The Walking Dead Watch: From the Farm to the Prison

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The Walking Dead - Season 3, Episode 1

Less than an hour after The Walking Dead’s Season 2 finale, showrunner Glen Mazzara talked a bit about killing off characters. During the Battle of Greene Farm, poor Patricia and Jimmy met grotesquely terrifying fates, but we honestly couldn’t have cared less. They were bit players to whom we had no attachment, and their deaths were, in a way, too easy. They satisfied the requirement that, given the size of the zombie horde, someone had to go down, yet we were spared the ramifications of losing an important character. Mazzara said that he had originally planned on killing Hershel but thought it would have been gratuitous, and that the shot of Hershel looking at his barn as it burned to the ground was worth keeping the good doctor alive.

But Hershel’s utility may be over. In the final minutes of last night’s Season 3 premiere, during a brutal scene at the end of a ferocious episode, Hershel steps over a lifeless walker in a dark, dank hallway. The zombie tears into Hershel’s lower leg, yanking shredded sinewy tissue that dangles from his mouth before Rick puts a bullet through the walker’s skull.

The look on Hershel’s face is unmistakable: physical pain, but also a horrifying realization of what lies ahead. His best-case scenario, death; worse, if be bleeds out and they fail to kill him properly, he becomes a walker.

Putting Hershel on the chopping block was a bold move by Mazzara, a showrunner who promised that as the series moved in a broad arc, he would close out smaller subplots along the way. For all of the brilliance Frank Darabont showed in individual episodes, he looked at the Walking Dead landscape as a giant film, where plots play out in a slow boil and complex characters develop over time.

(READ: The Walking Dead Behind-the-Scenes Battle That Almost Doubled the Zombie Count)

Mazzara, on the other hand, cut his teeth as a writer and producer for Nash Bridges and The Shield and understands that wrapping up smaller plots builds momentum. We saw that over and over again last season, from the execution of zombie Sophia to Dale’s demise to Shane’s deaths (plural) and finally the immolation of the bucolic dream that was the Greene farm.

Hershel’s injury was the climax of an episode that started with a bang (starting with Rick kicking in a door and shooting a walker in the head) and kept a solid pace for the entire hour. We catch up with our group several months after last season’s finale. They’ve been on the run, and it’s clear they’ve honed their skills along the way. Rick, T-Dog, Daryl and Carl clear a house of walkers swiftly and smoothly; even Carl gets in on the action, shooting a zombie in the head with a silenced pistol. (The silencer is a smart move tactically—remember that the walkers can hear and gravitate to the sound of gunshots—but it has the added benefit of making the gun look comically large in his hand). Clearly they’ve done this dozens of times, as each member carries out his or her task in silence. Not a word spoken for more than four minutes.

Judging by Lori’s very pregnant belly and Hershel’s long hair, some time has gone by, and we soon learn that the group has been traveling house to house and town to town, working their way around and through different horde’s of walkers. There aren’t many places left to go when they stumble on a prison filled with walkers. How convenient.

(MORE: Michone, the Governor and the Prison)

During the scenes where Rick and company clear the prison yard, then the cell block, and finally the catacombs, Mazzara gives us some solid action. We can see how much the group has learned about fighting and working together. When they clear the inner yard, they form crude a phalanx and engage most of the walkers by hand—Rick even employs elevated sharpshooters—all good shots save for Carol wielding a Kalashnikov.

Yet while our group has gotten much better at the zombie-killing enterprise, they could learn a few things from Michonne. Easily this season’s most anticipated character, Michonne made a brief appearance in last season’s finale where we said she,“looked like a cross between a Jedi Knight and Boba Fett.”

Now that we’ve seen under the cloak, Michonne doesn’t disappoint. In an early scene from the pilot, she swings a katana in wide swoops, smoothly beheading zombies while barely breaking a sweat. “She’s figured out how to make it economical, effective and efficient,” Danai Gurira said of her character’s fighting style. We see her beheading three zombies, then making her way back to a very sick Andrea. They too have been traveling the countryside together since Michonne saved Andrea in the woods outside the Greene farm.

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Die-hard fans may have been disappointed we didn’t get a glimpse of The Governor, but I’m told he will arrive sooner rather than later. For now, the season premiere accomplished what it needed to: set a faster narrative pace and delved deeper into the characters’ inner turmoils, all while slaughtering lots and lots of zombies. And the fact that Mazzara showed a willingness to (possibly) kill off some larger characters is yet another sign that we may be in for a hell of a ride.

Zombie Kill Report: At least a couple dozen, not quite reaching the threshold of oodles and oodles killed at Greene Farm, but a solid score. The group’s change in tactics—engaging walkers with knives, swords and pokers first—shows a huge advancement in their abilities. They’re trying to save ammunition, of course, but they’ve killed so many walkers for such a long time that no one, not even Carl, seems fazed by them anymore. Will that lead to more complacency—which contributed to Hershel undoing?

Speaking of the Good Doctor: All is not lost just yet for kindly Dr. Greene. In one of the more brutal scenes in quite some time, Rick amputates Hershel’s leg with a hatchet, hoping to prevent the zombie virus from taking hold. Will it work? We don’t have any precedent, but it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The World’s Ugliest Pets: There’s been a decent amount of Internet discussion about Michonne’s pets, two walkers staggering behind her in chains with their arms and jaws cut off. I’m told we’ll find out more about these unfortunate folks (remember, no spoilers!) but for now, how about a theory: One of the reasons Michonne has stayed alive trekking solo—other than her kick-ass sword skills—is because the pet walkers help ward off the hordes (we learned in the first season in Atlanta that walkers can smell their own kind).

So Will This Season Really Be That Exciting? I’m very optimistic, but in the words of Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it.

The Walking Dead Season 3 Comic-Con Trailer