In case the first 30-odd minutes of tonight's Walking Dead premiere hadn't made it clear that Rick Grimes was a new man, the show's final moments — which found Rick hacking off Hershel's leg mere seconds after it was used as walker chow — hit the proverbial nail in the "old Rick" coffin. And you know what? Thank God.
The Frank Darabont era of The Walking Dead had many problems — infuriating pacing, not enough walkers, Sophia — but first and foremost was the almost black and white nature of the decisions these characters had to make, particularly Rick. A good part of what makes the comics so fascinating — and the central theme of one of the universe's best post-apocalyptic shows, Battlestar Galactica — is the impossible moral ambiguities that pop up when a once governed society has to govern itself, in impossible, unimaginably horrific situations. When Shane was around, Rick — our hero, obviously — never really had to deal with any of these decisions. When it came to group dynamics, Rick was the angel on everyone's shoulder, talking about the deer. (He talked about the deer!) Shane was the guy who voted to murder the teenager without a second glance. With Shane gone, it's no longer a two-man struggle for control of the group, one good and one evil. Rick has to make all of the tough decisions himself, and he demonstrated his ability to quickly pull a Shane when he went all 127 Hours on Hershel's leg. (That's what happens when you get a DUI, Hershel.)
But let's rewind, because the first five minutes of tonight's episode were glorious. Without basically any dialogue (a welcome change from this typically verbose bunch), we learned right away that, in the months since we left the Grimes Gang on the highway by Hershel's farm, their world had considerably darkened. When your days consist of roaming from house to house, then fighting off that house's local walkers to find such luxuries as an owl and some dog chow, s***'s bleak. How bleak? Bleak enough that Lori and Rick let Carl run around solo with a gun, because what else is he going to do? Bleak enough that when Rick and Daryl saw that prison looming in the distance, Daryl looked like he'd won the Redneck Olympics. (ASIDE: This will be the only Honey Boo Boo reference you will see in these recaps. Pinky swear.)
So things were pretty bad even for zombie apocalypse standards, but the original battle for the prison yard sparked some life in these characters that they probably hadn't felt in quite some time. Beth, who we primarily know as that blonde chick who kept wanting to commit suicide, bashed walker brains in with cheerful aplomb. The widowed, daughter-less Carol skipped around the yard with glee, happy to have more space to herself than she'd had in months, and made very welcome sexual jokes to Daryl. (Make it happen, you crazy kids.) Remember folks, this was a prison.
Next: Lost limbs, inappropriate flirting... and, oh yeah, Andrea and Michonne.
The only person who couldn't enjoy the initial victory, of course, was Rick. Because killing Shane — and Lori basically putting that knife in his hands — changed Rick. Not only was he now, officially, the bona fide captain of this team, but he hated his wife and would never know if her baby was his, zapping away pretty much all of the "he talked about the deer" positivity we saw from Rick during the last two seasons. He watched over the group like a miserable — but caring! — hawk, and barked orders like a drill sergeant. Gone were the episode-spanning philosophical debates of yesteryear — in fact, when Lori tried to have a chat about their failed marriage, he shrugged her off immediately. He had things to do. He quickly put a stake in the group's campfire Kumbaya session, by telling them that instead of resting for a while, they'd have to fight off more herds of walkers in the morning to gain access to one of the cell blocks, and its probable stock of food and medicine.
Of course, the Grimes Gang won that battle, too. So, in addition to relative safety, they now also had beds to sleep on. Luxuries! The most notable tidbits from their peaceful night in the jail cells were that A, Lori slept with Carol while Rick stood guard (the director wisely juxtaposed their misery with a tender shot of Glenn and Maggie nursing each others' wounds), and B, apparently Carl and Beth flirting is going to be a thing now. My notes from this scene were as follows: "Carl + Beth action = Thing I'm not okay with." Google says that Beth is 16 years old, and Carl's gun and cowboy hat signify that he is indeed a man now, but that doesn't change the fact that the age difference between the two actors looks to be about ten full years. Moving on.
The next day, the gang had to make one final push — into a cell block that might have more food, security, etc. Before the designated fighters (the boys, plus Maggie) took off, Lori had a painful conversation with Hershel about her baby. She knew that Rick and Carl both sort of hated her, and worried that her baby was already dead, and would tear her open from the inside. She made Hershel swear that if something happened during her delivery, he would kill her and/or the baby instantly. I should have known right then that something terrible was about to happen to Hershel, but my TV trope monitor was apparently turned off tonight.
Which brings us to the final battle: In a dark, seemingly deserted part of the prison, hoards of walkers suddenly surrounded the gang from all angles, leading Glenn and Maggie to hide in some sort of closet while the rest of them crouched down, planning their next move. When they began their retreat, Hershel heard Maggie calling his name, and stopped paying attention for about one full second. One second left plenty of time for the quiet walker under Hershel's feet to take a nasty chunk out of his leg, and about one minute later, that leg was history. Rick grabbed his belt and his axe, ignored the horrified faces of his comrades, and hacked away like he was playing one of those horrifying games from the Saw movies. New era of Walking Dead — welcome! We've been waiting for you for quite some time. To add to the excitement, the final shot was of a group of confused, totally live prisoners, who were just as surprised to see our Grimes gang as they were to see them. Given Rick's history with newcomers (RIP, Michael Raymond James), next week should be interesting.
For the sake of recap dexterity, I must mention Andrea and Michonne. The two ladies didn't have too much to do tonight, but we were treated to some scenes of Michonne decapitating walkers with her katana, while a sick Andrea coughed away in their latest hiding spot. They had spent a long winter together fighting the walkers, but Andrea wasn't going to be much help anymore with her seriously nasty flu, or whatever it was. Always the self-sacrificing hero, she wanted Michonne to go on without her — but instead, the two ladies walked off into the sunset together, their ultimate location unknown. (Or, known, if you've been reading up on this season. Whatever.)
So, fellow live people — what did you think of tonight's premiere? Do you agree that this is a new, very welcome era for The Walking Dead? Are you happy about the show's rapidly increased pacing, and Rick's new role in the group? How do you feel about a Beth/Carl relationship? Shout it out in the comments!
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: AMC]
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