Okay, I'll admit I made a fuss when Frank Darabont was cut loose, but I ate crow immediately when I saw that the quality of the storytelling didn't really take a hit. In fact, I was on-board and supporting this show all last season, championing the slower pace with its emphasis on character development and emotional impact over zombie kill-counts and violence.
And I still think I was right.
It was a slow burn, but it allowed the tensions to build and build until they finally exploded in that final confrontation between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane. And then, when the barn burned, it drove home the apocalyptic tone after developing a false sense of security. They were all uprooted and everyone had lost something or someone.
It also provided a distinctive cut point, with Rick's ultimatum echoing into the downtime between seasons. As I said last week, this has allowed the show to develop naturally, utilizing the season break to jump us forward in time and give us a group of survivors that the hard winter has forged into a zombie-killing machine.
It was impressive enough watching them clear out the prison yard and then the cell block in a swift and effective manner, but it wouldn't be The Walking Dead if something horrible didn't happen every couple of episodes. The amputation of Hershel's (Scott Wilson) leg in front of an audience of shocked inmates was a very effective counterpoint to the zombie hunt and this week launches into the immediate aftermath of the bloody emergency surgery.
And that's where we really see how the gang has changed.
Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Emily (Emily Kinney) are understandably in shock as they watch their father start to slip away, but the rest of the team is on point. Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carol (Melissa McBride) get to work on taking care of Hershel's wound, Glenn (Steven Yeun) is charged with being ready in case Hershel doesn't make it, and Rick, Daryl (Norman Reedus), and T-Dog (IronE Singleton) take on the surprise guests – or hosts, depending on your point of view.
The inmates are a motley crew who have been locked in the cafeteria for ten months, eating well, staying quiet so they don't attract walker attention, and shitting in a closet. Their "leader", Tomas (Nick Gomez) – the only one with a gun – doesn't think Rick is a real threat and attempts to position himself as the Alpha Dog (as though Daryl and T-Dog will just fall in line). Rick gives him a little bit of leash, but after a botched attempt to feed Rick to the walkers, Tomas meets a quick, bloody end with neither Daryl nor T-Dog blinking an eye.
And when Rick runs down Tomas' only real support, Andrew (Markice Moore), we see exactly how winter changed him.
It's a cold-blooded scene that drives home the fact that Rick will do whatever it takes to protect the group. Killing Shane changed him, and this is a whole new man. And it's a character development that would never have felt natural or worked as well if we hadn't had that slow Season Two. These are changes earned.
Similarly, Carl (Chandler Riggs) has developed into something a little scary and has clearly come down on his dad's side with regards to the tension between his parents. He still has that ability to wander off without anyone noticing he's gone, only now he's a bad-ass zombie killer who finds the infirmary and brings back the meds and bandages that help save Hershel's life.
He's also the only one with his gun at the ready when it looks like Hershel might have changed.
We had no Andrea (Laurie Holden) or Michonne (Danai Gurira) this week, but that's okay. Next week is all about them from what I can tell. And it looks like we'll be introduced to the season's Big Bad: The Governor (David Morrissey).
Given how on the money the first two episodes have been so far, I have no doubts or anxieties about how they plan on adapting this storyline from the comics. All I know is it won't be pretty.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.