Four burning questions as AMC's The Walking Dead returns from winter break Sunday
When the zombie apocalypse finally strikes, who can you really trust?
Do you trust the capable, moral leader who hallucinates contact with his dead wife and best friend? Or the manipulative liar whose untruths kept a community safe, while he secretly collected dead men’s heads and coddled his zombified daughter?
That question – how do you judge a humanity twisted by the horror of seeing the dead return to flesh-eating life – looms over the return Sunday of AMC’s The Walking Dead completing its third season (the channel splits its 16-episode season into two cycles).
As the season begins, heroic Georgia sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is struggling with issues that have pitted most every member of his ragtag group of human survivors against each other, while imagining his decease wife Lori is looking over his shoulder.
Meanwhile, at an outpost of survivors called Woodbury, its ruthless leader The Governor (David Morrissey) is coping with the loss of an eye and an armed attack from Rick and his crew, who shoot their way into the enclave seeking to save a member of their group taken captive.
“It’s more a question of, can Rick keep it together at a point when this formidable foe in The Governor is coming for him?” Glen Mazzara, the show’s outgoing executive producer, told the Hollywood Reporter. “People respect and defer to Rick, but everyone will come to realize he’s not the same leader who got them through winter.”
Curiously, the show’s real-life, behind-the-scenes drama mirrors its zombified stories. AMC may struggle to build trust after axing Mazzara as executive producer one year after the cable channel unceremoniously removed filmmaker Frank Darabont from the same job.
As rumors fly placing blame on the creator of the comic book which inspired the show, Robert Kirkman, Mazzara and AMC will only admit to the oft-cited vagary "creative differences." Mazzara has played the good soldier, giving interviews on the news season and retweeting stories to spread word of Sunday’s debut.
Still, with all this maneuvering, there’s a few burning questions at hand as the show returns to new episodes at 9 p.m. Sunday. Here’s my list:
1)Will Rick become a mirror image of The Governor? Secretly keeping a wall display of human heads in glass boxes, killing and torturing those he sees as a threat to Woodbury, The Governor has revealed a murderous side beneath the molasses-smooth image he presents to most of Woodbury. In Sunday’s episode, we see Rick lead an assault on Woodbury which leaves casualties; later, he returns to his crew’s prison retreat determined to kick out a band of newcomers including a new character known to fans of the graphic novel, Tyreese (Chad Coleman). As Rick struggles with visions of his dead wife, is his shattered state growing closer to The Governor?
2)Can the show keep its momentum from last fall? In December, Walking Dead notched a milestone, drawing 6.9 million viewers in the key 18 to 49 demographic for its midseason finale; the biggest number for any fall show on cable or broadcast. But cable’s habit of dividing up seasons can be confusing to viewers and has doomed lower-profile shows such as Men of a Certain Age. At a time when even American Idol has trouble matching past ratings, can Walking Dead keep bringing fans back after its winter breaks? (one possible help; news that Kirkman has created a website, debuting Sunday, that gathers together tons of Walking Dead materials, contests and more at www.thewalkingdead.com)
3)Will another major character get killed by season’s end? In the fall, we saw Rick’s wife Lori die during childbirth and T-Dog, a character who has been in the fold since the second episode, devoured by zombies. As Sunday’s episode starts Darryl Dixon, a survivalist who has become Rick’s right hand man, is forced to fight his brother Merle to the death by The Governor in Woodbury. In a series where major characters are often eliminated just to keep the audience on its toes, the question of who may die next is always looming large.
4)Will Walking Dead stop killing off its characters of color? This one is a gimme. African American characters Michonne (Danai Guirira) and Tyreese are fan favorites, so they’re likely to stay awhile, countering the show’s recent habit of killing off interesting black people. But in Sunday’s episode, Rick doesn’t trust either of them and is prepared to eject them from the prison where his ragtag group lives; something of a death sentence. Still, given that The Governor is likely to try attacking the prison, Rick may have to roll out the welcome mat for characters he doesn’t entirely trust.
That's a sweep spot fans like me – who love seeing just how twisted people can get when the chips are down, zombie apocalypse-wise – can really savor.