The makers of “The Walking Dead” clearly heard some of the audience complaints about last season’s slow pacing and excessive jibber-jabber regarding what constitutes morally appropriate behavior in a post-apocalyptic climate. Perhaps that’s why Season 3 of America’s most-watched zombie-oriented television series begins with a steady barrage of gunshots to undead foreheads, throat impalements and walker-eyeball stabbings. And that doesn’t even count the partial amputation of a key character’s leg or the murder of a defenseless hoot owl. Hey, a zombie-apocalypse survivor’s gotta eat.
Yes, seven months after the Season 2 finale in which the “Walking Dead” survivors bolted from Hershel’s farm in the wake of a rotter takeover, the series has returned, moving home base to an (almost) abandoned prison and cranking up the action to zombie-kill 11. That’s good news for those who watch this AMC drama for the thrill of the goosh-thud of walkers permanently meeting their makers. But viewers who savor the show’s prickly tension and deeper existential themes may find themselves pondering a question once kinda-sorta posed by Bob Dylan: How many roads filled with zombies can a fan walk down before she decides to change the channel?
To be fair, only a pair of episodes from this third season — which will split its 16 installments into two chunks, running from October to December and picking up again in February — were made available in advance to critics. Based on teasers for the new season, as well as the events that unfold in Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, on which the show is based, we know that the prison move and the introduction of new characters (see: the ruthless, sword-wielding Michonne) promise to take the narrative in fresh directions. But in the meantime, don’t be surprised if these first two hours feel, at times, a little been bitten there, already zombie-killed that.
In the few months that have passed within the “Walking Dead” narrative, things have changed, but only a tad. Perpetually conflicted leader and former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is a little more decisive. His wife, Lori Grimes, is a bit more pregnant, but no one can be bothered to throw her a baby shower because, you know, zombies. Their son, Carl — a preteen whose lack of supervision last season inspired both a Tumblr and a Jeopardy category titled “Where is Carl?” — is still not being adequately supervised. But now his voice has changed, which means his sassy comments sound slightly more mature.
These hardy souls and the rest of their partners in post-apocalyptic survival-scrapping will focus this Sunday and next on turning that jail into a cozy home where they can comfortably rest without fear of their faces being chewed off. Some obstacles naturally get in the way, including one that pushes a main character’s survival into the maybe category and leads to a scene that may make even the most gore-obsessed “Walking Dead”-ophiles a little teary. “The Walking Dead” can still surprise us that way.
And that’s one of the reasons why we must keep watching.
We also must keep watching to reassure ourselves that if faced with a global meltdown, zombie-virus-related or otherwise, we could survive, even though in real life we basically dissolve into puddles when Pepco can’t flick the power back on three days after a derecho. (Imagine dealing with that and the possibility of running into an undead mutant at any moment. “Pepco power restoration estimate: unknown. Pepco zombie attack estimate: OH MY GOD IT’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU.” )
We’ll keep watching to find out how long our undead-battling posse can survive at the prison. We’ll keep watching to keep track of how many zombie eyeballs get stabbed over the course of the season, since there’s a good chance this show may set a new Guinness World Record in that regard. We’ll keep watching because we just know Carl is going to make some terrible decisions that will turn into hilarious Internet memes that we won’t grasp nearly as quickly if we haven’t kept up with the action. And we’ll keep watching because we want to believe that if a time comes when the dead really do walk the Earth, attention must be paid to the living who stubbornly remain.
(one hour) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. Viewer discretion is advised in a biiiig way. Read recaps of every gory detail throughout the season at washingtonpost.com/celebritology.