The Walking Dead has always been a show with promise, but only rarely has it delivered so far, often content to spin its wheels and cough up some major drama at the end of every other episode. Lucky for us, the first episode of season three is pure delivery, and possibly the best episode the show has come up with.
The pre-credits sequence is a mini-episode in itself. The cast clear a house of zombies, scavenge for food, pause to breathe, consider some delicious cat food, find too many zombies outside to handle, and so clear out. Not a word is spoken. It’s excellently done. We know significant time has passed, not only because of the proliferation of beards and exhaustion, but by how confident and drilled everyone is in flowing through the house. Also because Lori looks about eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
And so, the prison. Glimpsed at the end of last season, the prison is a large, (obviously) fortified building that would seem the ideal place to hole up for a while. The bulk of the episode is spent in clearing it of the zombie guards and prisoners wandering around, and making sure there are no gaps in the fence for them to get back in.
The inside of the prison has a strong Resident Evil feel to it (the game, which is good, and not the film, which is bad). Stumbling around in the dark with torches, surrounded by dripping corpses while monsters may or may not be nearby is proper, back-to-basics horror, and it works. The characters are doing sensible things like spray painting arrows to find their way back. And unlike last season’s myriad trips to the chemist and the barn, it’s believable that they’d be in there, with the strong possibility of food and weapons.
It’s a strange (and well-documented) facet of American TV (that is to say, non-HBO TV) that you can’t show certain body parts or say bad words, but it’s perfectly fine to show a pipe driven into an eye socket, or have a mask ripped off a rotting head only to have the face tear off with it. What I’m saying is, this episode was violent. I’ve never seen so many heads bashed in. And it’s not even just zombie-based, the split-second decision to hack off Hershel’s foot with a hatchet was one of the most intense scenes I’ve seen on television for a while. Not to keep contrasting this episode with dull bits from last year, but remember when they spent hours standing around deciding whether or not to kill that kid? Contrast! They could have hacked his foot off, that might have fixed something. At the very least it would have been exciting.
Hershel’s bitten foot raises a question. If everyone’s already infected, then nothing’s being passed on by biting. So if you’re bitten, what of it? Does it pass on something extra and death-inducing? Everyone seems fine hacking wildly at any passing corpse and accompanying blood shower, so is it saliva into an open wound? It would be pretty funny in the next episode if it turned out there was no need to amputate at all.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve read the prison arc in the comic, but I think they’ve diverged enough that I don’t know too much more than anyone coming purely to the TV show. There are several different characters, Lori isn’t pregnant, and, segue!, there’s no sign of the woman with the samurai swords at that point in the comic. Her name, I’ve absorbed through internet osmosis, is Michonne. I’ll wait until someone in the show says it before I try to pronounce it. We don’t see much of her in this episode, but a sword seems like an excellent idea in a plague of zombies, and her armless, jawless pack mules are a clever idea too. Plus, everyone who knows what’s coming up got excited when she appeared, so it’s all very auspicious. Meanwhile, Andrea is sick or something. Of course, if she died, there’d be no reason for Michonne to meet up with the main cast, so I think she’s OK for the time being.
The fear is that the prison will be the farm, part two. They’ll park there beyond the point where reasonable people would leave, pick up some new characters, a few people will die and they’ll amble on next season to an aircraft carrier or a mine. This episode has left me optimistic. The cast has been winnowed down to a manageable number, to the extent that I might even be able to name them all. That’s only one step away from caring if they live or die. I’m looking forward to next week’s episode, and I don’t feel like I’ve somehow been tricked into to it.