The third season of The Walking Dead opens on an extreme closeup and slowly zooms away from the veined, glazed eye of one of the titular dead. After a full season of gazing inward, of trying to figure out the reason behind it all, of contemplating why the dead walk and why we deserve this, our characters are now fully engaged in the logistics of how to survive. They’re immersed in the world around them – which is getting uglier all the time. An owl, majestic and rarely seen during the day, is nothing more than a meal. Two errant cans of dog food cause everyone to salivate. No one has bathed or eaten a full meal for weeks or months, and everybody is harder, thinner, and more venerable through experience and a new mindset. There is no dialogue for the first five minutes, but none is needed – all is revealed through expressions, movements, glances, actions.
When last we saw our cast of plucky/lucky/obnoxious survivors, they were finally leaving Hershel’s farm. Psychotic Shane got his due at the hands of his former best friend Rick; pregnant Lori proved she can be as manipulative as Shane could be; Carl began his journey into adolescence, which looks to be punctuated by gunfire and shrouded in a dangerously inhuman outlook. A few people got eaten in the finale, and the writers introduced a new face (to the gleeful squeals of fans familiar with Kirkman’s novels). Perhaps most importantly, Rick shared one important detail: they are all, every last one of them, bitten or not, destined to become the walking dead. This news creates in the survivors a renewed sense of purpose, along with a new appreciation of their ultimate insignificance.
Basically, it appears the writers have decided to cut the drama and get on with the action.
When Rick and Daryl set eyes on the prison, Rick gently but firmly orders his people to their places – in the intervening months since Rick’s declaration that this isn’t a democracy anymore, they’ve cultivated the ability to move as a group, to assist without words. They’re a team – which, after last season’s discord, is thrilling to behold. The prison appears to be their new home – but not without a few setbacks and an amputation.
As Rick’s group struggles to make the prison habitable, we cut to Michonne (Danai Gurira), viciously but coolly beheading three zombies with her katanas. It’s obvious at first glance Michonne is a true force to be reckoned with; she leads two armless, jawless zombies in chains and wields dual swords with complete ease. Andrea, suffering from some kind of respiratory illness, drags herself out of hiding to accompany Michonne to the next place in their journey. The two women have cultivated a kind of tough-love friendship; they’ve taken care of themselves and each other in the time between.
Likewise, Carol and Daryl, whose relationship last season appeared to be progressing toward romance, interact pleasantly and easily. “Want to screw around?” Carol asks, and they both chuckle. The interrelationships, the discord between characters, the little dramas, have been tossed aside. Tensions still exist, but they’re secondary. After all, these people are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Now they seem to have fully realized it.
In the process of clearing out cell blocks one by one, Rick’s company of survivors makes a distressing discovery. The episode ends on a gritty shot of another group of the living – these ones more dangerous than anyone in Rick’s clan. These ones are inmates. “Holy shit,” indeed. In forty-two short minutes, the show ramps flawlessly into gear. So begins season three of The Walking Dead: our characters have a renewed sense of purpose, and so does the show.