Our favorite band of apocalypse refugees hit the road, only to run afoul of a herd of undead. Bloodshed ensues.

By Darren Franich
Updated February 27, 2015 at 08:06 PM EST
Credit: AMC

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.Rick whisper-screamed at all the survivors to get under the cars. What followed was a fantastic exercise in slow-building, cross-cutting excitement. (It’s interesting to consider that — between Walking Dead and the thrillingly tense fourth season of Breaking Bad — AMC’s TV shows have been responsible for some of 2011’s coolest action-movie scenes.) We saw Frank, Lori, and the kids crawl underneath some cars. We saw T-Dog slice his arm wide open on an errant car door, leaving yummy blood trailing in his wake. We saw Andrea taking her gun apart inside the RV, suddenly noticing the horde of undead outside her window.

Everyone knows that the best action scenes are all about slow-building tension that suddenly explodes into cathartic violence. (Everyone, that is, except Michael Bay, who begins an action scene at the “nuclear” setting and then tries to make it bigger.) And I don’t know about you, but I was a fingernail-biting, foot-stomping mess while I watched Andrea hiding in the RV’s bathroom, struggling to put her gun back together while a ghoul lurked outside. Dale was up on the rooftop, and he dropped his screwdriver down to Andrea at just the right moment.

Andrea jammed the screwdriver right into the Walker’s left eye, at precisely the same moment that Daryl suddenly appeared out of the Realm of Awesomeness to rescue T-Dog by stabbing an arrow through an attacking Walker’s brain. (For some reason, whenever Daryl appears onscreen, I always hear the Rohan theme from Lord of the Rings in my head. Oh wait, I know, it’s because Daryl’s awesome.) Thinking quickly, Daryl threw the dead Walker on top of T-Dog, then grabbed a corpse out of a nearby car and covered himself.

The rest of the Walkers passed by slowly. After almost a decade of 28 Days Later-style fast zombies, it’s interesting to see how The Walking Dead uses the old-school staggering undead. Because they don’t strike quickly, the Walkers almost seem more like a natural catastrophe, a bad bit of weather that you occasionally have to deal with. Which makes it all the more terrifying when they suddenly zero in on a specific target: In this case, adorable last-girl-on-earth-as-far-as-we-know Sophia. Two Walkers chased her off the road and into the forest; Rick went running right after her.

Rick caught up with Sophia long enough to tuck her in safely in a hiding place, telling her to go back to the highway: “Keep the sun on your left shoulder!” Then he lured the Walkers further into the woods for an old-fashioned head-smash. (It’s interesting to see the show move into a wilderness environment, since most of the great iconic Zombie tales are set in cities or suburbs. Definitely a strange juxtaposition to see the lovely, lush green woods of Georgia suddenly invaded by stumbling Deadites.)

Unfortunately, Sophia apparently couldn’t follow Rick’s admittedly-unhelpful directions: She left her hiding place, but didn’t come back to the highway. Rick theorized that she might have gone “right up the creek.” Daryl: “Without a paddle. Which is where we landed.” In the ensuing five minutes of screentime, Daryl tracked a little girl’s footsteps through the wilderness, shot his crossbow through a Walker’s head, pulled said arrow out of said Walker’s head — since, as Perfect Dark fans know, crossbow arrows are totes reusable — and then did a quick intestinal autopsy on the doubly-dead dude. “He had a woodchuck for lunch!” he concluded. (If AMC is looking for another potential Walking Dead spin-off talk show, how about a History Channel-style nature series called Killin’ Zombies and Breakin’ Hearts With Daryl Dixon?)

NEXT: Into the WoodsWe’re still only seven episodes into the run of The Walking Dead. (By comparison, at this point in Lost, we had just witnessed the rise and fall of Driveshaft.) Still, I think we’re starting to get a sense of the basic structure of the series: Horrible Undead Violence, followed immediately by the post-traumatic squabbling of whichever characters managed to survive the Horrible Undead Violence. Sure enough, a frank debate about gun control was breaking out back at the RV. Dale insisted on holding onto Andrea’s gun, which Shane backed up with what sounded like a reasonable explanation: “The less guns we have floating around camp, the better.”

Andrea knew the real reason Dale wanted to get her daddy’s seven-shooter away from her, though: He was worried she might blow her own brains out, after her brief flirtation with explosive suicide in the season finale. Andrea mockingly asked Dale if he really imagined that she’d changed her mind about the existential misery of their situation. “What did you expect? An epiphany? Some life-affirming catharsis. I wanted to die my way. Not torn apart by drooling freaks.”

