After a seven-month wait, The Walking Dead returned last night with a season premiere that found the perfect balance between horror and character building that is reminiscent of the series’ better moments. The show has taken its fair share of slings and arrows over the past few years, but this premiere, titled “30 Days Without an Accident,” is a reminder of how engrossing the series can be when it stays true to its vision.

One of the trendy fan complaints for the show is that there is never enough zombie action. Well this episode added plenty of fuel to that argument by kicking things off with a peaceful look at community life in the prison. It’s unsettling to see so many smiles in the land of the undead, especially from Michonne, but writer Scott M. Gimple brings a surreal balance to the harmony within Rick’s community and the living death waiting outside the fence. The characters are adjusting to life, forming a government, and generally trying to move on from the walker plague. It's interesting to watch, but we know it won't last. 

The character who seems to be having the hardest time adjusting to this new existence is Rick, who carries his baggage around like an open wound for all to see. He continues to spiral into his own despair, and this is only amplified when he runs across a feral woman looking for help in the forest. She acts like a twisted version of what he could be without the community support he seems to be distancing himself from. As usual, Andrew Lincoln turns in the type of performance that makes you just want to reach into the television and give him a hug. His eyes, his voice, his scraggly beard—everything just screams of a man near the end of his rope. His performance here makes us want the writers to continue digging into his tortured soul.

While most of the episode revolves around setting up the characters' new world, there is one gory set piece in an abandoned department store that should leave horror fans satisfied. With zombies literally falling from the ceiling, Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Tyreese, (Chad L. ColemanSasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Bob Stookey (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), a new addition to the crew, have to battle it out with walkers in one of the best straight-up actions scenes we’ve seen yet from the series. It may be more eye candy than substance, but it works to break up the heavy drama surrounding it.

In general, the episode is filled with great little character bits, especially from Carl (Chandler Riggs), who is becoming a more mature, complex character, instead of a petulant child. We'll see if he actually becomes a character to root for as the season progresses.

One of the biggest surprises of the show comes when Beth (Emily Kinney) has a tender moment with Daryl following the death of her boyfriend, Zach. Their casual attitude toward death really hits home here. They are surrounded by tragedy every day, so to see them deal with the loss of an acquaintance the same way we would deal with the loss of a pair of socks is startling.

No supporting character stands out more than Carol (Melissa McBride), though. We find out that she has not only been teaching the children of the prison how to read, she’s also been teaching them how to eviscerate zombies with a collection of knives. If Carol is going to turn into a homicidal home school teacher with an army of eight year olds, we might have to rethink our desire to see her get T-Dogged.

What makes this premiere work is that it never tries to cram too much in. It’s very much a reintroduction to the characters to see where they are after the events of Season 3. It hints at the struggles we'll see throughout the season and ends on an intriguing cliffhanger involving  a possible airborne virus, but other than that, “30 Days without an Accident” gives us a mere taste of what to expect without bludgeoning us with too many new characters or plot points.

Watching the slow deterioration of the idyllic prison community has the potential to be much more gripping and satisfying than the series’ previous efforts. Plus, with the Governor still out there, there are plenty of threats both inside and outside the community that can tear it apart.

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