After 2 seasons of watching Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) struggle to keep a petulant group of survivors alive in The Walking Dead, things are finally looking up for him from a leadership point of view - but decidedly down everywhere else.
So, in an effort to guide the remaining ensemble down the long road to ruin, season 3 kicks off 'Seed' by loosening the narrative's grip on just how serialized the series needs to be, and by moving the episode along at a much more deliberate pace. This solves two of the show's bigger problems, in that more progression is allowed to happen off-screen, and the things that are presented in the episode are considerably more interesting. There were glimpses of this in the last half of season 2, which was largely a march toward change for the better. The increasingly burdensome conflict between Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Rick was finally resolved, and the farm where the plot went to die was overrun by walkers and destroyed by fire.
As much as Hershel's farm had drained the plot of its excitement, perhaps it had been designed as a means by which the audience could get to know and eventually care about these characters. It didn't really work out that way, however, and by the end of season 2, all we really knew was that this group had a hard time getting along and that they were, more or less, looking for someone to lead them. But despite Rick's best efforts, the group had largely decided Shane was the way to go. That, of course, was undone with Rick killing his former best friend, and adopting a no-nonsense attitude toward keeping these folks alive. Now, the season premiere sets out to show whether or not the whole Rick's-way-or-the-highway approach worked out.
'Seed' gets underway by establishing that even though the prison was revealed to the audience at the end of 'Beside the Dying Fire,' the group has spent all winter jumping from house to house, more or less tending to the everyday requirements of survival. The jump in time works by granting the assumption that everyone has had sufficient time to process Shane's death and to work out whatever problems may still linger between them – at least to the point that their squabbles are no longer as big a threat to the group as the walkers. It also makes Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) being pregnant a far more immediate issue to deal with, and helps explain why Carl (Chandler Riggs) appears to be two inches taller and can gun down walkers as efficiently as his father. Most importantly though, whatever happened during the winter made the group a far more cohesive unit, which is conveyed only by the fact that they're still alive, but also by how quickly they make use of the prison.
The clearing of the prison yard and cell block, followed by the search for supplies, are the most substantial set pieces that 'Seed' has to offer, and they manage to provide plenty of gruesome moments and jump scares to keep things thrilling. The episode also establishes that the state of Rick and Lori's relationship has been taxed to the point that he barely speaks to her, and when he does, it's in a terse, matter-of-fact tone. Rick hasn't gone off the deep end like he seemed he was about to while addressing everyone at the end of last season, but whatever transpired over the winter has earned him enough recognition that even Carol (Melissa McBride) mentions to Daryl (Norman Reedus) the group wouldn't have survived as long under the guidance of Shane. It shows that although time has passed, the influence of Shane is still significant beyond more than the unasked questions about Lori's pregnancy, and it also serves as a small victory for Rick, setting up a new direction for the series under his leadership that will hopefully consist of more than watching every argument as it unfolds amongst the survivors.
There are also a few moments that grant a clearer view of the characters' state of mind, like the comfortable way Maggie (Lauren Cohen) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) look after one another during a rare moment of solace, and Lori's feelings of regret about Shane and her husband, which are amplified by the fear that she'll have to deal with a zombified baby, or worse, the group will be forced to put her down if she were to die giving birth. They're short moments that flesh out where these characters have been, and how those events have shaped them into who they are now. It's also a good starting off point for whatever drama is to come.
'Seed' also offers something the series hasn't really done before; it's allowed the main story to splinter off. At the end of last season, Andrea (Laurie Holden) was presumed dead, even though Michonne (Danai Gurira) had saved her in rather grand fashion. Here again, Michonne's entrance grants the series some excitement and suspense, as she deftly deals with a store full of walkers in search of some aspirin to give to an ailing Andrea. Even though the episode doesn't spend too much time with them, it establishes the pair has come to rely on one another, and the lack of medical supplies has begun to take its toll on the survivors. Most importantly, however, Andrea and Michonne's storyline – though it will likely converge with Rick's group soon enough – is a welcome break from the blow-by-blow account of what everyone else is up to.
This gives season 3 two distinct storylines to follow, which, if nothing else, should provide plenty of opportunities to keep the tempo from relaxing to the degree it has before. And with 16 episodes in this third season, the worry is that the prison will become as much of drag on the plot as Hershel's farm was. So, in what appears to be another effort to combat the temptation of comfort that the prison represents, it turns out not all of the prisoners have succumbed to the walkers – and as far as introductions go, hacking off Hershel's (Scott Wilson) infected leg is about as memorable as Rick & Co. can probably hope to get.
It may be too soon to say that 'Seed' is the episode Walking Dead fans have been waiting for since the pilot, but it certainly offered plenty of visceral excitement and intrigue to back that notion up. At any rate, since much of season 3 is supposed to deal with the threat humanity poses to the living, the surviving prisoners and the Governor (David Morrissey) will likely help keep the suspense above the threat of being kicked off a farm.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Sick' @9pm on AMC.