There are two notable moments that feature singing in “Infected,” the second episode of the fourth season of The Walking Dead. The first occurs in the opening sequence, in which Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) serenades his new lover with Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a sweet moment that doubles as a macabre bit of foreshadowing. As the title of the episode implies, the fact that the disease that spurred the zombie outbreak lies dormant in the living is where the fourth season finds its initial narrative itch.
Tyreese’s intimate moment is also indicative of the fleeting utopia our hero, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), has realized at an abandoned prison that serves as sanctuary for a large group of survivors, now governed by a counsel led by Rick in the wake of his defeat over David Morrissey’s Governor. As the season opens, Rick seems just as taken with his gardening and farmhand skills as he is with the cluster of the undead pressing against the outer gate. Daryl (Norman Reedus), Rick’s right-hand man, still leads dangerous trips to the outside world for supplies, but these excursions are now carried out with disciplined precision; inside the prison, Carol (Melissa McBride), Daryl’s partner and another member of the counsel, reads stories and teaches survival tactics to the children. What we see in the season premiere, tellingly titled “30 Days Without an Accident,” is not just civilization being rebuilt, but a simplified society.
It’s not entirely surprising, then, that by the end of the first episode, The Walking Dead feels as if it’s given over fully to its western-genre roots. The drama now comes primarily from the quotidian functions of a barebones community, one that just happens to be plagued by the hungers of the undead. When an unexpected zombie attack in the prison leaves a father bitten twice and on the verge of changing, the focus of the scene is on the process of moving from learning societal rules that are barely formed to having those rules become purely instinctual.
Most of the survivors have already reformed and solidified their post-apocalypse behavior, but the series remains attentive to the calcified emotional outlook that these instincts foster. Beth (Emily Kinney), the youngest daughter of Rick’s most trusted aide, Hershel (Scott Wilson), has acclimated so well to this new way of being that she hardly reacts when a romantic interest becomes an afternoon snack for a horde of walkers. More than ever in the show’s history, emotional connections are viewed as an often deadly hindrance, but it’s also an increasing necessity to breed a sense of humanism in a time of overwhelming panic and paranoia. The series explores the outcomes of both recognizing this peril and not allowing the fear of loss to dominate the existence of these characters, all of which will inevitably become the basis of legend, assuming the human race endures.
In essence, The Walking Dead looks toward John Ford’s famous “print the legend” quote, as the series is consistently less interested in how the apocalypse happened than what happens next: the seemingly unthinkable or impossible feats needed to create a new society from the bottom up. In season four, the question of how we describe survival and how we carry it through becomes more and more important, even as the series creators turn the screw yet again. The survivors have become expert problem solvers, but The Walking Dead never feels as if it’s just creating new obstacles to make these characters squirm. Indeed, what makes the series so consistently fascinating beyond its horrific thrills is a sense of rebuilding life down to the little details, which brings us to the latter song in “Infected.”
While trying to comfort Rick’s daughter, a living, breathing emblem of the next generation, Beth sings a few bars of Tom Waits’s indelible “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” a song that ruefully mocks the idea of maturing and turning out the same as the last generation. As she sings, Carol questions if the song is appropriate, and Beth responds that it’s what she knows, and that she prefers it to the more morbid imagery in classic lullabies and nursery rhymes. It’s a quiet, endearing moment that reinforces the show’s belief in mythology being elementally personal and subjective in origin, and the true exhilaration of The Walking Dead remains watching a new, fantastical history rise from the grave of the America we know.