Okay. That was badass.
The tonal shift in The Walking Dead marked by the takeover of current showrunner Glenn Mazzara is one of the best turnarounds of a television series as far as I can remember, which goes back at least to last Saturday. Mazzara came on board halfway through Season 2 and turned what was a lumbering character-driven drama with bad characters into an action-packed slaughterfest of survival with okay characters. If it weren't for Mazzara paring the show down to its essentials, we might still be on the farm arguing over who gets to sleep in which tent. But the ghost of Frank Darabont still haunted The Walking Dead at the end of Season 2 with characters that were more annoying and inconsistent than heroic and smart (though there were improvements, mostly because it's hard to be annoying when a horde of zombies is footsteps away from ripping a character's flesh from his face). Good action results in selective temporary amnesia when it comes to flaws, and the picked-up pace of Season 2's second half mostly wiped our memories of the bickering and jealousy that held earlier episodes back. The thrills were cheap, but they worked.
But "Seed," The Walking Dead's Season 3 premiere, was undeniably Mazzara driving the train all by himself. Mazzara understands the essence of the comics this series is based on a lot better than Darabont did, and the Season 3 prison storyline—the best arc from the early issues of the comics—is perfectly matched for Mazzara's shoot-first mentality. More importantly, Mazzara understands what fans want out of the TV adaptation, and "Seed" gave me everything I've wanted. I loved this episode so much I scratched our initials into a tree.
The last we saw the group, Rick was giving his "Well there's the door..." speech when the survivors questioned his methods. This was his group now. As Season 3 began, The Walking Dead made great use of a time jump forward, and guess how many people from the group are still there: all of them. I'm not totally sure how long the jump was, but using the Pregnant Lori Waistline Test, I'd say about 7 months, and it appeared as though it was an uneventful winter and spring. No one we know got eaten, everyone's limbs were still attached to their bodies, and everyone was even wearing the same clothes. Hershel has even gone alt-folk with a bushier beard. I'd say RICKTATORSHIP SUCCESSFUL.
The pre-credit sequence in "Seed" brilliantly updated us on what happened during the off season with ZERO DIALOGUE (how cool was that?). Rick somehow whipped this group of adulterers, pizza-delivery boys, and whatever it was that T-Dog did before the plague into the Voltron of zombie murderers, everyone working together in SWAT-like fashion to increase headshot/headcrush efficiency. These aren't the timid survivors from past seasons. They're clearing rooms, skewering undead brains, and communicating with nods and whistles like hardened veterans of the zombie apocalypse. But as desperate as they were, Rick wasn't about to let them stoop to eating like hobos or former child actors, taking a can of dog food out of Carl's hand and chucking it against the wall as if to say, "Carl, you idiot, you aren't a dog." Retaining humanity is just as important to Rick as keeping everyone alive. Besides, that was generic dog chow! Again, that was all communicated without a single word. Next time I see Mazzara, I'm buying him a drink for that silent opening. He absolutely killed it.
The opening also told us that compared to the comforts of the barn, life on the road sucks. They're nomads now, picking up almost as soon as they put down because zombies constantly want to crash their pad. It's important to understand that state of mind, because it makes their desire to move into the prison for some security so believable. Rick's right: Aside from the hundreds of undead roaming around it (piece of cake for the Zombie Death Squad), the prison is perfect! If it was designed to keep things from escaping, it's probably pretty easy to tweak the place into something that's good at keeping things out.
The plan to get into the prison introduces another drastic improvement over Season 2 (and obvs over Season 1). There WAS a plan. Panicky zombie attacks make for good television, but planned assaults on the braindead meatbags make for great television! All too often in previous seasons, the fight came to the humans as the zombies were the aggressors. Tonight, we saw Rick reclaiming the top of the food chain and taking the fight to the monsters. It was a completely different atmosphere, and by completely different, I mean completely badass. This is the kind of zombie apocalypse I always imagine myself in when I imagine myself in a zombie apocalypse (which is all the time). Did you see everyone laughing and smiling and having a gay old time while blasting away zombies? I want to be part of that. That looked FUN. Even Carol had a blast (another great improvement? Carol's attitude).
And most of the plan made sense! I probably would have spent more time stabbing zombies through the fence until my arms got tired to chip away at the size of the zombie horde, but guess who doesn't want to watch that on television? Pretty much everyone. So aside from that, cordoning off a section of the prison yard for safety was logical and totally within the group's capabilities. It's rare that people in horror movies don't act stupid, and I had a hard time finding people to put dunce caps on in "Seed."
If there was one questionable move, it happened during the clearing of the prison interior. Anyone who's cleared a dungeon in Skyrim or Dungeon or countless other video games knows that interior spaces require a completely different strategy than outdoor spaces. Rick and the gang got the outdoor killing down right, but they took that same tactic inside in the prison, which was odd since the episode began with them using the correct tactic on a house. I'm getting way too technical here (this is just a TV show, after all), but moving along dark tunnels in a big group isn't the way to do it, and that's why they got separated. Corridors have to be covered, the path back to safety has to be secured, and every possible option has to be checked before venturing too deep. The worst thing you can do is bunch up your group so that you get stuck with only a few options. Dungeon-clearing 101! This is what I think about when I watch this show! They left too much space behind them, and that's why they got ambushed. If you're getting ambushed by zombies, you're doing something wrong.
But their bumbling around and frenzied escape further into the bowels of the prison meant bad news for Hershel, who got his leg chomped on by a zombie who broke the first rule of being a zombie by playing possum and just laying there until someone came close. Overall I was impressed by the lack of horror-movie tropes in the premiere, but that was standard Syfy Original Movie plotting right there. Zombies, please make a decision: Do you sometimes catch some Zs and chill out or are you always alert to human smells and sounds?
Quick detour: "Seed" gave us our first taste of real divergent storytelling on The Walking Dead since before Rick joined up with Shane and Lori's group. The winter wasn't as kind to Michonne and Andrea, particularly the latter, who has a bad case of the sniffles. However, if you're going to be sick, you could have a worse protector than the twirling blade of Michonne. You're in good hands, Andrea. I'm sure everything will be fine.
But the real shocker came at the end of the episode, when Rick hacked off Hershel's leg below the knee in an effort to save his life. Why not go above the knee just to be sure while you're down there? I liked Rick's proactive move; the show can't afford to drag out such decisions now that we're zombie apocalypse veterans. If you get bit by a zombie, expect to lose that limb. But the real, real shocker was the discovery of some very-much-alive prisoners still camping out in the prison. And that brings up another dilemma: How much should Rick trust these convicts? Does the zombie apocalypse turn everyone into innocent civilians? A lot of this season will continue to explore the most dangerous threat to the survivors: other survivors.
"Seed" was more of an announcement of The Walking Dead's return and a pace-setter than a real step forward in plot. But it's exactly what I wanted out of the show's return. We'll get to real story next week. It's hard to believe this is the same show that was once such a disappointment.
BLOOD-SMEARED HANDPRINTS ON THE WALL
– I tried to keep track of the zombie kill count in this one and came up with 65 zombie kills. And one owl. That's a LOT.
– Whoever came up with the idea of zombies in body armor deserves a promotion (this has been done in video games plenty of times before, but I still squealed when they stepped out). And the face peeling off the zombie when Rick took its mask off was probably the greatest thing you'll see on television all year.
– Personally, I think Daryl should give Carol what she wants. Why not? And Carl and Beth? Why not! Go get 'em, kiddo! Operation Earth Re-population is in effect.
– Reverse flashlight gun silencer? Badass!