If you were wondering what the survivors in The Walking Dead have been up to since we last saw them sitting anxiously around a campfire seven months ago, the wordless five-minute opening scene in "Seed," the Season 3 premiere, says it all. No longer inexperienced and insulated from danger, the survivors have become a well-oiled army of zombie killers and marksmen who efficiently scavenge and quietly secure premises in a matter of minutes. They've become good at this, but their nomadic lifestyle has them looking more haggard and hungrier than ever as they continue looking for a more permanent safe haven. Worse, time's running out to find a proper place where Lori can give birth to Rick (or Shane's) baby.
Enter the prison, whose relative proximity as it appeared in the closing shot of Season 2 made it seem like an imminent discovery, but was somehow overlooked all winter when the survivors were going in circles trying to find a way out of the immediate area.
One Man's Prison Is Another Man's Goldmine
In any case, the prison is the new farm, and it's not just a key set piece, but an imposing character that feels true to the texture of this grim post-apocalyptic reality. But just when you think the survivors have finally found true security inside its steel confines, there are actual living prisoners to deal with.
One of the best scenes in the second episode, "Sick," came from the perspective of five convicts who've been awaiting rescue from the prison's pantry for the past 10 months. Without any idea that walkers have overrun the country during their lockdown, the survivors' stark world-gone-mad reality check reminded us as viewers just how hopeless things are—no hospitals, no cellphones, no rescue—"it's all gone." Which sets up a great irony for these prisoners, who are quick to have second thoughts about their newfound and long-sought freedom: "We're moving back into our cell block." As Rick says, they're the lucky ones for being incarcerated this whole time. Looks like their crimes were worth going to jail after all.
It didn't take long to see Season 3's tagline of "Fight the dead, fear the living" in action. Tomas, the alpha of the prisoner group, got territorial with Rick from the start, and with his increasingly obvious attempts to take out Rick, it was only a matter of time till there was one man left standing. "Shit happens"—that's right, amigo.
(And yes, as the most popular show on cable TV right now, AMC has apparently granted The Walking Dead a free pass on profanity. It's more true to the show's dialogue, but it still catches me off-guard when I hear curse words on broadcast television.)
On another note, how funny was it to see the Walker 101 crash course go straight out the window when the prisoners instantly bum-rushed the first zombie they saw? The look of disapproval from Darryl, Rick, and T-Dog was a nice touch.
Speaking of ignoring invaluable life-saving zombie tips, why did Big Tiny decide to back off and break rank from the group while clearing out his group's cell block? The only answer I can think of is to move the plot forward by establishing Tomas as a merciless murderer, thus making Rick's decision to tomahawk him a little easier. Seems like an obvious plot beat, but in any case—Big Tiny, it was nice knowin' ya.
Some People Say There's a Woman to Blame...
While the group has come together under Rick's leadership, his relationship with Lori is a shell of its former self. The last time we saw the married couple, Lori pushed Rick away after learning that he and her son both killed Shane (once as a person, once as a walker), a situation she herself was inadvertently responsible for. Now, months later, she’s taken responsibility for the tragedy and concedes to being a bad wife who won't be up for any Mother of the Year awards. But given Rick's despondency and many empty looks toward her, I feel like we're still missing something here—another wrench in their relationship on the level of "he hates me." But I'm not sure there is one.
Whereas viewers were upset with Lori's treatment of Rick at the end of the Season 2 finale, Rick now looks like the bad spouse by not making an effort to talk things out with Lori, who remains open to reconciling. Not even their heroics with saving Hershel's life can fully bring them together—the best Rick can muster is a no-look touch on Lori's shoulder to thank her—on behalf of the group—for saving Hershel.
Kudos to the directors, actors, and editors for capturing the subtle moments of tension and despair in this crumbling relationship, which isn't so much a marriage now, but a partnership of obligation held together by an impending pregnancy.
Not a Killer?
