“Weapons, food, medicine – this place could be a goldmine.”
Warning – contains spoilers!
After a rather windy, badly paced second season, AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead was finally back on our screens last night. The often dull second season, aptly summed up on Facebook as “people argue… and sometimes zombies show up”, was a frustrating mixture of the brilliant and the utterly mundane, with, generally speaking, comparatively few sightings of the zombies that are the show’s raison d’etre.
It also settled into a tedious routine, with all the characters stuck on Hershel Greene’s implausibly utopian farm and settling into tropes of established behaviour. As sure is eggs is eggs, Rick and Shane would argue about the interminable search for little Sophia, T-Dog would struggle to get even one line, Lori would moan about stupidly trivial issues and Carl would wander off unsupervised into mortal danger.
Still, amid the soap opera, there were some good emotional beats and musings on the post-apocalypse scenario the gang found themselves in. And there were some good zombie set pieces; the freeway attack in episode 1, the barn full of walkers at the mid-season break, and finally, a memorably apocalyptic finale which saw a herd of them finally overrun and destroy (thank goodness) the farm that we’d got sick of the sight of by then.
Season 3 gives the show something of a fresh start in all sorts of ways. The alpha male territorial pissing between Rick and Shane is finally resolved what with Shane being dead and all, they’re off the farm at last, Rick has firmly taken charge to stave off the ceaseless arguing, and, refreshingly, the gang has split up into two parties, giving the possibility of separate narratives and settings that was absent last season.
As if to reflect the fresh start, the opening titles have been given a revamp for the first time since the start. They’re still in much the same style, but the sepia-toned rotting buildings are new ones, and obviously, the cast credits have changed to reflect the fact that we’re now free of Shane’s belligerent head-butting and Dale’s endless moralising. And the final building we see is plainly going to be the setting for this season. More downbeat and grim than Hershel’s farm, it’s the prison that’s so well-remembered from a fair chunk of the comic.
I’d have preferred it if they’d got there sooner, by dealing with the farm plotline halfway through last season then moving on. But the last season had budgetary problems, among others; a requirement to make more than twice the episodes of the first season with about half the money. Hopefully, given that it was still a success, AMC has thrown a bit more money at this even longer, 16 episode season.
It certainly seemed like it from this well-paced season opener, which certainly didn’t stint on the zombies but also left room for us to catch up on what the characters have been up to. Clearly, some time has passed; in the wordless precredit sequence as the gang raided a walker-infested house for supplies, it was noticeable that Carl’s hair is now longer and straggly, while Hershel has grown a beard. Everyone else’s hair looked the same as ever, though, making me wonder when on their lengthy flight from the walkers the guys found time to stop and have a shave and a haircut.
Turned out they’d been running all winter from the herd that engulfed the farm, with other herds closing in from all sides. Fortunately for Rick and the gang, a quick scout down the road revealed what was presumably the prison we’d seen in the distance at the end of the season finale. Given that they’d had all winter, you’d think they might have stumbled on it before, but I’ll let that pass.
The prison was heavily stocked with zombies, but had the advantage of several layers of boundary fences, enabling our gang to get in and clear the place out in the manner that was cursorily swept over in the original Dawn of the Dead. Here, we got to see it all, which meant liberal doses of zombie action for most of the first half of the episode as our heroes hacked, slashed and shot at rotting heads all over the screen. Just when they thought they could deal with the dead prisoners easily, out shuffled some riot gear-clad guard like the next level up in a first person shooter, which led to some inventive grue.
The fact that this is, among other things, a gory horror story was not forgotten about, and some of the effects were convincingly gruesome, a mixture of CG and practical work from the legendary Greg Nicotero. Probably the best was the unfortunate rotting guard whose face came off together with his gas mask as Rick pulled at it:
Once inside, there was a bit of time to pause and reflect before the next round of searching the darkened, bleak setting. Lori, predictably, immediately took to moaning about how her husband and son can’t stand her any more (not to mention the audience), but her worries about the pregnancy were inventive and well-founded. What if the baby was stillborn? Would it try and eat her from inside? (That might be interesting to watch) Or if she died in childbirth, would she eat the baby? Hershel reassured her that in any of those scenarios, she and/or the baby would be promptly dispatched. Actually, if she doesn’t stop moaning, that might end up happening regardless of zombification.
Looks like Hershel may not be around too long though, as, during the claustrophobic search of the next block, he foolishly ignored a corpse that the camera kept suspiciously lingering on, which duly got up and bit him. Hustling him into the prison cafeteria, Rick lost no time in hacking his leg off to stop the infection spreading, another wince-makingly gruesome sequence. Whether it’ll work is anyone’s guess, as the show’s still making up its own rules about its zombies.Still, it was good to see another well-remembered incident from the comic book brought to life, even though it happened to a different character there.
Speaking of the comics, fans will doubtless be cheered by the arrival of well-liked character Michonne (though she’s yet to be identified by name onscreen). Memorably introduced as a silhouetted figure accompanied by two chained, jawless, armless zombies in the final minutes of the last season, she’d rescued Andrea from the chaos of the farm’s destruction and apparently they’ve been hanging out together all winter.
Danai Gurira is suitably grim-faced and badass in the role, first appearing here to hack off the heads of some inconvenient walkers as she foraged for aspirin. The katana is her chosen weapon, as in the comics, and she uses her neutered zombies as pack mules, an inventive touch. Unfortunately Andrea was a bit under the weather with some nasty cold-like symptoms, so we didn’t get to see much of a dynamic between their tow characters as yet, but hopefully that’s to come.
So, a promising start which looks like the showrunners may have digested many of the criticisms of the show’s uneven second season, and perhaps AMC have been a bit less stingy with the budget. The cliffhanger, which reveals that our heroes aren’t the only survivors in the prison, is straight out of the comic books, and promises more of a plot than just another year of everyone hanging around in one place and bitching. Meanwhile, Andrea and Michonne being already separated from the main party is a deviation from the comic, but a damn good idea, giving more narrative scope from the off.
Let’s hope the rest of the season maintains the quality here; but I won’t take it for granted, as the second season opener was pretty good too. I noticed that with all the action, T-Dog still barely got a line; though character beats were fairly frugal so far. And at least Carl now seems able to take care of himself with a gun, so hopefully there’ll be less worrying when he inevitably wanders off. The throw forward to upcoming events looks promising too, with the much-anticipated arrival of Britain’s own David Morrissey as the nasty Governor of Woodbury – though perhaps once again, fans of the comic will find their expectations of him cleverly subverted. Either way, this season opener has so far done much to dispel the fans’ anxieties after last year.