* SPOILER ALERT *
No one said life in a zombie apocalypse would ever be easy and The Walking Dead proved that right once again in the dramatic opening episode to season 3.
With Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) looking very pregnant, after a winter spent on the road with the group, Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) main concern is finding some safe real estate for the mum-to-be, and of course the group as a whole, to shack up for a while.
But though he is “doing things” as he snaps to Lori at one point when she tries to regain some intimacy with her severely pissed off, and estranged husband, finding somewhere safe where zombie herds seem to be everywhere is easier said than done.
Nothing illustrates this better than the first scenes of the episode where Rick and the group fight their way into a farmhouse where the once bucolic, now undead, residents have long ago given up any hold on an idyllic rural existence.
But no sooner have they shot, hacked, and cross-bowed their way into the rundown house, and found some dog food to eat – which Rick throws angrily into the fireplace – than a local herd of the undead find them and they’re forced to flee, with only moments to spare, in their vehicles.
And so begins another headlong rush to “safety” for the group who are all beginning to wonder if any such haven exists as herds converge on their location from every direction.
That’s when Rick and Daryl Dixon, who go out hunting while the rest of the group go to get water during a break, stumble across the prison that was visible in the closing moments of season 2, after the group had narrowly escaped a zombie attack on Hershel’s farm.
Admittedly in normal times, it wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a sanctuary but these, as you may have noticed are not normal times by any measure (although the way the group casually walks past the corpses of recently slain undead indicate that normal is a relative term these days), and so a decision is made to storm the prison, which is full of zombiefied prisoners and take it as their own.
Starting with a no-man’s land that rings the prison, some of the group attract the jailbird herd while Rick leads the rest of the group into a large grass-clad yard which they quickly clear of their unwelcome residents.
Up to this point, the emphasis has been on action and lots of it, all of which makes sense in a world where your every breath is a desperate fight for survival.
But new showrunner, Glen Mazzara, who also wrote this episode, dials things down a notch at this point as the group, exhausted by the fierce battle, and exultant to be safe with so much room behind sturdy high wire mesh fences, relax over dinner, and thanks to Hershel’s daughter, some songs.
It’s not exactly a quiet night out at your favourite cafe being serenaded by John Mayer, but it is a welcome respite, and it allows for some quiet moments of character interaction, including an all too tense conversation between Lori and Rick.
What is obvious from this quieter scene is that Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) are definitely a couple, and trying for as much tenderness as fighting for your life allows you, and Rick and Lori’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) has definitely grown up, and is increasingly assuming as much of the workload of protecting the group as any of the adults.
Of course Rick is still a dad at heart and there are certain things he won’t let Carl do such as ridding some of the prison buildings, as they search for the infirmary and the kitchen, of their undead inhabitants.
Naturally Carl chafes at these restrictions but is aware, as is all the group, that what Rick says goes, and so he abides by his dad’s directions. I wonder though how long it will be though till he challenging the edicts of his father who is the self-proclaimed dictator of the group that ceased to be a democracy at the end of the last season.
That however is a clashing of wills that will have to wait for another day.
For now everyone is concentrating on clearing out Cell Block C, choosing cells to sleep in – Daryl refuses to bunk down in “the cages” as he calls them – and sets up a bed on an elevated landing; a sign of an incarcerated past or a fear of being cornered? It’s hard to say – and trying to make a grey dirty run down concrete shell a home.
Again you see how quickly people have had to adapt in this new unforgiving world as the prison is treated like a luxury home on a new estate. Well perhaps not that eagerly but it is safer than the world they have left temporarily left behind and they are grateful for it.
But safe though it may be, it can’t protect the group from their thoughts and fears, which rise to the surface in the brief lull between battles to take more and more of the prison as their own.
Lori, alone in her cell, is visited by Hershel, who is the closest thing they all have to a doctor, after feeling no movement from the baby for some time. A deeply concerned, almost tearful, Lori shares her fears that if the baby is still alive, he could be already compromised by the virus or even dead and getting ready “to eat his way out.”
It makes sense that she is fearful of bringing a baby into a world where it could be argued no one can expect a long and fruitful existence.
Hershel, wise Hershel, manages to allay her fears as much as one can when there is plenty minute-by-minute to be scared about, but Lori is dreading the moment she has to give birth above all else at the moment and understandably so.
It’s at this point that the wheels falls off the great plan to take over all the parts of the prison they need. A team that includes Rick, Daryl, Hershel, T-Dog, Glen and Maggie encounters hordes of zombies down dark, dimly lit body-strewn corridors that branch out from Cell Block C, forcing them into a messy panicked retreat.
But not before Hershel is bitten on the leg by a presumed inert corpse and Rick is forced into the desperate position of amputating Hershel’s leg to stop the bleeding right in the middle of the debris-littered old mess hall.
Possibly greater peril awaits though just out of sight as the camera pans to a group of thoroughly not-undead prisoners locked inside a wire-screened room who utter “Holy shit!” as they realise they are no longer alone …
But the outcome of that encounter-to-be will have to wait for episode 2…
Meanwhile we get a few snatches of newcomer Michonne (Danai Gurira) who announced her arrival in a suitably dramatic way in the final episode of season 2 by slaying a zombie that was about to do away with Andrea (Laurie Holden), who became separated from the group in the pellmell confused flight from Hershel’s farm.
After spending the winter together, Andrea, who is sick with what looks like a respiratory infection, and Michonne are a tightly knit team. Even when the small town they’re sheltering in becomes overwhelmed with a herd of the undead – one of Michonne’s claims to fame are the two pet armless walkers on a chain she leads behind her wherever she goes to throw zombies off the scent of her “fresh meat” – she refuses to leave Andrea behind.
It was refreshing to see a character that was as badass as they come but hadn’t surrendered her common decency or humanity and was going to stand by Andrea, who tried to tell her to leave her behind, no matter what came at that them. The temptation to sketch her as a cliched bitter killing machine was eschewed in favour of detailing her as a compassionate person forced to take extraordinary measures in totally extraordinary times, a hallmark of this thoughtful drama that makes me keep watching.
All in all, it was a tight, well thought-out first episode that gave the “more zombies, less talk” brigade their fighting-the-undead fix yet allowed those who appreciate the beautifully wrought character moments that define any great drama to savour them too.
I expect great things in episode 2, “Sick”. You can watch the promo here …