We wanted action, and Glenn Mazzara and the team at The Walking Dead have delivered action. The third season premiere is an almost non-stop bit of forward momentum, with Rick's group of survivors being chased from hiding holes before finally discovering their great hope: an enormous prison overrun with walkers.
The premiere, written by Mazzara and directed by Ernest Dickerson, is one of the best episodes of the series to date. Picking up months after the season two finale, the group has become a weathered band of survivalists. Carl, who used to be held back by his protective parents, now takes point. Everybody is involved in sweeping houses for walkers. And Laurie is about to give birth to Shane's baby. After two seasons of watching a bunch of weak-assed losers stumble through the apocalypse, season three has finally given us a group who can seemingly take care of itself.
Most of the episode follows Rick and company as they secure the prison, and Dickerson stages a series of sorties that have wonderfully laid out geography, a sense of pace and tension, and stakes. Along the way the show introduces a couple of semi-new zombie moments, including a group of SWAT team zombies who have largely liquified inside their body armor. It’s delightfully gross.
Technically everything about this episode was well done. Seed is like a zombie survival procedural, dialing back the characters a bit to give us the nuts and bolts of the assault on the prison. This episode even looked better than some of last season’s endlessly yellowy segments.
So why wasn’t I more taken with it? I truly appreciated the craft on display and the way the episode was structured, and I have little to complain about in any way except... I still don’t like these people. The Walking Dead has been a bandwagon upon which I have never quite been able to jump due to the fact that I found most of the characters tedious and most of the actors uninteresting. I was a very big Shane fan, and the loss of Jon Bernthal hindered the end of season two for me.
Seed barely focuses on the characters, except to get across how hardened they’ve become. This is promising because it means we could see new iterations of Rick and Carl and Herschel and everybody else - versions 2.0 of characters who have been flat and dull thus far. We’re probably not going to see much more comedy - the show’s po-faced seriousness continues to be a lumbering bummer - but at this point I’m prepared for an hour where the only laughs are at the gore effects (and I mean that in a positive way). But there’s room for improvement on the characters, and this episode truly offers that room. Carl, it seems, has entered puberty. Lori realizes everybody - including the audience - hates her. And Herschel, grizzled and tough looking, gets himself bit on the leg. The show then takes a page from George Romero's Day of the Dead and offers amputation as a cure for possible zombie infection. I liked it, and I liked that Romero's is still better (they also cauterized the wound).
But what now? We’re approaching the part of the story where I quit reading the comic. The problems that plagued season two of the show - lots of people standing around arguing all the damn time - were what got to me in the prison story arc in the book. The show has proven it’s not beholden to the comic, so I’m hoping Mazzara and his team have learned the lessons of rocky season two.
How much of a lesson can they have learned? The inherent issue with this sort of zombie story is that it follows the exact same pattern every time: search for safety, discovery of safety, destruction of safety (usually from within). While the comic expands those acts into many, many issues (and makes each safe haven bigger than the last), it all boils down to that. I’m curious if the show can make that cycle not feel so repetitive.
At the very least I’ll be giving it a shot for the rest of season three. At the end of season two I was ready to completely bail, but Seed has convinced me that Mazzara is paying attention and that this ship can yet be righted. Here’s hoping.