The Walking Dead’s season-three premiere suggests that the program’s showrunner, Glen Mazzara, and writing team have listened to everyone’s gripes about season two’s frequent and labored pontificating. Bearing almost none of the heated bickering and discussions of morality that personified the previous season, “Seed” is about persistence and strategy. It picks up several months after Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the group’s escape from Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) farm, which was overrun with walkers. Despite any unrest among them, the group exhibits a renewed sense of unity as it trudges on in an increasingly dangerous world. In the pre-credit sequence, Rick, his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Hershel, Daryl (Norman Reedus), and the rest of the gang raid a home in the middle of the woods and share a brief meal consisting of canned food. If for no other reason, the sequence is striking for its silence. Without a word of dialogue, the opening ostensibly sets the series forth in a new direction, thematically and otherwise.
The characters inevitably get back to talking, but mostly absent from their conversations is all the unsubtle moral agonizing. The writers seem more confident in the new material and the urgency with which they deliver it. Some of the characterizations and performances are marked by obviousness, such as the way Rick appears to be less human with each passing moment, and how Lori still seems intent on breaking the barriers around them. Overall, though, the characters are more concerned with survival. Consequently, the series more closely resembles the sprawling dystopian vision it suggested in its first season than the soapy dramatic palette of the second. The moments shared between characters are punctuated by quiet exchanges, such as in an early scene around a campfire when Hershel’s daughter, Beth (Emily Kinney), is encouraged to sing. The scene is drawn out to nice effect, articulating both the hollowness and camaraderie that now defines the group.
The majority of the rest of the episode concerns the team’s tactical advances to infiltrate a prison Rick believes can provide them shelter. Viewers who wanted more action out of last season are sure to be satisfied by the skirmishes the episode has to offer. However, with so much bloodshed, one can’t help but wonder how much more can be done to find new ways to kill zombies in a creative fashion. The visceral nature of the series is put to risk with the sheer overload, which is something The Walking Dead will need to deal with at some point. Director Ernest Dickerson, who was also at the helm of last season’s finale, manages to keep the action engaging with an evenly steady and intimate approach to visualizing carnage. The hand-to-hand nature of the combat heightens the sense of desperation that Rick, T-Dog (IronE Singleton), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Daryl are feeling, despite the assurance with which they dispense with walkers. In fact, the prevailing feeling of “One wrong move and that’s it” is a notion that might very well play out over the course of the season.
Another welcome development is the return to more traditional zombie scares. When the group eventually penetrates the prison, Rick leads a team through its dark and labyrinthine hallways. They encounter more walkers, of course, and little in the way of surprises. Nevertheless, the tension is palpable during these late scenes, which is somewhat surprising given the number of easy zombie dispatches earlier in the episode.
But how long can The Walking Dead keep up the momentum and spectacle, given the static nature of its parameters? The series has always shown potential in individual moments: Sofia emerging from the barn from season two and Andrea cradling her sister as she transforms into a walker from season one are perfect examples. “Seed” offers some good moments of its own, such as a great shot of the group surrounded by walkers behind a fence, in which the humans and walkers blend together almost seamlessly. The difference now is that the novelty is gone—a notion that actually works as well within the series as outside of it. Thus, as The Walking Dead enters its third season and strives to retain its relevance, the sporadic vivacity we’ve seen through two seasons can no longer substitute for what until this point has been elusive: a sustained tone and consistent level of quality.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.