There are few story structures that are as fundamentally American as the Road Trip. Maybe it’s because most of these United States only came into being after a few brave souls packed their lives into covered wagons and set off west. Maybe it’s because Americans just love driving. Some of the most iconic works in every narrative medium are variations on the Road Trip theme — Easy Rider, Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, the book and film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Y: The Last Man.
And last night, after a six-episode first season that mostly stuck to the greater Atlanta area, the season premiere of The Walking Dead sent our ragtag band of still-breathing survivors on their own personal road trip from/to hell, careening down the lonesome highways of the post-apocalypse in a caravan that includes Dale’s RV and Daryl Dixon’s motorcycle. (If you were wondering how long it would take for the season premiere to make Norman Reedus look awesome, the answer is “about thirty seconds.)
The episode kicked off with Rick at his daily vigil, trying to reach Morgan on his walkie-talkie. “Atlanta’s done,” he explained. “We’re going to Fort Benning. Can’t be harder than our journey’s been so far, can it? 125 miles, that’s what lies ahead.” (Well, technically about 118 miles. Too bad the survivors don’t have Google Maps.) Everything started so well. In the Grimes family motor vehicle, Rick and Lori recalled a long-ago trip to the Grand Canyon, which was scotched at the halfway point when a very young Carl got sick: “I never knew a baby could throw up so much!” Meanwhile, in Dale’s RV, Shane tried to show Andrea the basics of gun maintenance. He complimented her gun. She said the gun was a gift from her father. There seemed to be a vaguely implied attraction between the two characters, but that could just be because it’s fun to talk about guns.
At this point, the caravan of courage ran afoul of a massive billion-car pile-up on the highway. It looked like a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, except less French. Daryl tried to lead the cars through the wrecks, but the RV’s engine blew halfway through the devastation. Dale was pessimistic: “We’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no hope of…” Then he looked around and realized he was literally surrounded by spare car parts. “Okay, that was dumb,” he admitted.
I loved the casual air of the scene that followed, with the refugees fanning out around the cars to get supplies. Some of them found things that were useful: Shane found a massive collection of bottled water and instantly took a fully-clothed shower. “It’s like being baptized!” said Shane. Some were just nice reminders that our characters were normal people pre-zombacalypse: Carol grabbed a red dress out of the trunk of a car, noting that her dead husband Ben “never let me wear nice things like this.” Meanwhile, Dale scanned down the highway with his binoculars, and Rick kept watch with his sniper rifle. He saw one Walker and prepared to fire. Then he saw another one. Then — oh, hello! He noticed an entire stumbling herd of undead bearing down on them. “Oh, Christ,” he muttered. (For those keeping track for drinking-game purposes, that’s two Jesus references in two minutes. They wouldn’t stop there.)
NEXT: If you take a gun apart, you should really know how to put it back together again.