bottle on wine into his vest. As he changes his mind, the shelf topples over, pinning him beneath. While Glenn, Zack and Daryl work to free him, the ceiling begins to drip. Up on the roof, one zombie, then two, then three begin to step through.
It’s raining dead. Hallelujah for no one.
Back in the woods, Talking Walker has a dooze of a question for Rick. “What Eddie and I had to do,” she wonders, “did you have to do them, too? Do you think you get to come back from them?” He did have to, madam. And he’s trying to come back, with a pen full of pigs, a garden to tend, no gun in his holster and a boy who, at last, reads comics instead of fights for his life. “I hope we answer your three questions to your satisfaction,” she says.
Back at the big box store, Glenn is nearly bitten. Bob is peeling away the skull of the walker when he’s finally rescued. As the men make a run a run for it, poor Zack gets taken down. Before they can put the poor kid out of his misery, the roof comes crashing down in an action-movie moment worthy of the Season 3 finale’s prison attack.
Rick and Talking Walker finally reach her sparse camp. She rushes to greet Eddie, though she is headed not toward a human being in any incarnation but a burlap bag. Realizing there is no other person here, Rick looks into their tent and sees there is only one sleeping bag, as well. As he’s distracted by this puzzlement, Talking Walker lunges for him, large knife in hand and screaming.
Rick dodges the attack and reveals that he did, indeed, take the council’s advice and rearmed himself.
“I wanted to take the boar,” Talking Walker whimpers, “but I knew I could get you here quicker. He’s starving, he’s slowing, he needs something alive ….” Which makes it official. Whatever IS left of Eddie, it fits in that burlap sack. And it still needs to eat.
“I needed him,” she pleads. “So I kept him. I know it was wrong.”
She begs Rick to pull his trigger and end her torment. And after he does, not to take the next and final step, so that she can be the same incarnation as Eddie, whatever that might be. Rick recognizes the same desperation and anguish that had him hallucinating his own dead spouse, but before he can figure his next move, Talking Walker hara-kiris, falling face first to the ground. Before she expires, she wants to know the three questions that might have earned her a place in the prison.
“How many walkers have you killed,” says an anguished Rick.
“Eddie killed them all,” she wheezes. “Until …”
“How many people have you killed?” says Rick.
“Just me,” she gasps. “Just me.”
“Why?” says Rick, fully understanding that the question has taken on a whole new meaning in this moment and fearing the answer.
“You don’t get to come back from things,” she says. “You don’t.”
They’re her last words. The very opposite of Hershel’s in the garden. And the burlap bag, which can’t possibly hold much more than a head, grumbles to life.
Rick walks away. We don’t see him shoot Talking Walker in the head. Or whatever is in the bag. Is this the last we’ve seen of Clara? Are we going to have a moment like Carl’s walker taking down poor Dale?
Meanwhile, Carl drops in on story time — possibly curious about why fellow teen Patrick chooses to attend — and discovers of what it’s really all about. He’s not the only one having issues. A pale Patrick asks to be dismissed because he’s not feeling so good. Carol tells him sternly that he isn’t going to be able to go home sick from an attack outside the prison walls and he should try to fight through it, but the lad says he’s afraid he’s going to vomit. He’s excused. Karl shows himself. Carol calmly asks him not to tell his peace-loving father her secret.
Returning to the prison, Rick notices that poor Violet the pig has died.
Back from the supply run, Tyreese visits Karen and tells her he doesn’t like killing zombies outside of the prison either. He wants to contribute. He just can’t figure out how.
Maggie tells Glenn that she isn’t pregnant and Glenn is relieved. Maggie tells him she wouldn’t have minded either way.
“We can have lives here,” Maggie tells him
“How can you say that?” he says.
“Because I don’t want to be afraid of being alive,” she says.
“Being afraid is what’s kept us alive,” Glenn says.
“No,” Maggie says. “It’s how we kept breathing.”
They have vegetables. They have animals. They have plumbing. They have each other. But no one here has a hopeful life.
Speaking of that, it’s Daryl’s job to tell Beth about poor Zack’s fate. He finds the girl lying on her bunk.
Though he’s clearly bothered by the boy’s death, Beth barely reacts. Then she rises and goes to the adjust the “This workplace has gone 30 days without an accident” sign in her cube, adjusting the 30 back to zero. “I don’t cry anymore, Daryl,” she tells him. “I’m just glad I got to know him.” Daryl is, too. Beth asks him if he’s OK.
“I’m just tired of losing people,” Daryl murmurs.
“I’m just glad I didn’t say goodbye. I hate goodbyes,” says Beth, hugging her friend.
“Me, too,” says Daryl. The man who once needed no one.
While Michonne maps her path to Macon in search of the Governor, Hershel counsels Rick about what happened in the woods. “How that woman wound up — I got close to that,” Rick says, baby Judith in his arms and painfully aware that it wouldn’t take much to bring him back there. “Some people are too far gone,” the older man says. “You’re not. You came back. Your boy came back. You get to come back. You do.”
It’s how you come back that’s the issue. In the newcomers’ cell block, a sweat-covered Patrick stumbles for the showers. Leaning over the barrel that holds the water supply, he is racked with coughs — coughing directly into the barrel before he pumps it for his shower. He steps beneath the water and collapses as the camera focuses on the flow from the shower head slowing ominously to a trickle.
The last thing we see is the face of an undead — unbitten, uninjured and recently hale — Patrick reanimating on the shower floor.
People, I think there’s something in the water. First Violet. Now sweet Patrick. So what are we to make of the first thing we saw this season — Rick vigorously splashing his face at the barrel by the garden? He’s overcome undead hordes and human enemies. Could it be his more fearsome threat yet has neither form nor face?
New episodes of The Walking Dead air Sunday nights at 9/8CT on AMC.
Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC