How do you follow up the most surprising winter finale of the TV season?
If you're AMC's hit horror show series The Walking Dead, you add the one element missing from much of the program's run as an explicit tale about a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies.
You reveal that the people who aren't zombies sometimes are the bigger danger.
Fans will remember last year's spate of seven episodes ended shockingly — the band of survivors at the show's center realized the farm where they had been staying held a barn filled with zombies, kept there by the owner who hoped to find a cure.
But when one of the survivors forced the door open, they had to kill all the "walkers," as they are called, including Sophia, a girl who had gotten separated from their group, whom everyone had hoped was alive.
As the season's six remaining episodes kick off Sunday night, everything has changed for our survivors, who questioned farm owner Herschel Greene (did he know Sophia was in the barn?) and the group's leader, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln).
Turns out, the series itself faces a similar turning point.
From now on, viewers will see episodes entirely crafted by Glen Mazzara, the guy who had the thankless task of taking over as top producer when original "showrunner" Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption) was fired.
Some critics have complained that last year's episodes, which took place mostly on Greene's farm, were too slow. The survivors, who stayed at the farm while looking for Sophia, mostly wrung their hands about their fate and marinated in sorrow.
(However, Grimes found out his wife, who is pregnant, had an affair with his best friend when she thought he was dead at the series' start.)
In an interview with New York magazine's Vulture blog, Mazzara admitted Darabont didn't want to film the scene where Grimes wife reveals her infidelity and wanted storytelling to move slower.
"The audience does get hungry for stuff and audience cannot be too far ahead of the characters," he said. "Otherwise, they become frustrated … and they feel the characters are stupid or not worth their time."
Sunday's episode reveals Mazzara's differing style, as Grimes and two friends run into two other living people, and quickly realize that not everyone on the run from the walkers has the best of intentions.
That is a central theme of the Walking Dead graphic novel, but a notion that doesn't show up on the TV screen very often. Instead, producers distract the audience with violence, diverting attention from the fact that these people too often fail to act like folks struggling to stay alive at the world's end.
Readers of the graphic novel already knew Greene kept zombies in the barn; that's why the weeks TV characters spent figuring it all out felt so slow (Sophia's appearance was a shock not in the books).
The death of Sophia proved the show's producers were willing to play with the expectations of fans who know the graphic novel's story. So now we wonder if the group led by Grimes will leave the farm, as they did in the book.
Will they meet murderous gang leader the Governor, who embodies all the worst things living men have devolved into? Will they meet Michonne, the sword-wielding woman with a talent for killing walkers?
The outcome of Grimes' encounter with the new people gave this fanboy hope that producers might pick up the pace a bit, making all the characters a bit more nuanced and — dare I say it? — dangerous.
Because there's really no point in watching a show about mindless zombies, unless producers give you reasons to care about the people still left alive.