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? 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 seeing the dead return to flesh-eating life — looms over the return of AMC's The Walking Dead Sunday, completing its third season (the channel splits its 16-episode season into winter and spring cycles).
As the season begins, heroic 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 deceased wife Lori is looking over his shoulder. Meanwhile, at a nearby 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.
The show's real-life, behind-the-scenes drama mirrors its zombified stories; AMC faces tough questions after unceremoniously dumping executive producer Glen Mazzara, one year after removing filmmaker Frank Darabont from the same job.
With all this maneuvering, there are a few burning questions at hand as the show returns to new episodes. 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, the Governor has revealed a murderous side beneath his molasses-smooth image. In Sunday's episode, we see Rick lead an assault on Woodbury that leaves fatal casualties; later, he returns to his crew's prison home base determined to kick out a band of newcomers including a character known to fans of the graphic novel that inspired the show, Tyreese (Chad Coleman). As Rick struggles with visions of his dead wife, is his shattered state mimicking the despair of the Governor?
2) Can the show keep its momentum from last fall? In December, Walking Dead drew more key viewers for its midseason finale than any fall show on cable or broadcast. But cable's tactic of dividing seasons can be confusing. 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: a website debuting Sunday maintained by the graphic novel's creator Robert Kirkman, 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 had been in the fold since the second episode, devoured by zombies. In a series where major characters are often eliminated just to keep the audience on its toes, the question of who may die next looms large.
4) Will the show stop killing off its characters of color? This one is a gimme. African-American characters Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Tyreese are fan favorites, so they'll likely stay awhile, countering the show's recent habit of killing off interesting black people. Still, 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. 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 sweet spot fans like me — who love seeing just how twisted people can get when the chips are down — can really enjoy.