How did this happen? Against all odds, life has somehow become normal for the ragtag group of survivors on The Walking Dead. But normal never lasts for long on this show.
Following no small measure of fandom anticipation and advance hype, The Walking Dead returned for its fourth season last night with an outing best described as contemplative. If TV's pre-eminent zombie soap opera plans on ratcheting up the show's horror quotient this season, they're certainly easing viewers into it.
It began with the central character of sheriff Rick (Andrew Lincoln) peacefully tending garden at the prison sanctuary. He looked calmer and seemingly recovered from the events of last season, which included the death of his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) after childbirth and his mano-a-mano clash with the nasty one-eyed despot known as The Governor (David Morrissey). The prison even looks nicer now.
And there are many more people at the prison now, since the Governor's former followers from the town of Woodbury have now joined the good-people ranks. It was made clear in the opening scenes Rick has officially recused himself from the responsibility of being group leader. His new role is to raise newborn daughter Judith and teen son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and to provide food for the camp.
Which takes Rick into the woods outside the prison to check the snares he's set for rabbits. By happenstance Rick runs into a ragged woman who says she hasn't eaten in days and is clearly unstable. One moment she's telling Rick that she wants to join his group; the next moment she's attacking him with a knife. Rick fends her off but the woman stabs herself to death.
Cut back to the prison, where even the lone wolf Daryl (Norman Reedus) looks happier and healthier, and seemingly now open about his relationship with the widow Carol (Melissa McBride). New to the camp is a teenager named Patrick, who is creepily polite toward all the grownups.
Viewers were made to wait for zombie activity in the opener, but when it came, it was delightfully chaotic. He strapped on the crossbow to lead a supply-raid mission to a nearby abandoned department store called Big Spot with several other survivors as backup. The store looked to be empty, but why would it be empty? This is The Walking Dead, people.
Naturally, the walkers were looming. A helicopter that crashed on the store's roof long ago had seriously weakened the structure. And of course the roof was crawling with walkers. The scenario was rife for catastrophe.
As it happened, the survivors sustained a few casualties (no main characters, thankfully) and managed to fend off the undead once the store's weakened ceiling crashed to the ground, raining down zombies. The image of a walker dangling from the ceiling by his own entrails was a fleeting throwback to the nightmarish gore of seasons past.
In between the major plotlines, there were nicely-written scenes updating viewers on the lives of the other focal group of survivors.
We learned that Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are still a couple. A pregnancy scare makes both realize this isn't exactly the best time to start a family.
In other news, Michonne (Dania Gurira) announced that she's not with the prison group for the long haul; she seemed more eager to set off on a tracking mission to find the Governor. Relative newcomer Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) has fallen for a lady from the Woodbury group. Maggie's step-sister Beth (Emily Kinney) seemed to be slowly unraveling.
And what of Herschel? The gentleman farmer is still spouting wisdom to anyone smart enough to seek his counsel, and now appears to have a functioning artificial leg.
On Twitter, fan reaction to the season opener was positive, except of course with those nitpickers asking the big question: How can a store roof support the weight of a military helicopter, but not some scrawny walkers?
Twitter user Seth Baer (@sethbaer) asked: "How does a helicopter wreck like that and not go through the roof?" Elizabeth Mosley (@tebanks13) tweeted: "A helicopter doesn't make the roof cave in, but 120 added pounds of walker does. Seriously. You're killing me."
From Amanda Barger (@amandabarger022): "I have to admit I started laughing so hard when they just fell through the roof."
More than a few Twitter users likened the imagery of dead-eyed walkers falling through the store roof to the 1982 disco hit It's Raining Men.
Tweeted Savannah Harmon: "All I could think of in The Walking Dead when all the zombies fell through the roof was 'it's raining men!'"
From Alejandra Hernandez (@AlejandraRants): "Patiently waiting for a mashup of 'It's Raining Men' and The Walking Dead on YouTube."
By this time next week, fans will have their choice of blood-drenched mashups. The Walking Dead has returned.