Interpersonal relations were generally in decline. Dale was excited to show Shane the awesome collection of sharp objects he found — a hatchet, wow! — but Shane cut him off. Lori asked Shane why he was acting like such an emotionally abusive father figure, and Shane told her about his new five-day plan: Fix up his own car and drive off into the distance. “Gonna quietly slip away first chance I get,” he said. Lori didn’t entirely know how to react. On one hand, the group will suffer if it loses a good fighter like Shane. On the other hand, there’s the slight matter of the accidental best-friend adultery. (As a fan of the comic book series, I’m especially intrigued to see how Shane’s plotline plays out this season since…well, not to get all spoiler-y, but TV-Shane’s sticking around a little longer than Comic-Shane.)

The gang left Dale and the still-bleeding T-Dog behind at the RV, and went into the woods in search of Sophia. They found a tent, and if the sight of Daryl crouched outside the tent’s entrance holding his autopsy-knife ready to strike didn’t get your pulse racing, then you may be dead, in which case Daryl will gladly stab a reusable arrow through your zombie brain. Inside, they found a lonely traveler who decided to “opt out,” leaving a corpse that resembled a slightly handsomer version of Arseface. (Brief aside for the graphic novel fans: In comics version of Dead, it becomes established pretty early on that anyone who dies will rise again, even if they aren’t bitten. Looks like that’s not true in the TV universe…or at least, not yet.)

Suddenly, church bells started ringing. The searchers followed the sound to a church surrounded by a graveyard. Shane insisted that there was no way the church was the source of the sound: “There’s no steeple!” This was a ridiculous argument, so the gang invaded the church…and found three zombies inside, sitting quietly in the pews and paying homage to Jesus Christ, who if you think about it is probably the famous undead dude in history. (Well, next to Zombie Shakespeare.)

NEXT: Rick receives a sign, but probably not the one he wanted.They made short work of the churchgoing undead. (I laughed out loud when I saw the zombies slowly side-shuffle their way out of the pews. It’s really, really hard to exit church pews.) “Yo, JC, you taking requests?” muttered Daryl awesomely. Turns out that Shane’s silly “No Steeple” theory was, in fact, a silly theory: The “church bell” was actually fake, and was set on an automatic timer.

Still, the survivors were sufficiently moved to direct some tough questions at their Creator. Carol apologized to the statue of Jesus for asking him to kill her husband — although, hey, if you’re gonna kill anybody, there weren’t too many worse options — and begged for help in the Search for Sophia. Rick semi-apologized for not having much faith pre-apocalypse, and asked the Lord for some kind of sign. Then he walked out of the church. In a nice visual grace note, the camera dollied behind him as he walked out into the sunlight. (It looked a little bit like the last shot of The Searchers, which I have to believe was intentional.)

The group split up. Rick wanted to keep searching a little bit further, and Shane said that he’d stick with him. (This, despite the fact that he’d just had a long talk with Andrea about jetting off into the distance, an idea which she seems extremely interested in.) Carl asked to stay with them, and Lori didn’t put up an argument. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? Zombie-killing certainly isn’t too difficult, and Shane and Rick are a couple of bad dudes with big guns.

The B Team made their way back along the creek, and there was a general air of grousing. Carol blamed Rick for losing her girl; everyone else was starting to sense that their Fearless Leader was not the cowboy-perfect superman they thought he was. Lori gave them all a stern talking to: “You all look to him, and then you blame him when he’s not perfect!” It’ll be interesting to see if this season develops along these lines, with people questioning just who, exactly, should be in charge of their merry band of refugees.

Elsewhere in the woods, Rick, Shane, and Carl heard some footsteps through the trees. They investigated…and found a single wandering deer, apparently unharmed by the global catastrophe that engulfed the World of Men. The sun was shining down on the beautiful animal threw the trees, bathing the whole scene in a glow that was simultaneously reminiscent of the Hudson River School and a Terrence Malick movie. Young Carl stepped forward with his hand outstretched, and the whole tableau — young smiling human boy, noble beast of the forest — seemed to suggest a profoundly existential optimism, an indication that things could actually get better.

And then a bullet tore through the deer and went right into Carl’s stomach. Twist! Shyamalan! Optimism stomped! It was certainly a daring way to end a season premiere — you could practically hear the show’s creators proudly yelling, “This ain’t broadcast TV!” Fellow viewers, did that ending leave you breathless? How did you feel overall about Dead‘s return? What’s the over-under on Zombie Sophia appearing in next week’s episode? Would you want to see Shane and Andrea go on the run together?

Zombie Kill of the Week: Lots of great options, most of them related to Daryl Dixon, but I have to go with Andrea’s creative application of the screwdriver to the RV Walker’s inner retina.

By the way, if you just can’t get enough Dead-related content, be sure to check back here tomorrow morning for a Q&A between EW’s resident gore-meister Clark Collis and Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman about the season premiere. To bide your time, check out the video interview we shot with sundry Dead cast members at this weekend’s New York Comic-Con. Thrill to how my horrifically long arms regularly obscure young Chandler Riggs’ face!


Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Episode Recaps

The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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