By Joe Donatelli
"The Walking Dead" returns Sunday night on AMC -- and just in time, too. With "Breaking Bad" gone, it's been a desperate two weeks in America, with many turning to reading books about TV shows. Sure, we still have "Homeland" and "Boardwalk Empire," but those are on channels you have to pay for. Plus, hardly anyone shoots a crossbow on those shows. Not so with "The Walking Dead." Crossbow action out the wazoo.
"The Walking Dead" has it all. It has bad guys with eye patches and good girl ninjas. It has the living fighting the undead -- and each other. It has bad guys who do good things for bad reasons and good guys who do bad things for good reasons. It has people who do nothing at all and make you wonder if "The Walking Dead" is an elaborate allegory for modern office life.
So, T-Dog, what would you say you do here?
"The Walking Dead" grabs you from the opening theme song, which is the music that cable news will play when the world ends. You're slammed in the face with modern dystopia, and you're like: Maybe the preppers are right. Maybe I need a 300-pound supply of beef jerky and my own milk cow JUST IN CASE. What am I doing with my life? I'll be useless during the zombie apocalypse. I need to live less like the guys on "The Big Bang Theory" more like those guys on "Duck Dynasty." I should at the very least learn how to tie some useful knots or something.
But then I remember it's just a TV show. There are no zombies. "The Walking Dead" is something conjured from the minds of Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. It's a good show. Its three seasons have had their ups and downs, but that's OK because...massive crossbow action. If you need a refresher, here is what has happened so far. (Share on Facebook )
Small-town Georgia sheriff Rick Grimes awakens from a coma after being wounded in the line of duty only to discover that the world has become infested with zombies, AKA "walkers." The way you can tell someone is a walker is that their skin is gray, and they don't have their noses buried in a cell phone. You become a walker when another walker bites you or your blood mixes with a walker's. You stay a walker until someone chops your head off or your brain is inflicted with enough blunt-force trauma.
Rick sets out to look for his young son, Carl, and his wife Lori, who started seeing Rick's best friend and fellow cop Shane sometime during Rick's ambulance ride to the hospital. Rick and Lori had hit a rough patch in their marriage, and Lori took advantage of the fact that your husband will not object to you dating his best friend if he is in a coma.
Rick eventually meets up with Carl, Lori and Shane on the road, and you can practically hear a Jerry Springer audience going, "Ohhhhhhhh!!!!" Awkward.
But Lori gets back with Rick, which disappoints Shane, as if Lori was going to tell her husband, "I'm with Shane now, even though you're still recovering from being shot for being a hero and the world is ending. I'm sure you'll meet someone nice whose arm hasn't been chewed off."
Rick, Carl, Lori and Shane are part of a camp that eventually includes Glenn, a spunky Asian, Andrea, who is annoying, Amy, her sister, Merle, an ex-con redneck stereotype, his little brother Daryl, who is awesome and has a crossbow, Jim, who likes digging holes, T-Dog, who is a guy, Jacqui, who does chores, Morales, who is Hispanic, Carol, who is a mom, Sophia, her daughter, and Dale, who's like an older version of the dad from "Family Ties."
The first season of "The Walking Dead," which is terrific, revolves around two major stories.
While in Atlanta, Rick and the gang put Merle in time-out by handcuffing him to the top of an office building. T-Dog, who is black, loses the keys, and you know what grand dragon wannabe Merle is thinking: "Oh, that's just like a black guy." Rick and company leave Merle on top of the building, flee Atlanta and head back to camp.
Daryl returns from hunting and is told his brother is chained to the top of a building in a city swarming with walkers. Oops. Some of the dudes from the gang go back to Atlanta, which it should be noted still has awful traffic problems even after the apocalypse. Rick retrieves some guns, but all they find on top of the building is an arm and a bloody hacksaw. Merle's fate is unknown, and his brother Daryl and Daryl's awesome crossbow aren't happy.
Back at the camp there is a zombie attack, and Andrea is forced to kill her sister Amy, who has been bitten. This is sad, and it's the last time you'll like Andrea for a while. Rick and the gang arrive and drive back the attack.
The group decides to head to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Shane doesn't like the idea and pulls a gun on Rick, but Shane comes to his senses and doesn't shoot Rick for trying to save everyone.
At the CDC the gang meets up with Dr. Jenner, who says he has no contact with the outside world, no hope for a cure and precious little power left in the building. Other than that, he's great. No. Wait. He's super-depressed. And he's the world's only hope. D'oh!
In any case, this is not the news the gang wanted to hear. They all take hot showers and eat real food and get drunk, and Shane confesses his love to Lori. We learn Shane went back to rescue Rick, but failed, so maybe he's not the scum we think he is.
Dr. Jenner decides there is no hope left in the world and initiates a self-destruct sequence at the CDC that will kill him and everyone in the building. Then he has a change of heart and lets the gang go. Jenner lets Rick know a secret during a "Lost in Translation" moment, and the secret is not revealed until the following season. Jacqui stays behind and is blown up in the CDC with Jenner. The gang caravans away without hope or anyone to do the chores.
