About six or seven months have passed when the season four premiere reintroduces us to Rick and the denizens of the prison. In that time, the original tiny group has integrated the survivors from Woodbury and formed a quaint little farming town with a ruling council, organized work forces, lots of plants in buckets — and an army of the undead itching to get inside and eat everyone.
A lot of this introductory episode is devoted to establishing the new status quo and updating viewers on where all the regulars stand. Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are still a couple — and no, she’s not pregnant — while Daryl (Norman Reedus) has become a celebrity around camp and possibly Carol’s (Melissa McBride) official boyfriend. Beth (Emily Kinney) does have a boyfriend — a new guy named Zack (Kyle Gallner). Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin) have settled in as important members of the team.
Michonne (Danai Gurira) spends a lot of time on horseback, searching the countryside for the Governor, who escaped at the end of last season. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has renounced any semblance of leadership, preferring to stick close to home and concentrate on raising Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Judith. He also doesn’t like guns anymore, as Herschel (Scott Wilson) has to beg him to take his pistol when he goes out to check the animal snares. About the only thing that’s wrong in this bustling little community is that Violet the pig is sick.
The regular supply runs are apparently getting more dangerous, and Rick declines to join Daryl on once such run, preferring to check the animal traps. But new guy Bob (Larry Gilliard Jr.) is more than happy to join the trip to the supermarket, along with Glenn, Sasha, Tyreese and Michonne. Unknown to the team, the roof of the market is swarming with walkers and a crashed helicopter. Inside, the group hits the jackpot of supplies — until Bob spots the liquor. He almost steals a bottle but puts it back — making the shelf collapse. The zombies on the roof hear it and start moving in that direction. Suddenly, the roof — weakened by the chopper crash and water damage — starts collapsing under the walkers, causing the undead to drop into the market. It is literally raining walkers on our heroes as the undead are falling everywhere. The team manages to escape with only one casualty — Zack, who had his throat ripped out. But they had to abandon their supplies as the entire roof collapsed under the weight of the helicopter.
In the woods, Rick encounters Clara (Kerry Condon), a woman with strangely greenish, diseased-looking skin who begs him to take in her and her husband. Rick insists on meeting the husband first, and asking him three questions. When they get to her camp, the woman tries to kill Rick, who easily defends himself. Her husband is just an undead head in a burlap sack (though we never see it). She stabs herself so she can “join” him in undeath, and Rick walks away.
Meanwhile, back at the prison, new teen Patrick (Vincent Martella) is feeling ill and is excused from “Story Time” — just before Carol puts the books aside and begins to teach the children how to use knives. She begs Carl not to tell his father about her secret lessons. That night, Patrick wakes up sick and takes a shower, but collapses dead in the stall. Then his eyes snap open, undead.
Rick’s three questions — How many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why” — were well-chosen, as they speak to how useful someone can be to the group as well as testing their morality. If you’ve destroyed a lot of walkers, your help is welcome. If you’ve killed a lot of people without a better explanation than “It’s a new world, with new rules,” then you’re a danger to the group. You need good reasons to kill people — Rick has done it, but he’s had no choice each time.
While the rain of walkers made for a terrific action set piece, the heart of this episode was Rick’s encounter with crazy Clara and an even more important question than his three: Can you come back from the things you’ve done? In other words, can you redeem yourself in this dystopian world? Rick used to be convinced that he couldn’t, but has changed his mind after the events of last season. He didn’t just learn how to play nice with others when he accepted help from the rest of the group, he learned how to forgive himself for all his sins, both before (being an absent husband) and after the zombie apocalypse (uh… name anything, from killing living people to the Ricktatorship to casting out Tyreese and Sasha when they sought sanctuary).
Clara couldn’t bear to live without her husband, and kept giving him credit for teaching her how to survive by doing things she never would have before (eating animal carcasses and rotten fruit) — but was it really credit or blame? She was really justifying what she was doing (leading Rick to his planned doom) by blaming her (late) husband Eddie. And, deep down inside, she hated herself for it, and decided that she couldn’t live with the guilt any longer. She stabbed herself and begged Rick not to destroy her after she changed. As she lay bleeding out, she whispered to Rick, “You don’t get to come back from things…”
Clara had lost hope. She was in the same position Rick was in for much of last season. He had given up hope of ever finding someplace “safe,” which had been his goal since the first season. He stopped caring about his own life. But eventually he realized that his group needed him and, more importantly, his family needed him. He had to be there for Carl and Judith. And he knew that he could no longer turn his back on others, so he brought the Woodbury survivors to the prison.
And that’s what makes the beginning of this premiere episode so important: the newly domesticated Rick seen here proved that he really did change. Not only had he renounced leadership, he had pretty much given up on violence, symbolically hanging up his guns. But don’t forget that potent bit of foreshadowing in the opening sequence: While tending to his crop, Rick uncovered a buried pistol. Is that telling us that the old, violent Rick is still there, buried just below the agrarian surface? Will Farmer Rick uncover his old self as the season progresses?
We don’t know if Rick destroyed Clara, but he did leave Eddie’s head squirming in the bag. If he let Clara be, he was honoring her last wish — but also creating a new potential headache in a new zombie.
But something tells me that Rick will soon have more and bigger problems than one more female walker.