The wait is finally over for the anticipated return of The Walking Dead and, yes, it's off to a fantastic start.
Where last season ended on what could be considered a low note, the second season premiere hit the ground running... and simply kept going.
From the outset, the tension buildup and level of suspense was beautifully crafted against the warm and calm backdrop of the abandoned highway. Not only were the characters slightly on edge, but as a viewer, all I could do was wait for that moment where something would jump out and sink its nasty teeth into an unsuspecting victim.
Even when the herd of Walkers appeared, forcing the characters to run and hide, I continued to anticipate some moment that would reveal the survivors to the zombies. More so, the random zombie that found its way into the RV was a lumbering and scary piece of work that amped up that "when is it going to happen" moment. All I could do was wait. And wait. And wait.
I swear I think I set a new record for holding my breath.
Of course, there was also plenty of graphic moments filled with sharp instruments and head-plunging gruesomeness. Yet, it was the scene where Daryl opened up a zombie with his knife that was probably the most gut retching. Not only was the blood and the entrails visually disgusting, but the sloshing and the squishing was enough to make me want to gag. I have no idea how Rick managed to keep it together.
I guess that says something of his growth as a character. Rick has certainly become more hardened and even brazen when it comes to killing zombies. That harsh look in his eyes as he beat the Walkers with a rock was somewhat chilling. It seems that the dangerous conditions are slowly transforming the man and default leader of the group.
Yet, even so, as that leader, Rick's begun to doubt his abilities to protect everyone. He wants to do the right thing, but feels unsure about the choices to make. He's even gone looking to faith and God for a sign that could help him head in the right direction. Being a leader is clearly tough.
And Andrew Lincoln has done a great job portraying Rick and his complexities. Rick's quiet but assured demeanor played against his own insecurities when alone are clearly visible to the viewer. There's a range of emotions that he gets to play and I'm liking the choices he's making. Andrew Lincoln is Rick Grimes.
Rick isn't the only one that's changing, as the zombie apocalypse has affected everyone. It makes sense that the people remain wary, are jumpy because of a twig snapping, or even just plain stressed out. How could you not be? The end of the world is no easy cake walk and making decisions isn't as simple as ordering a meal at your favorite restaurant. Every choice has a consequence and it's easy to see that each character is teetering on the edge of stability. It's just a question of when that breaking point take place.
I'd love to point out that I appreciated Melissa Suzanne McBride's acting when it came to expressing Carol's distress over losing her daughter. I expected her to shout and scream at Rick while pounding her fists against his chest uncontrollably. Instead, she gave out a quiet strained cry that expressed just as much pain as a loud scream would have. Less was certainly more and the following silence of the rest of the group added to the somber and forlorn moment.
There's clearly a lot of tension between each of the group members and their desires to survive. It was great that the episode began to set up little issues for each character that could eventually become a full blown problem that affects everyone. Lori and Shane's affair perhaps? Rick's faith in himself? Dale and Andrea's relationship or, currently, lack thereof? As much as the group is banded together, simply being human and filled with emotions of fear, jealously, etc. is enough to tear them apart.
It's not always the zombies that are the worst enemy and it's clear that the characters still remain a top priority for the show.
I'm also glad that Rick's son, Carl, finally got to do something more than stand in the background. Not only was he finding some helpful weapons and bravely trying to assist in the hunt for Sophia, but he had multiple speaking lines. It looks like it's time to finally start exploring his character further and see how youth are affected by the end of the world.
That final scene, while inducing another form of drawn out suspense, was a great cliffhanger. Is that really it for Carl? Probably not, but in this world, nobody is ever safe. It looks like Rick could really use one of those slim chances.
"What Lies Ahead" was the perfect set up for season two. There was a nice balance of calm apprehension and full-on zombie fighting that kept the pace from feeling like it dragged on for too long in any moment. The 90-minute episode was worth the wait and it's obvious that all the pulse pounding, breath catching, and heart stopping moments will have viewers craving and clawing for more. Indeed, The Walking Dead is back!
Sean McKenna is a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.