Carl is shot in the woods, on accident, by a man who lives in a nearby farmhouse. The man, Otis, leads Rick, Carl and Shane back to the farm. Rick carries Carl for miles in one of the great Rick scenes in the show's history. You can't help but like the guy, even if everything he does gets people killed.
The farm is in good shape, has plenty of food and is run by an old veterinarian named Hershel. (Pro tip: A "veterinarian" in Armageddon times is also known as a "surgeon.") Hershel has a 20-something daughter named Maggie, the proverbial farmer's daughter.
I'm not going to lie -- the first 2/3 of this season was a letdown. So let's blast through it:
- Shane sacrifices Otis's life while getting medical supplies for Carl, who just barely pulls through. At this point if your character is in a scene with Shane there is a 15 percent chance you you will die.
- The group loses its little girl, Sophia, when a herd of walkers ambles through their camp. Daryl and his crossbow search for her. Daryl becomes the most interesting character on the show, even though he seems like the kind of guy who at some point in his life was personally offended by a mechanical talking wall fish.
- An injured Daryl takes down a slew of walkers and makes himself a crazy zombie ear necklace. Daryl pretty much saves this season. Women love devil-may-care bad-asses who try to save little girls, and men want to be them.
- Glenn and Maggie, the farmer's daughter, get it on while foraging for supplies in a convenience store, as a weary nation thanks the show's writers for pulling the romantic storyline away from Lori and Rick.
- Lori discovers she's pregnant, of course. She thinks about killing the baby, which is possibly mankind's only hope, but doesn't.
- Andrea, who has spent all season asking for a gun, finally gets one and mistakenly shoots Daryl with it. The crossbow is unharmed.
- Glenn discovers Hershel's barn is full of walkers. Hershel thinks walkers are still people because some of those walkers are his family. The gang suddenly realizes it has allied itself with the Quaker Oats guy.
- Andrea gets good at killing walkers, and Shane rewards her with sex.
- Carl spots a walker stuck in the mud and throws rocks at it but doesn't tell anyone. The walker eventually bites Dale and Daryl has to mercy-kill him, which stinks because what did Dale, that cranky old hippie, ever do to anyone?
In town, Rick, Hershel and Glenn go for a drink and they meet up with some random bad guys. Rick kills a few of them, and they take a guy named Randall hostage. Randall seems nice enough, but Shane convinces the others that Randall must die because he can lead the others in his bad guy group to the farm. Odds that you will die if you are in a scene with Shane are now 55 percent.
Shane kills Randall, but he tells everyone Randall escaped. The gang sets off to look for Randall, and they find that Randall has not been bitten but is a walker. They don't know why.
Rick and Shane meet up in a clearing, and Rick knows Shane is going to kill him. The Shane-will-kill-your character odds are now 100 percent. Ricks hands over his gun, but he gets the drop on Shane and stabs him in the chest with a knife. Finally, Dr. Jenner's big secret from the CDC is revealed: humans turn into walkers after they die even if they're not bitten. Everyone is infected. A zombie Shane comes for Rick. Carl, who just happens to be there, shoots zombie Shane. Like father like son. They have both been shot, and they have both killed Shane.
A group of walkers overruns the farmhouse, and the group flees with Hershel and Maggie. Andrea is rescued by a hooded figure wielding a katana sword, and you're like, "Where the hell has that awesomeness been all season?"
On the road, Rick tells the group, "If you're staying, this isn't a democracy anymore." No one objects, the Tea Party having long ago been chewed up by walkers.
In the final shot of the season, the camera pulls back, and you can see that the group is about to stumble upon a large, ugly, foreboding structure surrounded by menacing fences, which is either an American high school or a prison.
Like so many television shows that faded during their sophomore seasons, "The Walking Dead" comes back strong.
Rick and company waste all of the walkers in the prison and make it their home. (You can tell it's a prison and not a high school because it's supplied with edible food.)
The ninja with the katana blade is Michonne, who keeps two limbless, toothless walkers on chains with her to keep other walkers away. She's amazingly badass. Andrea falls ill, and Michonne spends the winter keeping her alive.
Oh, and guess who's back? It's Merle, that old racist so-and-so. Only instead of an arm he now has a bayonet for a hand. In simpler times one imagines he might have ironically festooned his stump with an artisan cheese knife, but "The Walking Dead" takes place at a desperate hour.
Merle takes Michonne and Andrea to a walled-in town called Woodbury, a quaint, little burgh that looks like the kind of place parents who drive Range Rovers take their kids for ice cream. In Woodbury, Andrea tells Merle that Daryl and his crossbow are still alive.
And that's when we meet the Governor, Woodbury's leader. What's he like? He's an SEC football coach with machine guns. Andrea, who specializes in making terrible decisions, accepts the Governor's invitation to stay. Michonne, who displays the kind of skepticism one expects from someone who can wield a katana blade, doesn't trust the Governor and wants to leave.
We quickly learn that even though the people of the town are essentially decent, the Governor is a bad man. He kills outsiders indiscriminately, and he keeps live walker heads in aquarium tanks in his home, which is exactly the kind of thing Deadspin might report about Nick Saban someday.
