Piers McCarthy reviews the first episode of The Walking Dead season 3…
Season Two of The Walking Dead was exceptional at points but never seemed as exciting as the first. There were a few amazing set pieces (notably the season’s finale) and some wonderful characters introduced, but the pace was ultimately too slow at points. As much as The Walking Dead’s (alternate) realism can be admired, to have the audience gripped by every episode requires an even balance. That’s why as Season 3 starts, it looks to be checking all the right boxes.
Major spoilers follow…
We begin a few months after Hershel’s farm was attacked by a hoard of re-re-animated zombies and Rick and the group are searching for a new sanctuary. Lori is heavily pregnant and so a secure spot is ardently needed – somewhere that is not too vulnerable to attacks. A brilliant dialogue-free opening showing Rick, Daryl, T-Dog and an older, stronger Carl searching and clearing a house is as tense any of the memorable sequences from the show’s start. It’s also fantastically gory, giving you a taste of what the next 40 minutes will include. The world around the main group is becoming increasingly feral, highlighting their peril in a wilderness of zombies and showing the passage of time to first-rate effect. In amongst the long grass, overgrown bushes and sprouting trees are countless zombies. As the group think of settling in to the new house (if only briefly) one look out the window onto a shuffling score of zombies tells them to head off.
The new credit sequence rolls (now using infamous imagery from the past 2 seasons) and we return to the band of survivors deliberating over which direction to take. A short but detailed discussion tells the audience of how far they’ve travelled and for how long. Not needing to have seen all this enables the writers to move on swiftly whilst still retaining the notion of measured time (an improvement on the trudging tempo of some of Season 2). As quickly as they have set off again Daryl and Rick spot a prison facility overrun with zombies; “That’s a shame” Darly states whilst looking over the walls and gates of the secure prison, but Rick is far more optimistic. Cut to Rick et al snipping through the fence and boldly entering the zombie-ridden grounds. If any fans were deterred by sluggish sequences in Season 2, the whole fight through the prison yard impressively wins back their hearts. Every stab, slice and slam that the walkers receive is gloriously visceral. Some may grow tired of the monotonous kills but for the true zombie buffs, its gore-galore!
Having placed their figurative flag in the prison yard, the group relax for the evening, happy in the safety of the chain-wired fences. As if careful not to dull the drama and excitement of the past 15 minutes, the solemn scene is not drenched in dialogue but some poignant singing from Beth and her sister Maggie. It’s a scene of splendour as the family sit around the fire having found a great new location to camp, also felt by the viewers who are looking forward to the following morning’s further exploration.
Before the next morning’s search we cut to a plot line we’ve been dying to see – the mysterious Michonne (last seen helping Andrea as she fled the farm) and her zombie escorts, armless, jawless and chained together like two dogs. She’s similarly going through houses and shops searching for food and medicine – equipped with a slick samurai sword that cuts the heads off the undead with ease. Still remaining an enigma, the only inkling we get of her character is through her interaction with Andrea later on, to whom she gives aspirin and cares for like a sister…or lover (though that may be reading into their relationship a little too unwisely) .
Ramping up the tension and action again, the writer and director craft an excellent scene involving Rick, T-Dog, Daryl, Maggie and Glenn pushing through multiple zombies the next day – swiping with machetes, shooting with arrows and bullets, and stabbing with poles and pokers – in order to gain more ground. Special effects are bettered with every episode and in amongst the skull spearing comes some truly horrific (but pleasing) kills. As one would expect in a prison environment, armoured guards roam around – the group have never come across an armoured zombie before and slight confusion into how to destroy the brain is humorously illustrated. Daryl tries to shoot an arrow through the helmet with no luck, and Maggie furiously attempts to bash through it. It’s only when they realise to thrust their sharp weapons underneath the visor that danger is avoided. It also leads to the group taking the gear for themselves – Rick pulls off one helmet, yanking the skin off the zombie skull in the process (one of the most graphic and nerve-pinching effects-work seen up till now in the show). After defeating what they can of the outside zombies, they venture into the actual prison. This is where Frank Darabont’s presence is missed as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile director could have brought his own expertise to this narrative crux. Fortunately, Ernest Dickerson, whose filmography includes directing episodes of The Wire (notably the fourth season’s fantastic finale), Dexter and some previous Walking Dead episodes (interestingly Season 2’s “Seed” which was also about the discovery of a new base – the Hershel farm), has a lot of talent and stylistically brings the group and audience through the new habitat.
After the blood-stained prison cells becoming the rooms for a night’s rest, the next day still includes roaming the darkened corridors. Before those moments Lorie and Hershel have a pivotal discussion about the baby. Lori thinks, as the virus is in everyone, that the baby could be a still-born or worse, that it “rips me apart” from the inside. Hershel offers sound advice saying, “Don’t let fear control you” (a great mantra not only for a story such as this, but in general) and tries to lighten Lori of each of her worries. Lori, due to her affair with Shane, was largely unlikeable throughout last season but it now seems that she’s gaining some empathy from the audience. Fears of a dead/zombie baby or her dying during childbirth and becoming a walker are ideas that, in terms of the show’s reality, are frighteningly distressing.
The last 5 minutes are thrilling and shot beautifully – torch light breaking through the dusty atmosphere and point of view perspectives adding to the tremendous tension. Zombies fill the subterranean spaces, entrapping the group in a maze of death. Hershel trips momentarily and viewers’ nails begin to be chewed off. Then Maggie and Glenn get momentarily separated and audiences’ hairs begin to stand on end. Finally, Hershel gets bitten in the ankle and our hearts pound furiously. It took a whole season for action like this to be witnessed last year and now fans are being given a gift – adrenaline-fuelled catastrophe blended with new adventure. As Hershel is lifted to a secure room, Rick takes initiative and hacks off the old man’s infected leg. We’ve seen blood splattered all throughout this programme but something about the living’s pulsating palates being poured out onto the floor disgusts. It’s an effective way for the SFX department to put their expertise to use for a more cringe-inducing outcome.
Five more heads appear from the lower end of the room as Hershel lies unconscious; Daryl hops up with his crossbow at the ready. He pauses momentarily and the camera closes in on a bearded man and he exclaims, “Holy shit”; more survivors and now more characters. Dickerson’s direction is masterful and his ability to combine crucial genres into one episode – drama, action, horror, thriller and comedy (odd lines here and there) – highlights his ability to entertain. As long as future episodes are like this, Season 3 could be the best season yet. The episode received 9.2 out of 10 on IGN, with a viewership of 10.9 million viewers. From the trailers, Season 3 did look like an exhilarating launch into new territory and episode 1 proudly presented that.
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