“The Walking Dead” is back! While we’ve been waiting all summer for the return of our occasionally intrepid band of zombie apocalypse survivors, an entire winter has passed for them since the exodus from the farm. We open on Rick, Daryl and Carl emptying a house of walkers and ushering the rest of the crew inside for a temporary rest. A quick sweep of the kitchen reveals no provisions save two cans of dog food, but that still looks pretty good to Carl, who barely has time to crack one open before Rick pulls it out of his hands and tosses it in the fireplace. I understand that no one ideally wants their kid to eat dog food, but really, Rick? After all the insanely horrible things that have happened in this series, you draw the line at Alpo?
Unfortunately, they barely get a moment to rest before T-Dog spots a wave of walkers heading their way, and everyone files out of the house in a silent, organized way that betrays how often they’ve done this. After they get some distance from the latest threat, we learn that they’ve spent much of the winter going in circles, moving house to house looking for the sort of respite and safety they never seem to find, and the constant flight seems to be taking a toll – especially on Lori, who is exceptionally pregnant.
Rick notes that they really need to find some place to hole up for a few weeks so Lori can give birth. Man, if only they could find some sort of more permanent residence, like the giant prison that we saw at the end of the Season 2 finale! Fortunately, Rick and Daryl stumble onto just that during an impromptu hunting trip, and I doubt anyone has ever been happier to see a penitentiary full of criminal zombies. While prisons are traditionally designed to keep people in, Rick quickly realizes that the secure perimeters could offer their ragged crew the sort of security they’ve only dreamed about since the whole “walking dead” thing got started, not to mention food, medicine, weapons and ammo.
Official Leader Rick – who as you may remember, recently announced that democracy was over and he was basically Dictator for Life of their little crew – gathers everyone outside the prison and starts giving out orders, an admittedly well-planned offensive that ends with the total annihilation of zombies in the yard. As the crew revels in a rare moment of happiness, prancing around the yard and singing songs, it’s hard not to notice the ironic sort of freedom they’ve achieved by locking themselves inside a prison.
Feeling distant from Rick, Lori reaches out by suggesting they talk more about how some other guy might be the father of her child, which for some reason doesn’t go over well. Rick shuts her down with a line that sums up his entire character: “I’m doing stuff, Lori. Things.”
Elsewhere, we get our first full introduction to the fantastic, katana-wielding death machine that is Michonne, whom we see cleaving the heads off of walkers with ineffable elegance and taking care of a very ill (but not dead) Andrea. I don’t know if the Michonne of the show will measure up to the Michonne of the comics, but I have high hopes, and this is a promising start.
The next morning the prison crew successfully clears out a cell block, and man, it is the saddest thing ever that a dank, gross prison full of dead bodies is the best thing that has ever happened to these people. They are truly psyched about curling up in their jail cots next to blood-soaked walls. Lori has a brief freakout that the baby will die, turn into a zombie inside her and tear its way out, which is some Prometheus-level body horror, right there. She makes Hershel promise to kill either her or the baby if they die in childbirth, and muses briefly that they might all be better off dead anyway. Fun times.
After the crew continues their push into the rest of the prison, exploring dark hallways in a sequence that very much resembles a video game, they find themselves confronted by several waves of walkers that separate Maggie and Glenn from the group. They backtrack to find the couple, and seriously – they’ve stepped over dozens of walkers without even thinking to check whether or not they’re still bitey, so it’s not a huge surprise when one of them stirs to life and takes a great big chomp out of Hershel’s leg just as he discovers Maggie and Glenn.
They hustle the older man into the cafeteria, and instead of putting him out of his misery, Rick does something even more messed up: He pulls out a hand axe and hacks off Hershel’s leg. It’s a pretty ugly and protracted amputation, too, requiring... let’s say, more seven and less than 10 chops? The leg finally comes off just in time for the big reveal of the episode: five live prisoners on the other side of the cafeteria, staring agape at the motley, blood-soaked crew.
Will the mystery prisoners be friends or foes? Dangerous criminals or capable allies? Did cutting off Hershel’s leg seriously stop the infection from traveling through his bloodstream or was it just a little bonus trauma for him before he dies? All this and more, next episode.