Take at look at this cold open and tell me you’re not excited. In roughly three minutes, we see Rick, Daryl, T-Dog, and a surprisingly bad-ass Carl break into and clear out a house full of walkers. Rick waves the rest of the group in, Carl scrounges around for food, and for a few seconds, everyone sits in the living room, waiting for whatever happens next. They look exhausted, beaten down, wrecked, and no one says anything. There’s no “Great job!” or “This place is a dump” or “Pass the can opener, Carl.” Instead, they wait, and then T-Dog looks out the window and sees a herd of zombies on the march. There are too many to fight, so it’s back outside the house to climb into cars and get onto motorcycles as the violins start howling on the score and the opening credits kick in. Welcome to the third season, folks. Welcome back to The Walking Dead.
What makes this great—and what makes the rest of this solid, frequently exceptional episode such a promising start for the year—is how much information we get without a word of dialogue. Carl is a little older, and he’s wielding a gun with a silencer; Lori is significantly more pregnant, and she and Rick seem barely able to look at each other; Hershel is, if anything, even older and more ragged than he was at the end of last year. Nobody has died in the interim (Lori’s condition indicates a fair amount of time has passed, and we learn later in the episode that the group has survived the winter), but nobody looks happy to be alive either. And most importantly, even before Rick, T-Dog, and the others start talking (that’s right—T-Dog has lines, folks) about various groups of walkers they need to avoid; and discussing how desperate they are to find a place to hole up, restock some supplies, and allow Lori to have her baby; we know our heroes are on the run. Simply, elegantly, the cold open lays it all out: The herds are too big to be slaughtered, and there are too many of them to be avoided. Each new asylum only provides safety for so long. It’s a little late, but the show finally found a way to justify the long, tedious grind at Hershel’s farm. If this kind of slow death, this constant running and endless terror, was the alternative to hanging out and realizing all the people you were stuck with (including you) were pretty much assholes, well, I’d stick with Asshole City, myself.
What the opening sequence does in a microcosm, the best parts of the rest of the episode do writ large. The whole episode isn’t silent, but there’s less complaining (Lori gets a monologue, but it’s not bad), and more subtext and efficiency. While “Seed” doesn’t spare time to focus on every single character, everyone does have just enough personality to distinguish them, and those people we do see more of are more focused and refined. Daryl is still as awesome as ever, and he and Carol have a fun, flirty conversation that manages to directly address the chemistry between them without diffusing it or becoming cloying. They both still have reservations about Rick, but that no longer comes across as a forced attempt at conflict, because Rick isn’t doing so great. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’s damn near close to becoming unhinged. He’s angry at his inability to find safe ground for his people, angry about what happened with Shane, angry at his wife because she’s pregnant and he isn’t sure he can protect her, and angry at himself for failing again and again to make any of this better.
Which leads us to the prison. It should feel like bad news for the group, who spent all of last season stuck in a plot-swamp of a location, to immediately latch on to a literal jail so quickly, but it makes sense; it’s not an idyllic place like Hershel’s seemingly was, and it presents immediate challenges that fill up most of the episode’s running time. The script breaks it down into small problems. First, when they find the prison, they have to lock up the gate inside and clear out the front yard, to give themselves a safe space to hunker down. Here’s where the other major discovery from the cold open kicks in: The group has gotten really good at cleaning out walkers and working together, to a degree I don’t think we ever saw in season two. Everyone contributes, and no one drags the others down; Carl has gone from liability to zed killer since we last saw him, and that makes him much easier to like. It makes everyone easier to like, really, because even though it would be arguably more realistic to watch normal people flail around helpless in the face of a zombie threat, you can’t really build a TV show out of that sort of thing. At least not more than a single episode.
There are several clean-up sequences in the episode, and Glen Mazzara (along with episode director Ernest R. Dickerson) finds ways to keep them distinct. They break up the drama of the rest of the hour—a sort of sugary, gory spoonful to get the rest of the plot medicine down—and “Seed” gets in plenty of impressively disgusting kills, terrific creature effects, and scary moments. Because Rick and the others have come together so effectively, these sequences are transformed from screaming, stumbling chaos to a kind of nerve-wracking mass murder, and for most of its running time, things go about as smoothly as Rick had hoped. This is important, because he was the one pushing for the group to go inside the prison building; the others were content to hang outside in the yard for a while and catch their breath, but Rick is determined to make a stand somewhere, and this new location suits his growing need for control very well. Besides, he makes a lot of sense. A yard isn’t a place you can live your life, especially not with the ever present danger of unfriendly eyes (rotting or otherwise). For all its dangers, the prison would offer considerable protection, provided everything goes smoothly.
Of course it doesn’t go smoothly, with poor Hershel getting bitten and Rick chopping off the leg with the bite. (Shades of Day Of The Dead.) Oh, and it turns out there are already people hiding in this prison, dressed in convicts’ blues. But put that on hold for a second, because we should probably talk about the totally awesome lady with the samurai sword who likes cutting off zombie heads. As Michonne (she’s never named in the episode that I could tell, but the name is in the episode credits), Danai Gurira doesn’t get much more to do than kill walkers and be mysterious and concerned, but she does it well, and the character has the sort of panache this show really needs if it wants to go forward. In “Seed,” we see she still has the armless, jawless pet zombies she was dragging around last year, and we also see her caring for a very ill Andrea. Michonne and Andrea’s conversation doesn’t give us much information on what the two have been up to, and Andrea’s repeated insistence that she be left behind to die gets old quick, but the scene works well enough to remind us about both characters and suggest that they are even worse off than Rick and the others.
Well, worse off than everyone but Hershel, who is now missing part of his leg. “Seed” continues the show’s ongoing pattern of intense serialization; apart from the group arriving at the prison and deciding to make a home there, the episode doesn’t have a clear standalone story, and ends with a cliffhanger that’s more like the end of a two-parter’s first hour than a single unit. That’s not a huge problem, and it might just be a function of where it stands in the season; maybe things will tighten up a little down the line. Other than that, I don’t have any serious complaints. There’s so much action, and so little conversation, that it’s impossible to tell if the character clarity will continue once people start talking to each other. But so far, everyone is coming from a coherent place; even Lori, full of self-loathing and fear, makes sense. Being pregnant after the end of the world would be terrifying, especially with the added possibility that either she or her baby could die and turn into a brain-dead cannibal. Time will tell if the show will be able to maintain the momentum it establishes here over the course of 13 episodes, or if a promising start will once again peter off into a lot of dull squabbles and random death. But the developments in “Seed” are strong enough (and a clear enough extension of the way the show was heading at the end of season two), that there’s reason to hope. So long as everything keeps going terribly, we should be in for some fun.
- There isn’t much time for it in this episode, but the prison offers an excellent opportunity for the show to do a little clubhouse building. Genre series often do well to have a special place for the heroes to hang out in, like Serenity on Firefly, or the Island on Lost. The prison isn’t magical, but it could potentially serve as the same sort of base of operations, a building we grow as attached to as the heroes.
- I was surprised when Hershel got bit, although I should’ve realized something like that was coming. (If Rick had been able to settle the prison without difficulty, it would’ve been much too easy.) I was even more surprised to realize I was upset about it. Hershel’s never been my favorite character, but I don’t want him to die. Good job, show.
- Carol: “That’s pretty romantic. Wanna screw around?”
- It takes Rick multiple chops to get through Hershel’s leg. Given how many hot-knife-through-butter zombie dismemberments are sprinkled throughout the hour, this is a nice moment of unexpected (and agonizing) realism.