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”He hates me. He’s too good of a man to say so, but I know.” — Lori
I groan reflexively any time I hear an actor, a writer or a director discuss how a certain setting is “virtually a character in itself,” but watching the Season 3 premiere of The Walking Dead last night, I couldn’t help but think of the Prison in that way. Seeing the penitentiary for the first time – the physical structure, not the computer-generated image we were teased with in the spring finale – I was struck by its sense of horror and promise, its sense of place. Despite being built from scratch by the production team, the Prison feels more real than the quarry in Season 1 or the Greene farm in Season 2. Those were just backdrops, with little connection to the players (except perhaps for the escape from Hershel’s home, when the scattered buildings and surrounding woodland suddenly sprang to life, if only to be abandoned).
With “Seed,” the audience is slowly, and violently, introduced to the Prison — its intimidating razor wire, its spacious outer yard (a good place for crops, we’re told), its claustrophobic cells, its shadow-filled halls – in a way strikingly different from those previous settings. We come to know the facility even as the survivors do, through a wonderfully tense and bloody process as Rick and the others clear the yard of walkers before moving on first to a courtyard and finally to a cellblock in desperate hope of finding food, medicine, ammunition – a refuge.
And make no mistake, they are desperate. As the episode opens, the survivors have been on the move for months, through the winter, running in circles as they try to avoid the vestiges of the walker herd that overran Hershel’s farm, all the while looking for food and a place to sleep, if only for a night. But rest doesn’t come easy; they’re exhausted, malnourished. However, this isn’t the same group we last saw camped by the roadside, cowering at a noise in the shadows. The intervening months have transformed these stragglers into a well-oiled machine that wordlessly breaks into a home, dispatches the zombies inside and then systematically searches for supplies before silently fleeing at the approach of more walkers.
They’ve all been changed by their shared experience, their shared horror: Hershel, once an imposing country vet who viewed the walkers as merely sick people, is now little more than a scarecrow who doesn’t bat an eye at shooting down the undead. Carl, taller and more mature, no longer needs to be watched over; instead, he uses a pistol (complete with silencer) alongside the adults. Lori, further along in her pregnancy, takes responsibility for driving her husband away, and for pushing him toward killing Shane, but has no idea of what to do about it. Weighed down by the burden of leadership, Rick is not only distant from his wife, but from the group.
But the changes aren’t all negative: Carol and Darryl display genuine, if lighthearted, affection for each other, while Glenn and Maggie’s relationship has blossomed into the healthiest one in the group (in a tender moment, he surveys her body for walker scratches). And Hershel’s daughter Beth, who spent last season either as a piece of scenery or a plot device – “Go get Hershel, Beth’s catatonic!” “Keep Andrea away, Beth’s suicidal!” – has begun to show signs of an actual personality (before the apocalypse, she liked to sing, and now she appears to enjoy Carl’s budding crush on her). We still don’t know anything about T-Dog, but at least he has more dialogue.
Most refreshing, however, is that the outdated division between men’s roles and women’s roles – the latter performing “the Hattie McDaniel work,” as the late Jacqui noted early in the first season — has collapsed during these months on the run. No longer do the women stand back, washing laundry and cooking meals, while the men (and, after a point, Andrea) protecte the group. Now they all have active roles, with Maggie gleefully swinging a blade alongside Glenn, Rick, Darryl and T-Dog, and even Carol firing a rifle (resulting in a sore shoulder that requires attention from Darryl).
However, as bad as these months have been for the other survivors, they’ve apparently been worse for the fiercely independent Andrea, the first to abandon “women’s work” for a rifle. Rescued after her escape from the farm by the katana-wielding Michonne (with her two armless, jawless walkers in tow), Andrea is now ill, unable to even protect herself. They’ve been on the run too, only without the luxury of a car — sorry, Hyundai, you’ll have to be satisfied with just the one product placement – and Andrea is keenly aware she’s slowing down Michonne, who ventures out to find medicine and then lies about the dangers around them.
Still, at least Andrea’s not Hershel, who, after trying to comfort Lori’s disturbing yet understandable fears about the malnourished fetus dying inside of her and transforming into a zombie – hey, she’s seen Alien — ventures out of their secured cellblock to locate the prison commissary, only to have a walker gnaw on his leg. While the survivors have lost many people over the course of two seasons – Ed, Amy, Jim, Jacqui, Otis, Sophia, Dale, Shane, Jimmy, Patricia – Hershel’s would be perhaps the deepest felt. He’s not only a father and confidante, easing into the role of camp elder better than Dale did, but the only one with medical training; if he dies, the future of the group, to say nothing of Lori and her unborn child, looks bleak. Well, more bleak.
And so Rick does the only thing he possibly can: He chops off Hershel’s leg just below the knee. As shocking and gruesome as the amputation is, it’s nearly upstaged by the episode-closing turn that may have further-reaching effects than the loss of Doc Greene’s limb: the emergence of five inmates who have survived for the past year in a prison overrun by walkers.
“Seed” ranks among the strongest episodes to date, alongside the Season 2 finale (unsurprisingly, director Ernest Dickerson and writer/showrunner Glen Mazzara were involved with both). If The Walking Dead continues with this level of drama and character development, perhaps we can come to forgive the creators for the aimless first half of last season. Perhaps.