"I need you to know that not for one second do I think there's malice in your heart. You're not a killer, and I know that... So do whatever you gotta do to keep this crib safe. And do it with a clear conscience."
After watching the first two episodes, I'm not so sure Lori's completely right about her assessment of Rick. With his remorseless but righteous execution of Tomas, gone is his hesitation to kill anyone who stands in his way—and even those who don't. Prisoner Andrew ran for his life, only for Rick to trap him outside and leave him for dead with lingering walkers. His friendly advice? "You better run."
As Andrew proceeded to get torn to shreds, Rick took a moment to mentally pay his penance, but you know he's not going to lose any sleep over it like the old Rick would have. The old Rick we knew at the beginning of last season was democratic, and inclined to take prisoners first while giving people the benefit of the doubt. But this is the new Rick: all business all the time, where the ends have never justified the means more than they do now.
Rick is still among the living, but he's more alone than ever. And inside, he's beginning to resemble more of a walker. Aside from finding the prison, his only joy that's come is in the form of sniping walkers atop a guard tower at the prison.
The Stream of Bullets and Arrows:
- It's interesting that, to my knowledge, the word "zombie" has ever been spoken in any episode of The Walking Dead.
- With success comes money, and with money comes a higher body count. With each passing eye gouge, headshot, and decapitation, I become increasingly curious about how they're pulling off these impressive special effects.
- And with a bigger budget, it's clear that AMC's investment in the show has quickly paid off: 10.9 million people watched the Season 3 premiere, making it the most-watched episode for a drama series in basic-cable history.
- I loved seeing the glow on Rick's face and the wheels turning inside his head when he first laid eyes on the prison. By the end of the season we'll see if he still thinks "it's perfect."
- You have to wonder about the psychological toll that living in a walker world takes on the survivors, as the memory of an easier life seems like a pipe dream. But Beth's rendition of "Parting Glass" was a rare glimmer of humanity from a world long gone.
- It looks like the writers are finally responding to criticism by giving T-Dog more of a role this season. In the first two episodes alone, it seems like he's had just as many speaking lines than in the previous 19 episodes combined.
- Also looking to have a bigger role is "Kickback" Carol, who, in another plot beat, whisked Glenn away in potentially untimely fashion for some C-section practice.
- As if his sheriff's hat wasn't enough of a reminder, Carl has become an apt deputy as Rick Jr., even stealing one of his dad's retorts to Lori: "Then get off my back!" Carl's also becoming a man—literally—as his adolescence gets more obvious between seasons. This is the same problem they had with Walt on Lost, and he only lasted two full seasons before his growth spurts became incongruous with the story. Although the timeline in The Walking Dead is much different, it'll be interesting to see how they handle this situation with Carl in future seasons.
- Speaking of puberty and hormones, it looks like Carl has a thing for Beth, but don't expect them to shack up as long as Hershel's around. And we now know that Carol definitely has eyes for Darryl. Now with the privacy that only an abandoned prison can provide, maybe we'll see the emergence of Carryl before season's end.
- Now that we our prisoner lavatory question has been answered, we can give kudos to the writers for anticipating all mission-uncritical fan questions in advance. The scene was shot convincingly enough to actually recall that lovely Porta Potty scent.
- Lori's fear of her stillborn zombie baby tearing her apart from inside the womb is one of the most terrifying thoughts this show has produced to date.
- Almost as gut-wrenching was Rick's quick decision to amputate Hershel's walker-bitten foot. Kind of reminds me of a decision that Jack Bauer made once.
- Just as his Maggie was assuming the worst for Hershel, I was happy to see him reanimate as a human, which felt like the right outcome. But his momentary awakening and headlock he put Lori into made for a frightful little twist.
- Now that Hershel has survived the farm attack and this prison episode, I get the feeling they'll at least keep him around till the end of the season—as long as he's not in a real jail.
- And lastly, who could be surveilling the prison from the woods? This thing's just getting started.