Scott M. Gimple has taken the reigns, and though it’s too early to tell, 30 Days Without An Accident is certainly a promising start to a new chapter in the Walking Dead saga.

Everything is going pretty well at the prison. The group has been making a life for themselves in relative peace and growing numbers (the most prominent of the new cast members is Larry Gilliard Jr. playing Bob Stookey, a former army medic and recovering alcoholic), all while suffering very few casualties. Rick has stepped down from his role of leadership, with a council consisting of Glenn, Sasha, Daryl, Carol and Hershel stepping up to take his place. Things are the most stable they’ve been since the show began, which would be cause for relief on any other show. But this is The Walking Dead, where things tend to go very, very poorly at the slightest sign of an upward trend. And considering how together things are in this premiere, I can only assume an unparalleled catastrophe is on the verge of being unleashed.

In a lot of ways, 30 Days is a callback to Gimple’s previous work in the season three episode Clear. Many of the same themes involving loss of humanity and moral deterioration make a strong return in this episode. Much like in Clear, Rick comes across a lone traveller struggling to survive out in the wilderness, but unlike in the aforementioned episode, he decides to help this person (a seriously emaciated and filthy Irish woman) instead of abandoning them, with predictably unfortunate results. Rick turned over a new leaf in the months that have passed since the season three finale, and the cold, brutal actions of his son seem to have inspired him to try and embrace the humanity he had lost overtime. But, as always, the struggle to do good and the struggle to survive come into conflict with each other, and this post-apocalyptic world doesn’t deal too kindly to the Good Samaritans. In this place, the selfish survive and the good get punished for their naïveté. Will Rick revert? Will he fall apart? Will his efforts get him or somebody else killed? The possible outcomes of this new arc are numerous, and none of them seem to suggest a particularly bright future. That being said, it’s an interesting but very relevant struggle that the show has had a hard time handling with grace in the past two seasons, but 30 Days sees a welcome return to form in this particular thematic arena.

Though primarily concerned with setting story lines in place for the upcoming season, 30 Days isn’t devoid of action. A particularly clever set piece in a supermarket in the episode’s latter half is easily one of the most impressive sequences The Walking Dead has ever staged. With zombies literally raining from the ceiling, director and make-up effects guru Greg Nicotero is deep in his element during this set piece. It’s delivers on being both wonderfully thrilling and suitably disgusting, particularly when Beth’s new boyfriend, Zach, becomes zombie food. It’s a prime example of The Walking Dead doing precisely what it does best: kill people in surprising, elaborate and gratuitous ways. And though this element can often cut both ways (last season’s criminal misuse of the prison gang is a frustrating example of Walking Dead’s trigger-finger gone wrong), most of the kills in this episode effectively serve a larger purpose. Whether that be a way to strengthen another character (Beth with Supermarket Meat and Rick with Crazy Scary Irishwoman) or as a means to introduce a new storyline (the episode ends with a younger newbie named Patrick dying of some kind of disease in the showers before turning into a Walker), it never felt like the writers just killed somebody because “why not?”. Zach’s demise also serves as another depressing parallel to Rick’s storyline in that Bob’s morally good decision to not feed his alcohol addiction is the inciting incident that leads to death raining down onto the unfortunate kid’s head.
30 Days Without An Accident delivers on much needed growth for the series. Rather than setting up narrow-sighted and restrictive plot lines, it re-opened the world that I’ve been wanting to see more of since the very first season. For the first time in quite a while, it felt like things were actually going on in the world around the core group of survivors, instead of just focusing on the drama occurring in their own little bubble. Eliminating that unfortunate tunnel-vision habit is an encouraging first step into this new season, and the writers have given themselves a very wide array of tools, in terms of characters and stories, to work with for the upcoming sixteen episodes. 30 Days has just the right amount of plot and just the right amount of torque to be both engaging and entertaining. The trick going into this season will be maintaining that balance on a seasonal scale as well as an episodic one. If this premiere is any indication, we’re gonna be in for a long, grim ride. And more grimness might just be what this show about an Apocalypse of flesh-eating corpses needs a little more of.
Grade: B+
Other thoughts:

Four black leads all at the same time? Am I dreaming? Way to go, AMC. I’m proud of you (although I doubt all of them will last very long).
Fun Fact: The actor who played Patrick is the voice of Phineas in Phineas and Ferb
I found new, depressing Beth to be quite refreshing. Somehow her embrace of the horrors has made her more…. likable? Interesting? Both? Probably both.
Andrew Allen is a television (and occasionally film) writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.