Season three of The Walking Dead kicks off with an opening sequence that’s mission is clear — to introduce a leaner, meaner version of the show, one that has left go-nowhere characters like Dale and the slow drama of the farm behind in favor of a renewed focus on zombie-apocalypse action. There’s no dialogue of any sort. Just Rick and the crew raiding a house abandoned by all except for a few stray walkers. Maybe they once were the people who lived there. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter to our survivors, who tear through like a well-oiled machine, killing zombies and raiding the cupboards, looking for supplies and perhaps a place to rest for a moment or two. But those moments quickly pass as more walkers descend on the house, forcing the group to move on. The entire sequence, directed like the rest of this episode by The Wire‘s go-to helmsman Ernest Dickerson, hums along right up until the familiar strain of the show’s theme music kicks in. And then, just in case you still didn’t get the message that the series is attempting a sort of rebirth following a talky, clunky season two, brand new opening credits roll. The highlight: Norman Reedus’s name appearing over the image of two crossbow bolts stuck in a tree.
These opening minutes are the perfect summation of the kind of show I want The Walking Dead to be: Purposeful and relentless. Unfortunately, in past seasons, it’s often failed on both counts. Still, I jumped on the chance to do episode reviews here at CHUD this season. Covering Breaking Bad this summer was fun, but it gets a little boring saying, “Yep, show’s still great,” week after week after week. The Walking Dead, meanwhile, has been defined by wild inconsistency, an unevenness that certainly wasn’t helped by series developer Frank Darabont getting forced out by the network shortly after season two began filming. Season three probably starts on better footing for the simple reason that current showrunner Glen Mazzara (who wrote this episode) knows he’s in charge from the get-go, rather than having to assume control amongst behind-the-scenes turmoil. So the hope is that this episode’s thrilling opening sequence is a mission statement Mazzara and company will follow through on without succumbing to past failings.
For one episode, anyway, they pull it off. “Seed” picks up several months after Rick, Lori, Glenn and the rest were forced to flee Hershel’s farm. Lori is now very, very pregnant, while Carl’s let his hair go shaggy and wields a pistol like an old pro. Everyone is a scruffy, dirty mess. The time spent in between seasons trying to stay alive apparently did not go easy. The time jump is a little bit of surprise considering the prison the group stumbles upon in this episode was briefly teased at the end of the season-two finale. Yeah, it was there as a bit of fanwank — the prison is a major setting for a large chunk of the The Walking Dead comic book — but it also indicated the group was just about to learn of its existence. The fact that they apparently walked right on by it, only to discover it months down the road seems a bit of a retcon, but I’ll let it slide as the passed time allows for a hard reset that some of these characters desperately needed.
The group finds the prison soon after the fruitless raid on the house, and Rick immediately sees its potential. “Weapons, food, medicine,” he points out, “this place could be a gold mine.” Not to mention the fences, walls and guard towers designed to keep prisoners in that could be just as effective at keeping zombies out. The rest of the episode is pretty much a non-stop bloodbath as Rick and company attempt to secure the prison by clearing the zombies out of the courtyard and several of the cell blocks. That proves somewhat tricky, not just because of the numbers involved but because some of the zombies are ex-prison guards still wearing their riot gear. Head shots aren’t easy when you’ve got to get past a helmet and face shield. (I don’t remember this bit from the comics, so bonus points for whomever in the writers’ room came up with it. Armored zombies seems like a concept that should only work in videogames, but watching the group figure out how to take down the zombie guards sure is exciting here.)
Even after seeing this episode, it’s tough to say if the writers have “fixed” some of the characters who so desperately needed a personality upgrade because so little of “Seed” is devoted to exploring the characters themselves. We know that Rick and Lori are still on the outs over the Shane situation because he’ll barely able to look at her, let alone talk to her. (Although wasn’t it Lori pulling away from Rick at the end of last season? And, if so, are we surprised that their relationship has been manually adjusted yet again?) We also get some post-apocalyptic, “well, my options are somewhat limited”-style flirting, with Daryl and Carol, as well as between Carl and Hershel’s teenaged blond daughter who I forgot existed. Hey, better than listening to Carl whine some more about how he’s ready to carry a gun and do his part, right? There is also a corny sing-along shoehorned into the episode’s middle, but past that, “Seed” is all about a little of the ol’ ultraviolence. An absolute absurd amount of zombies are staked, stabbed, shot, impaled, decapitated and otherwise massacred in this episode before the undead finally get a little bit of payback by chomping down on Hershel’s leg. Rick, still in “I’ll do whatever I want” mode from the end of last season, quickly decides the only way to save him is to hack the damn thing off in an attempt to stop the zombie infection from spreading. (This is a bit borrowed from the comic, though Rick amputates a different character in print.) Then, in the episode’s closing minutes, we learn that zombies aren’t the only occupants still calling the prison home.
Quite frankly, this episode is exactly what The Walking Dead needed as it opens its third-season as cable’s highest-rated drama but with a lot of problem areas that were giving headaches to the more astute fans. The show moved too slow. Character motivations were vague and much too malleable. The same old dilemmas were rehashed again and again. None of those things were a problem this week. Let’s hope it’s not just a temporary adjustment.
Before I go, some other thoughts on “Seed”:
— We do get a brief glimpse of Andrea and the now fully-revealed Michonne in this episode. Although whereas the time jump between seasons helped our primary group of characters by quickly moving them to a compelling point in their journey, it actually hurts the story of these two women because suddenly Andrea and Michonne have some kind of deep relationship that the viewer isn’t the least bit privy to. Last time we saw them, Andrea was nearly zombie food in the woods and Michonne was just a silhouette. Now Andrea is struck with a life-threatening fever and Michonne can’t seem to leave her side despite Andrea’s urging. It’s jarring.
— Early in the episode, the group is tracking zombie herds like a general would track enemy military units. Like the armored zombies, it’s a fresh idea for the genre, yet I have a hard time buying it. Zombies are slow. The countryside is large. I’m not saying it’d be easy to find food and a safe place to sleep in this universe, but traveling from one location to another really shouldn’t be that difficult.
— Rick and his crew think of everything! First they use carabiners to lock the prison gates and then they spray-paint arrows on the prison walls while they’re exploring so that if they need to quickly get back to the safe zone, they’ll have easy-to-see directions pointing the way. I’d have never remembered to grab carabiners and spray paint, which is why I’ll likely die quickly when the zombie apocalypse comes.
— Lori worries that if she suffers a late miscarriage, the baby will be born a zombie or may even tear its way out of her. Shades of Dawn of the Dead ’04, no?
Follow Bob on Twitter: @robertbtaylor