Well! That was about as bracing as an axe to the shin, wasn't it?
Like a lot of people, we approached Season 3 with some trepidation, partially because what's coming up should be an epic and jaw-dropping story which could so easily go wrong if it's not written well, and partially (mostly) because everything went so wrong for this series in Season 2 because it wasn't written well. But this episode was so tight and lean, so spare and economical in everything but gore, that we don't think we've ever seen an episode that so clearly looked the audience directly in the eyes and said "We know what we're doing here."
Our rag-tag group of survivors is even more rag and tag, but they demonstrate a smooth efficiency in dealing with walkers that they never had back in the days of crazy Shane and busy-body Dale. The opening scene has them enter the front door of a house, dispatch the walkers inside, look for food and then clear out the back door when a herd shows up almost entirely wordlessly, like a team of special ops forces that just happen to contain a pregnant woman, a ten-year-old and a 70-year-old.
The script efficiently informs us, in exposition dialogue that doesn't actually sound like exposition, that they've survived a winter together, that Lori's near her due date (although the wholly unbelievable baby bump did that at first glance), that Carl's a badass with a silencer, and that Andrea and Michonne have come to rely on each other and formed some sort of tight bond (with overtones that sounded romantic to us).
All the bullshit of last season seemed to have been addressed head-on. Lori, who just may have been one of the most detested characters on television, judging by Internet reactions to her, was effectively silenced for most of the episode. We don't think she said more than five words in the first 20 minutes and when she did speak, she said things that made you sympathize with her instead of blurting out, "Oh, SHUT UP, Lori." Someone obviously sat Carl down, showed him how to use a gun and told him to stop wandering off. Someone finally got the idea that the lady folk can handle weapons too and that having them fold laundry all the time was an idiotic use of their time and resources. We think the biggest improvement must have been Carol, who went from simpering mess to wise-cracking badass -- and somehow, the writers made this transition work. Everyone's much harder and much leaner (except Lori, of course), but there's an ease within the group that's nice to see. We kept thinking during the episode, "FINALLY. We have a group of people we feel like rooting for."
Things aren't exactly rosy, however. Herschel never looked so old and frail before -- and that was before Rick hacked away at his infected leg. Lori and Rick are barely speaking to each other and Rick seems to be one group member death away from cracking up for good. It's to his enormous credit that he got the group through the winter without losing any more of them, but they're starving and a life on the run has clearly taken a toll on all of them, even if it has made them better with guns. Everything was cooking with gas last night; great action scenes, horrifying gore, heart-in-the-throat moments like that hallway scene, and human drama that didn't feel tacked on from another script, i.e., drama that arose out of the desperation we were seeing onscreen instead of drama coming from love triangles or parenting conflicts. We probably couldn't have asked for a better season premiere than the one we got.
There were some disappointments, however. It took us a couple of minutes to process that we never got to see what it was like to survive in the zombie apocalypse in the dead of winter, a change in scenery that would have been quite welcome after two seasons of pit stains and shiny brows. The script is still relying on moments of character stupidity in order to generate horror -- seconds before Herschel got attacked, we said "Why aren't they making sure all these bodies are dead-dead?" Sure, Herschel's momentary lapse can be explained due to concern for his daughter, but it was harder to take after 45 minutes of demonstrating how smooth and smart the team has become. In fact, Herschel's presence on the hallway mission was pretty damn stupid. He's the only member of the group with medical and farming experience, and he's far too old to go on action missions like this. He should have been left back with Lori and Carl. But horror stories generally rely on babysitters going into darkened basements and other such stupidities, so we guess we're going to have to suck it up going forward. People are going to continue to do dumb things on this show, but so long as these moments occur roughly with the same frequency as they did in last night's script, we're OK with that. The entire hour felt like the creators of the show turning directly to all its detractors after last season and saying with tremendous confidence, "Bring it, bitches."
But we're still kind of pissed that Rick slapped that can of dog food out of Carl's hands. That's the kind of thinking that should have been beaten out of this group months ago.
Oh, and Tom could not help but gleefully shout "That's my girl!" pretty much every time Michonne did anything. We think Daryl and Michonne should get their own show. "He's a hot red neck! She's a kickass black chick! Together, they kill zombies!" We'd watch the shit out of that.