The Walking Dead Returns to AMC

The Walking Dead returned Sunday to 12.3 million viewers, the largest audience to date, with a slower-paced midseason premiere that delivered its punch in the final minutes. The midseason finale ended in December with a face-off between brothers Daryl and Merle in Woodbury, the Pleasantville-esque town designed and run by the newly one-eyed Governor. Viewers saw a lot of action ten weeks ago; Michonne murdered the Governor’s walker-daughter Penny, Rick and the crew overran Woodbury and rescued Maggie and Glenn, and Tyrese’s clan was introduced.

The show’s newest episode was bookended with action but featured a lot of cleaning up. Rick’s team helped to free both Daryl and Merle; the two ultimately set off on their own after Rick’s insistence that Merle could not join the group at the prison. Walkers broke into Woodbury, causing momentary havoc which Andrea and The Governor took care of. Back at the prison, Carl and Hershel did their best to get to know Tyrese and his companions.

When Rick arrives back at the prison, Beth hands him baby Judith. For the first time since, we get a glimpse of the Rick who spoke to ghosts on the phone. Hearing her cries reminds him of the day Lori died, and it echoes in his head.

The brilliance of the midseason premiere was its admission that the main characters are finally breaking beneath the pressure of the zombie apocalypse. Lori’s death early in season three was a huge shock for viewers and the audience has seen the characters fall to pieces ever since. Maggie and Glenn are facing turmoil in their relationship after they were captured and interrogated by the Governor. Andrea is unsure of her role in Woodbury as she watches the town crumble. The show has assumed a darker tone in its third season and Rick is at the core of the anguish.

In the final minutes of Sunday’s episode, Rick meets Tyrese for the first time. Tyrese hopes he will allow them to stay in the prison and he has all but convinced Hershel that he and his cohorts would be valuable additions to the group. Rick is denying them when he sees the dark figure of Lori in her wedding dress on the prison’s mezzanine, just as he saw Shane aiming a gun at him in the midseason finale. This time, however, he starts yelling. He screams at Lori, asking what she’s doing there, and orders Tyrese out of their side of the prison, ending the episode on a rampage.

Audiences have journeyed through nearly three seasons with Rick, but it’s unclear whether he will continue to be the anchor of the group or fade into insanity. The previews for the remaining season three episodes show Carl trying to take a more dominant role and Daryl returning to warn the group that the Governor is headed to the prison. Unless Rick can find a way to cope with his morbid visions during stressful moments, Walking Dead viewers may be looking ahead to a drastic change in leadership.