THE SHOW "The Walking Dead"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC

REASON TO WATCH Second season recommences.

CATCHING UP Those shuffling inhabitants in Hershel Greene's barn had been fed and cared for by his family, or cared for as much as any "walker" could be. Hershel (Scott Wilson) believed this walking dead condition to be a disease awaiting a cure. And then the doors were opened: One by one they came out, dispatched by bullets to the head by Shane (Jon Bernthal), Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who pulled the trigger on Sophia, the littlest "walker" and Carol's (Melissa Suzanne McBride) daughter.

The band of survivors had spent the first half of this season looking for Sophia, after she had run off into the woods. Sunday is a period of mourning, for burying the dead, and taking stock. Hershel still wants everyone off the farm, but then he suffers a relapse of sorts. He leaves the farm, while Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Rick set out to find him. Pregnant Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) will need a doctor for delivery one of these days.

MY SAY Sunday picks up precisely where the first half of the season left off, and I do mean precisely. The gun barrels are still smoking . . . shock, grief and disbelief are as thick as the midsummer Georgia heat. Poor Sophia, missing these weeks, was dead all along? (Even worse: walking dead?) Yes, and she thus became a particularly grim symbol and affirmation of "The Walking Dead's" only real credo -- that in a truly apocalyptic world, hope is only for fools.

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Fans were conflicted -- especially me -- about the advisability of killing a little girl, even if she was a zombie. Nevertheless, it was absolutely true to this series' nihilistic spirit. Sunday's episode is entitled "Nebraska," which could be a MacGuffin -- or a red herring. But either way, the word (and state) figure in an especially shocking scene that reinforces the credo once again.

BOTTOM LINE "Dead" remains good, while the tone gets darker and darker. Smart, grim start to the second half.

GRADE A-