Everyone pretty much agrees that what was wrong with the last season of THE WALKING DEAD was that it featured too many humans sitting around a dull farm chatting and whining about a missing little girl, and too few walkers walking — and even fewer of those zombies getting dispatched in creatively gruesome, ichor-soaked ways.

Well, it is clear that executive producer/show-runner Glen Mazzara has taken those criticisms to heart, because the premiere of the third season featured more zombies than all of last year’s shows combined, and our heroes got to kill them by the boatload in scenes of tense, close-up hand-to-hand combat.

Several months have passed since the end of the last season, when Rick (Andrew Lincoln) put his foot down and established himself as sole ruler of the survivors. Despite camping just a couple of miles from a derelict prison, the survivors somehow managed to miss it and spending the winter wandering the countryside and having unseen adventures, during which Carl (Chandler Riggs) seems to mature a lot, and Lori’s (Sarah Wayne Callies) “Who’s the Daddy?” pregnancy proceeded apace. But when Rick and Daryl (Norman Reedus) do finally stumble upon West Georgia Correctional Facility (West Central Prison in the comics), Rick isn’t worried about the walkers infesting the fenced-in front yard. He organizes the group into a task force that cleans out the yard in step-by-step, walker-by-walker, in violent hand-to-hand combat. However, not content with a strip of grass, Rick pushes the group to move inside the prison building itself and seize the medicine, food and supplies that doubtless wait within.

After more intense close combat — including facing off against former guards in riot gear — Rick and crew manage to secure one cellblock and move everyone in. Lori is due to give birth at any moment, so there’s lots of worry over her. Rick is concerned that the cellblock is not completely secure and leads yet another foray — this one into the dark bowels of the facility, which turn out to be infested by hordes of walkers! One creep manages to bite Hershel (Scott Wilson) on the ankle, and Rick, desperate to save his life, chops off the limb just below Hershel’s knee. Will the gambit work? There’s no time to worry about it as the group is suddenly confronted by a gang of human survivors who were already inside the prison! Meanwhile, it is revealed that Andrea (Laurie Holden) has spent the winter holing up with the mysterious, katana-wielding woman (Danai Gurira) who rescued her from the zombies, but she is very sick. With a herd closing in, the women have no choice but make a break for it.

The episode starts with a little zombie-slaying that establishes the skills of the mystery woman — whom comics fans recognize as the beloved character Michonne — but then quickly turns to reestablishing the core group of survivors and getting viewers up to speed. Things have obviously changed, as Rick barely speaks to Lori and Carl has not only learned to handle a weapon and been put on zombie-clearing duty, he also has a bit of a crush on Hershel’s cute youngest daughter, Beth (Emily Kinney).

Lori finally broached (with Hershel) a subject I’ve been wondering about for quite some time: What if she miscarries? That little bundle of joy is going to wake up as a flesh-craving dynamo. The fact that the kid hasn’t torn its way out of her abdomen like a chest-burster from Alien tells me that her fetus is still alive.

Glen (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are closer than ever, and Hershel seems to be settled in as paternal figurehead and team doctor, complete with portable medical kit. The bedraggled survivors of the previous two seasons are now a lean, mean fighting machine. Even Carol (Melissa McBride) has become a crack shot (and a lot less shy about pursuing Daryl).

But what has never wavered is Rick’s conviction that there is a safe haven out there somewhere — some place where they can put down roots and start building a life for one another. And the prison may just be what Rick was hoping to find at the end of his particularly dark rainbow. It’s what keeps him going; we can see from Lincoln’s haunted eyes that the burdens of leadership do not rest any easier on Rick’s shoulders. The way he instantly made the decision to amputate Hershel’s leg and then struck the blows himself prove that he’s getting better at accepting that he must do what no one else is willing to do.

Hershel was dismembered on camera, with Lincoln chopping through a prop leg with a hatchet — and if that is any indication of what’s in store for the rest of the season, then gore-hounds will be getting their fill. The gore has been taken to a whole new level, with swords and machetes not only cutting heads off, but slicing them in half. And the Gas Mask Zombie really set the bar, with all the skin of his face getting torn off before Rick split his skill — right through the eye! Obviously Emmy winner Greg Nicotero is looking to stretch the limits of what can be accomplished on a basic cable budget, and we are reaping the rewards.

Part of what is making the walker slaying so much more visceral is a lack of ammunition. Hesitating to waste bullets, the team spent more time than usual confronting zombies in single combat and stabbing them through the eyes with pipes and pointy things — I’m pretty sure T-Dog (Irone Singleton) was armed with a weather vane!

But the episode was far from random splattering zombie juice; director Ernest Dickerson (Dexter, ) steadily built tension throughout the episode as Rick kept pushing his exhausted team further and further. The climactic fight in the depths of the prison almost put the viewer right there in the dark, claustrophobic corridors, lost amid the confusion, shouting and shaking flashlights as walkers blocked our heroes’ every exit.

I’m not looking forward to more conflict with more human survivors, but I trust that the walkers battering down the door will put the kibosh on too much posturing and chitchat.

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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