SPOILER ALERT: This review is for those watching the fourth series of The Walking Dead in the UK. Do not read if you haven’t seen the previous three seasons of the show.
So very sadly, Breaking Bad is over. Over for good. Sigh. Fortunately for AMC, the US cable network that commissioned Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece, it has a ready-made replacement with an even bigger following in the fourth season of The Walking Dead. But despite having over double the number of viewers, the previous season of the zombie-filled drama had begun to show worrying signs of rigor mortis.
Sure, it had the marvelous David Morrissey’s wicked Governor providing the perfect foil to Andrew Lincoln’s virtuous Rick Grimes. But the warring between two human factions became too conventionally melodramatic and protracted, distracting from the show’s main focus – the struggle for survival against its undead hordes. So it comes as a great pleasure to declare that season four’s opener gets everything back on course and can be ranked up there as one The Walking Dead’s very best.
Having survived the Governor’s assault, Lori and T-Dog’s deaths and Rick going a bit bonkers, the prison is now almost a family idyll, with vegetable patches, pig sties and a patio terrace for enjoying a light lunch in the sun. Of course, it is still just a small oasis in world of menace, a fact reinforced in a great opening scene where Rick enjoys a spot of tilling whilst listening to country music on his iPod, only to remove one earbud and have it drowned out by the snarling zombie masses grabbing at the prison’s fence.
We also get a quick introduction to some of the new characters. The number of alumni from The Wire have doubled with Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (D’Angelo Barksdale) joining Chad L. Coleman (Cutty) amongst the survivors, while Beth has got herself a boyfriend and Karl has a new buddy that looks uncannily like a young Woody Allen. However, this is a show notorious for having a democratic approach to killing even its main characters off, so best not get attached. Knowingly, the show’s writers make this sentiment explicit, first when Rick warns Carl not to get attached to the pigs kept as livestock, and then when Carl (becoming ever more his father’s son) repeats this advice to children who have started naming the zombies at the prison gates.
There is an inventive set piece to keep action lovers enthused, as a food run goes spectacularly wrong when zombies start dropping through the ceiling, making for the deadliest game of Supermarket Sweep conceivable. Even better is the return of a more subtle approach in the script. In past seasons Gillard Jr.’s character would have delivered a lengthy anecdote to make it clear he has had past issues with alcohol. Here, though, his simple pause to look longingly at shelves of wine tells us everything we need to know, without the need for any annoyingly dramatic dialogue.
The defining segment of the episode comes when Rick stumbles across a previously unseen survivor out in the woods, played superbly by Irish actress Kerry Condon. From afar she appears like a zombie, an impression that a close-up of her bone-white features, shadowed by unkempt black hair cascading down either side of her face, does little to dispel. She is the ghost of what Rick could have become if he hadn’t emerged from his madness in season three, and the climax of their meeting turns out to be one of the most moving moments in the show’s history.
If that wasn’t enough to pack into one episode, its cliffhanger, involving the young Woody Allen looking more than a little peaky, signals nothing but further impending doom for Rick’s group. Those memories of Breaking Bad may never leave us, but on this evidence The Walking Dead will be more than enough to help those in mourning for it.
The Walking Dead Season Four begins in the UK on October 18 at 10pm on Fox