Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

As excited as we’ve been for AMC’s The Walking Dead to make its grand return, the anticipation hasn’t entirely been positive. On the business end, the bad news that the show’s developer, Frank Darabont, had left the production brought with it hearsay chatter about budget cuts and the butting of heads behind closed doors; from a strictly viewer-sensitive standpoint, the inescapable fact that The Walking Dead’s six-episode first season was altogether uneven is something that’s tough to admit, but honest in nature.

And that lack of quality control circles right back to Darabont, who wrote the two best episodes, the pilot and its follow-up, “Guts”, a pair of installments that exemplify just how excellent The Walking Dead can be when it’s on point. By taking Darabont out of the picture, though, all that’s left are the writers who penned all of the awkwardly cheesy dialogue and tonally inconsistent storytelling. There’s also the issue of too many survivors and not enough breathing room for them; if your name wasn’t Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), Shane Walsh (Joe Bernthal), or Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) in The Walking Dead’s debut run, you suffered through underdevelopment.

So the notion of a full, 13-episode second season has been one of excitement and nervousness. With Darabont’s exit happening amidst tension, and the show’s existing episodes presenting an abundance of problems for the revolving-door-decorated writers’ room to solve, The Walking Dead Season Two could very well drive a series with incredible potential (just dig through the surplus of source material in Robert Kirkman’s Image Comics title).

Or so we thought. If last night season premiere, “What Lies Ahead”, is a proper indication, new showrunner Glen Mazzara, Kirkman, and the whole Walking Dead team have something special in store for us this year.

Stuck On The Highway To Hell

And it all begins with a rather ballsy decision to blow their horror load right off the bat. “What Lies Ahead” opens not too long after the CDC building explosion that capped off last season’s finale. Rick and his fellow survivors are hauling ass out of Atlanta when they hit a roadblock on the interstate: The generic post-apocalyptic-movie sight of stalled cars covering the road with dead drivers seated inside of the vehicles. Then begins the scavenger hunt, during which everyone picks apart the cars and trucks to look for food, clothing, and anything else that’s fit to take.

And that’s when the herd of “walkers” shows up, and when “What Lies Ahead” quickly confirms that The Walking Dead isn’t playing around. With Rick and the crew all hiding underneath the cars in complete silence, a mob of zombies shuffles down the road, and it’s an extremely tense set-piece that’s dually beneficial: It reminds us why we watch the show in the first place (i.e., sick undead makeup, legit scares, and violently gory mayhem) and also puts all of the characters directly in harm’s way, which forces viewers to empathize with folks they might not have given two shits about last season.

When little Sophia (Madison Lintz) flees into the woods after a zombie finds her hiding spot, the resulting search-and-rescue mission allows the episode’s two credited writers, Kirkman and Ardeth Bay, to give nearly every character something to do (sorry, still useless T-Dog [IronE Singleton]…better luck next week), a welcome change from last season’s lopsided narrative focus. Carol (Melissa McBride), Sophia’s mother, gets to plead before a Jesus Christ statue for her daughter’s safety, in the episode’s best piece of acting, a knockout sequence made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s carried out by someone who was barely a noticeable presence last year. Redneck and kinda racist Daryl (Norman Reedus) gets to show off his usefulness by twice saving T-Dog's black skin on the highway and then using his hunting knife to perform a nauseating autopsy on a walker’s stomach to see if it's chowed down on Sophia; he’s softening up, no longer the group’s one-note, volatile where-is-my-brother antagonist.

Andrea (Laurie Holden), channels her anger (fueled by her sister’s death in Season One’s “Vatos”) at Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) for not letting her carry a gun and for spoiling her suicide attempt in the CDC. Andrea also gets the episode’s most badass moment, a claustrophobic attack inside the RV during the opening highway incident that’s as suspenseful as the best George A. Romero zombie fight. It’s even punctuated by a wicked screwdriver-through-the-head death blow not unlike the one in Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead.

Holden’s character now has close ties to the whole Rick/Shane/Lori plot, since she overhears Shane talking to Lori about his decision to quietly abandon the group and fend for himself; Andrea, also fed up with feeling like a “third wheel,” wants to ride shotgun alongside him. We’ve officially opened the gambling table for bets on how long it will take Shane and Andrea to hook up—we’re saying it’ll happen by the eighth episode. Place your bets.

The Kids Aren't All Right

“What Lies Ahead” wasn’t without its fuck-ups. As the monologue-prone Rick, Lincoln does a fine job as always, and his desperate speech in front of the Jesus statue showed off the English actor’s knack for nailing sympathetic self-doubt and suppressed fear. But Rick’s voiceover at the beginning of the episode felt way too melodramatic and overlong, starting “What Lies Ahead” with groans, not applause. Fortunately, the episode ended in a completely opposite and Breaking Bad ”Oh shit!” way.

Voluntarily separating from the rest of the group, Rick, Shane, and little Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) continue the search for Sophia in the woods. A deer crosses their path, going about its daily routine with a pleasantness that defies all of the terror and hopelessness that Rick’s posse feels in the face of the zombie apocalypse. Rick, watching in awe, smiles at the innocent, aloof deer, and just as Shane is about to shoot it down, Rick stops him and points to Carl; Carl, mesmerized by the The Walking Dead’s very own Bambi, slowly walks toward it. It’s a rare moment of happiness and serenity, immediately following Rick's in-church request for a sign from God to help him be a stronger leader. But the tranquility abruptly ends when a bullet tears through the deer and straight into Carl’s stomach. Nice "sign."

Those feelings of shock and grief that hit us as the credits began rolling? The byproducts of caring about the characters enough to give a damn without needing any zombie violence to satisfy us. Which similarly explains why Carol’s sobs and pleading inside the church struck such an emotional chord. More so than any second of The Walking Dead’s first season, the key moments in “What Lies Ahead” made us feel the survivors’ pain—meaning, for the first time since its pilot episode, The Walking Dead’s character-driven mission succeeded wholeheartedly. A reassuring sign of things to come, perhaps?

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)