"The Walking Dead" returns to AMC for a third season.

"The Walking Dead" returns to AMC for a third season. Credit: AP

THE SHOW "The Walking Dead," AMC, Sunday, 9

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The third season opens with a tight shot of a walker's eye -- yellow, reptilian, remorseless -- then the camera tracks back to reveal the interior of yet another bleak, tattered Georgia farmhouse, along with the bleak tattered group of survivors once again seeking safe shelter. There is none to be found here: More walkers straggle in from the woods, and the survivors take off. It's a smaller crowd now: Andrea (Laurie Holden) is presumed gone, though in fact she was rescued by a mysterious figure -- Michonne (Danai Gurira) -- who actually has a pair of walker "pets" and also wields a wickedly effective katana, a Japanese sword. Shane (Jon Bernthal) is dead, leaving the leadership role free and clear to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). He leads them to the edge of a clearing, and there lies salvation, in the form of a huge prison. Naturally, they have to first thread their way through the gauntlet of prisoners and guards, all very dead and very ravenous.

MY SAY If fans had any major (or minor) beef with the second season, it was maybe this: Too much talking. Or maybe this: Too much time devoted to the search for poor little Sophia, Carol's (Melissa McBride) daughter who disappeared in the season opener. Or since we're stuffing the suggestion box here: Too much farmhouse, or at least one farmhouse belonging to Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) in particular. Viewed in this context, the first five minutes of Sunday's opener are almost a manifesto. Not a single word is spoken -- except by an owl, which meets a brutal end -- as the survivors rummage around in another misbegotten farmhouse with chintz curtains, bad food and the stench of death. As walkers approach, Rick finally says, "there's no place to go" except, of course, there is.

Much of the third season is expected to take place inside the prison, which -- visually, emotionally, narratively -- turns out to be like a blast of freedom. (Yeah, it's meant to be a paradox, and is.) The interior of this haunted place is everything you'd imagine it to be in your nightmares and then some. Shards of gray light pierce the shadows, while huge often-unseen doors grind and clank. It's steampunk without the steam. Something terrible lies beyond those doors and -- like those doors in "Prometheus" -- you open them at your peril.

The third season also moves "Walking Dead" into the heart of the Robert Kirkman comic book series, with the Governor (David Morrissey), and the tiny kingdom he rules over (Woodbury), assuming center stage. He's not seen at all in the first two episodes, but his malevolence is lurking out there just beyond the gates. You can feel it.

BOTTOM LINE Just to be perfectly clear -- Sunday is a blast. Heads will roll, and roll well. The gore quotient is through the roof. And finally this guarantee -- there is one, maybe even two, spots where you will yell out at the screen, "Oh, my God, that just didn't happen." Yes, the new season is that good.


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