This show really had me worried for awhile. And then it went ahead and delivered two of its best episodes yet.
While AMC's "The Walking Dead" has been one of the most addictive new dramas in recent years, it hasn't been without its problems, especially in season 2, when the writers struggled throughout to balance the sporadic zombie violence with copious amounts of brooding and ponderous reflection on the end of the world. And that doesn’t even get into the main characters acting like idiots a few too many times while seemingly important supporting players wallowed in the background with nothing to do.
But it didn't take two whole episodes of the new season to change my mind, just five little minutes. With the tranquility of Hershel’s farm long behind them, this show can get back to doing what it does best. The premiere's beautiful pre-credits sequence catches us up with the main cast without a single word spoken. Lori's baby bump is the only indication that several months have passed, especially since the group hasn't lost or gained any new members. But as they make their way through another abandoned house searching for supplies, we see how much of a well-oiled zombie-killing machine they've become as they efficiently dispatch a manageable horde that might’ve given them trouble this time last season. Even young Carl doesn't hesitate to shoot anymore.
It becomes clear that winter has passed and the end of the world is still in full swing. The cold weather has done little to curb the undead populace, although I imagine winters in Georgia are less snowy than the ones I grew up with. The gang eventually makes their way to a prison overrun with walkers, where the show delivers an extended series of strategically brilliant throwdowns containing some of the most exhilarating action we’ve seen since the show first premiered. During the Walking Dead panel at NYCC, Andrew Lincoln (who plays Rick) posited that this episode contains more zombie kills than the whole of season 1. He may have been right. Although Maggie gets the prize for most ferocious combatant, Rick wins best kill when he takes out a zombie wearing riot gear, angrily ripping the walker's helmet off and taking its face off with it.
The survivors have had plenty of time to absorb the knowledge that everyone is infected
as if the prospect of raising a baby in the midst of lumbering corpses wasn't harrowing enough, Lori now shares her growing concerns with Hershel that she might die in childbirth and eat the baby, or even worse that the baby will be stillborn and eat her from the inside. Steering clear of walkers isn't enough, because no one can escape death. Certainly not Hershel, who gets a chunk of ankle bitten off in the final minutes, leading to Rick serving up a messy amputation just as the group is discovered by a new group of incarcerated survivors.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Andrea and Michonne have gotten to know each other in the interim. Michonne is still carrying around that samurai sword (and she knows how to use it), along with her two neutered pet zombies (I still haven't figured out how they help). Andrea doesn't do much, on account of being sick, but it’s clear that she and Michonne have bonded and Andrea no longer weirded out by the pet zombie thing.
Andrea and Michonne are absent from the season's second episode (we'll catch up with them much more next week) as all the action is focused on the prison. The introductions with the five new prison inmates is put on hold as the group hastily drags the unconscious Hershel back to get some battlefield medical attention with their already limited supplies. They’re left to wonder all episode if their only qualified physician is doomed to join the ranks of the undead. Again there are plenty of quiet moments to punctuate the action, including a great scene with Maggie opens up to her unconscious father. In fact, when the episode was over, I was convinced it had unfolded in real time.
On the subject of the inmates, I was initially skeptical about how little they knew about what was going on, including how to properly kill the walkers, but I became more interested at the idea of a group that was already cut off from society before everything went to hell, like marooned Japanese soldiers left out in the cold after WWII. It generates some tension while giving the show a chance to re-iterate the rules of zombie killing to the new guys. The inmates is ostensibly led by the surprisingly well-groomed Tomas, carrying all the swagger, presence and chiseled features you would expect from a new semi-regular. So imagine my surprise when Rick took a machete to the guy's head the moment he stepped out of line. It really makes me wonder how Rick of season 3 would've dealt with an uncooperative bruiser like Merle back in the old days. We may find out, as previews reveal the one-handed skinhead will be returning very soon. By the end of the hour, what was five new castmates ends with two remaining, as Rick, Daryl and T-Dog drop them off at their new corpse-filled cellblock with the promise to stay on their side of the lawn if they know what’s good for them.
The hour closes out with one of my favorite Lori scenes yet, as she muses to Rick that they can't exactly hire a lawyer and split their assets. No matter how dysfunctional they get, Rick and Lori are stuck with each other for the long haul.
But it’s not all bad news. After a few close calls (including an unbearably tense session of CPR by Lori), Hershel wakes up! They can worry about making a pair of crutches out of rusty cans and duct tape later, as the prospect of having to put a bullet through another compatriot’s skull is off the table for now.
I’ll be back with new episode reviews every week. Until then, remember to go for the brain.
Grade: A (both episodes)