Meanwhile at the prison, there is a walker attack, Lori goes into labor, and Maggie must cut the baby out of her belly. The baby is fine, but Lori dies while giving birth and Carl has to shoot his own mother before she turns into a walker, too. Unless the gang eventually meets up with a gang of roving psychologists, Carl's adulthood is screwed.
T-Dog dies in a heroic sacrifice to save Carol, which is nice of him.
Rick collapses when he hears his wife is dead and that he has another kid to take care of and no health insurance. He then goes nuts and journeys deep into the prison to slaughter as many walkers as he can, including Lori's killer. He starts to crack up, imagining telephone calls from Lori and seeing her ghost. She's even annoying in death. The Governor, meanwhile, has an undead daughter named Penny whom he keeps in a secret cell in his home.
Back in Woodbury, Michonne slays a bunch of captured walkers, which ticks off the Governor, so she leaves. Andrea stays (some friend she is). Michonne was the only reason Andrea was still a live, and two seconds later she was all, "Later, girl."
Merle tries to catch Michonne, fails, and wastes his own guys. Glenn and Maggie, who only exist to run into town and get supplies, are kidnapped by Merle and taken to Woodbury when they run into town to get baby supplies. Michonne brings the baby supplies to the prison, introduces herself and explains what happened to Glenn and Maggie.
Merle tortures Glenn to find out where the rest of the group is holed up. Glenn, who is coming into his own as a badass, fights off a walker and refuses to talk. However, the Governor threatens Glenn's life in front of Maggie, and Maggie gives up the prison's location.
Rick, Daryl, Michonne and Oscar (there's a guy named Oscar) sneak into Woodbury to rescue Glenn and Maggie, which they do. Oscar is killed (bye, Oscar) and Daryl is separated from the group.
The governor tries to make Merle and Daryl fight to the death for the town's amusement, but they escape, and Merle allies himself with the prison group. Everyone in the prison, is like, "Greeeeeeaaaat."
Michonne gets all "Revenge of the Ninja" and sneaks into the Governor's apartment, finds his undead daughter Penny and kills her. The Governor walks in, they brawl, and it's tremendous, because these are the show's most evil and most good characters locked in mortal combat. The walker head aquariums are shattered (you can almost smell the stank) and Michonne stabs the Governor in the eye with a shard of glass. His life is saved when Andrea shows up and threatens to shoot Michonne because Andrea ruins everything.
Now it's war.
The timing couldn't be worse for the prison group. Their numbers are down, and Rick is still hallucinating. The Governor ambushes the prison with a group of walkers, and the gang just barely survives.
In Woodbury, the Governor drafts every citizen aged 13 and older to fight at the prison. Andrea finally has a good idea - a truce - but it is too late. She missed her chance to prevent this when she stopped Michonne from killing the Governor.
Andrea makes for the prison to warn the others of the coming attack. Then she goes back to the Governor, and they have sex, because the dating scene in Zombie America is only slightly worse than modern Los Angeles. She has a chance to kill the Governor in his sleep - her second chance to kill him - and decides against it. Ugh.
Rick and the Governor meet in an abandoned feed store to negotiate. It goes about as well as a sit-down between President Obama and Rep. Boehner. The Governor says he won't attack the prison if Rick hands over Michonne.
So, a still-nutty Rick asks Merle to kidnap Michonne. Merle does, but Michonne convinces Merle to let her go, and Merle is redeemed (a little). Merle is killed by the Governor, and Daryl kills Merle later when Merle is a zombie. But not with the crossbow. With a knife. Giant letdown.
Knowing they are probably about to die, Glenn overcomes the male fear of commitment and asks Maggie to marry him. She accepts.
All of which leads to the big finale:
Rick decides not to sacrifice Michonne, so war is inevitable.
The Governor leaves Andrea bound in a torture chamber with a dying man who will soon become a walker.
The Governor and his soldiers storm the prison, but it's empty. They descend into the tombs and are chased outside, where Glenn and Maggie open fire on them. Not as invested in killing strangers as their boss, the Governor's soldiers bail.
To be honest, it's not that great of a final battle, but it was realistic. Nice people from a nice town who think their leader does right by them will only follow him so far until they realize they're just pawns in his cruel game.
Back in the torture chamber, Andrea cuts herself free with a pair of pliers that were conveniently left at her feet.
Carl shoots a defenseless boy during the battle, and Rick gives him a talking-to, but it's clear there's a lot of Shane in Carl. Sooooo, good luck with teenage Carl, Rick.
On the way back to Woodbury, the Governor yells at his crew for retreating. When they won't go back to fight, he opens fire and kills all of them. He then drives off with his two main henchmen, who appear to be freaked out by the Governor, Martinez and Shumpert.
Andrea was bitten by the walker, and with Michonne by her side, she kills herself. If there is any justice in "The Walking Dead" world, she and Lori spend eternity on the same cloud.
Rick brings the rest of the Woodbury survivors back to the prison because he is magnanimous in victory, and the showat desperately needs more characters for Season 4.
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Joe Donatelli is a journalist and the author of "Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy."