The third season of ‘The Walking Dead’ premiered last night to a whopping 10.9 million viewers. Was it worth the wait? Let’s discuss.

So last season, the survivors found a farm and lost a little girl, and in general, it was a pretty bad time for everyone involved (viewers often included). But in the opening of the show, which is practically silent, there was a glimmer of hope ahead – at least for those of us playing at home, certainly not for the group. Clearly, some time has passed since Hershel’s farm burned down. Lori is intensely pregnant, which is an excellent visual gage for how long they’ve been out in the road. In the opener, Rick and the gang find an abandoned house, and efficiently kill all the walkers inside. No one says a word, and it’s clear that over time, they’ve learned to become a pretty ruthless zombie-killing task force. They’ve survived the winter, but they all look pretty worn out, relying on owls and cans of dog food to get by. Carl uses a gun with a silencer now. When the house becomes overrun with walkers, they get back in the cars and head off, hoping to find another safe spot. This short opener, while not the most explosive thing the show has ever done, definitely points towards better things to come, and luckily, the show keeps up with it.

First of all, there’s much less arguing. Last season, everything was so fraught with arguing and bickering and ‘SOPHIAAAA’ that they practically forgot what made the show fun to begin with – no one really cared about the love triangle between Rick, Shane, and Lori, although that came to a pretty fascinating head. The show manages to establish what we appreciate best about these characters: Daryl is still a stoic badass with super-human survival powers, Glen is still sweet and protective (but not possessive) and still with Maggie, who has herself become quite an accomplished walker-hunter. T-Dog has LINES. It’s definitely clear that the struggle for Alpha Dog died with Shane, and everyone follow’s Rick’s lead. Rick is the most changed, and it seems that, as they try to find a suitable place for Lori to have her baby, he’s unraveling a bit. He’s not dangerous (yet) but he’s certainly not Andy of Mayberry anymore. He and Lori still find the time to bicker, he accuses her of being patronizing, she’s terrified of having her baby in the zombie apocalypse, and it seems like more of the same at first, but Lori has a pretty nice moment of recognition about the state of her marriage. (Any time where they don’t totally write off Lori as an unsympathetic shrew is a good time for me. I think the show is vastly unfair to her as a character.) One of my favorite moments comes from Carol and Daryl, who have some unspoken chemistry, and it’s directly addressed as Carol tries to joke around with him after a backrub. “That was romantic, wanna screw around?” It was a pretty good episode for Carol, and it’s clear that she might be turning things around emotionally, after hitting rock bottom when her daughter was revealed to be a zombie.

But the big development here was the discovery of a prison. The production design here is top quality, using a real prison complex and dozens upon dozens of prison-garb-clad walkers, and special effects designer Greg Nicotero spared no details. In an impressive show of tactics where everyone pitches in to the killing, they kill the walkers in the yard and bar the other ones from getting inside. It’s a good win for the team, especially when they find some empty cells with real beds to bunk down in. Lori becomes worried that her baby might be stillborn, due to malnutrition or otherwise, and tells Hershel that if the baby is born dead, there is more than a good chance it will be, well, a zombie baby. She tells him that if either or both of them are dead, he is to put them down immediately. Of course, it’s a written zombie apocalypse rule that any survivors are only allowed to be happy for a maximum of 12 hours, so they run into some difficulties when trying to find the infimary/cafeteria. After fighting walkers through several dark and terrifying tunnels, Hershel is bit on the leg, and Rick makes the split second decision to amputate it. It’s a terrifically queasy scene, and after watching an episode full of carnage, this act actually seems to really shock and horrify Rick, especially when it takes a few hacks to cut through the bone. (They don’t skimp on giving us all the sights and sounds.) While trying to find a way out, Daryl comes across a group of living men in prison suits. Friend or foe?

And then there’s plot B – Andrea and Michonne, who isn’t named, but comic fans will instantly recognize her from her katana and the two armless walkers she keeps around on chains. There’s not much going on yet. Michonne obliterates some walkers just to get some aspirin. It’s for Andrea, who is sick to the point where she insists that Michonne leave her there to die. It seems that these ladies have a decent rapport, and Michonne refuses to just leave her there. Rumor has it (well, more than rumor given what we’ve seen on the S3 promos), that these two will soon be running into the Governor, as played by David Morrissey. So I think there are some really excellent things brewing for this season, as well as some signs of needed improvement. Let’s hope that they can continue to live up to this opener.

Stray Observations:

  • I don’t know if the show is still affected by the budget cuts that AMC enforced last season, but you certainly couldn’t tell by the SFX makeup budget. So many different kinds of walkers! I especially enjoyed the closeups, such as the emaciated female zombie that Carl killed in the kitchen. If you missed some good zombie action last season (in between arguments about Sophia and Shane and otherwise), the show makes clear that the world is overrun in a bad way.
  • Puberty is upon young Carl. Hershel catches him awkwardly chatting with his daughter, and he scampers away.
  • I know that everyone is already infected and it doesn’t matter how you die, I still don’t understand how they’ve gone so far without getting infected blood in their mouth or eyes or under their fingernails.
  • I can’t be the only terrible person who kind of sort of wants to see a zombie baby.
  • Maggie getting excited about figuring out how to kill the SWAT zombies was cuter than it had much right to be.
  • Speaking of SWAT zombies, that definitely felt like wandering into a new level in a video game and finding harder enemies to kill.
  • I can’t imagine that Hershel is going to survive having his leg amputated, unless there’s a medic in that group of prisoners.
  • I hope Merle shows up soon, I am giddy with anticipation.