If the night is always darkest before the dawn, then dawn must be a long, long way off in the world of The Walking Dead. Because for the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, things are about to get a hell of a lot blacker.
Season 3 of cable TV's most-watched show gets underway Sunday night on AMC, not a moment too soon for fans eager to see where things are headed following Season 2's chaotic finale last March.
For those somehow not yet infected by the show's grisly charms or the comic book it's based on, The Walking Dead is classic zombie fiction in that the shambling undead aren't the enemies so much as they're a deadly force of nature always threatening the so-called good guys, represented by sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), earnest go-getter Glenn (Steve Yeun), wise but weary Hershel (Scott Wilson) and the rest of their group.
After a short first season and a second season that dragged in the middle, The Walking Dead finally found its pace with a series of emotional gut-punches and significant plot developments. Yeah, we still loathe some of these people -- with the exception of hillbilly hero Daryl (Norman Reedus), there's probably not one character on the show who is universally liked by fans -- but that's part of the point. Being in constant mortal peril can change people in some pretty monstrous ways. Or as the show's Season 3 tagline puts it: "Fight the dead. Fear the living."
Here are five reasons why The Walking Dead's third season should be the best so far.
It's a Ricktatorship now
In the closing moments of the Season 2 finale, Rick revealed to the group that he killed Shane (Jon Bernthal) in self-defense. He then dared them to strike off on their own if they didn't like his style of leadership, grimly declaring, "This isn't a democracy anymore." Now that Rick has eliminated the scourge of Shane and located his cojones, it's going to be fascinating to watch how far he'll go to protect his people. And the transformation isn't likely to be pretty.
The prison is in play
Fans of The Walking Dead comics know some of the series' most gut-wrenching developments happen when the group stumbles across a zombie-infested rural prison (glimpsed in the final shot of the Season 2 finale), which they clean out and claim as their own. But what seems like a safe haven becomes a magnet for trouble, both from inside the prison's walls and from forces who want to take it away from Rick's group.
Michonne has arrived
After Andrea (Laurie Holden) becomes separated from the rest of the group in the Season 2 finale, she's saved from becoming a zombie entree by a hooded woman wielding a katana and leading two armless undead around on chains like the world's creepiest pitbulls. This is Michonne (Danai Gurira), a badass, enigmatic walker-hunter who will be a significant factor in the Season 3 storyline.
And so has the Governor
Yet another character fans wanted to see make the jump from the comics to the TV show, the Governor (David Morrissey) will make his debut in Season 3 as the charismatic, sociopathic leader of an idyllic walled town called Woodbury. After the Governor captures Andrea and Michonne, it's only a matter of time before he learns about the prison, and covets it for himself.
There are still questions to be answered
When Daryl's brother Merle (Michael Rooker) returns this season, how will he react to Daryl being cozy with the people who forced Merle to cut off his own hand? Where did the military helicopter seen crashing in the Season 3 trailer come from? Can the Governor possibly suffer the not-safe-for-TV fate that he does in the comic books? And most importantly, how many more hours before it's time to watch? We're very, very hungry.
Are Carl's roaming days over?
Carl, stay in the ... prison?
Another big change coming in the new season of The Walking Dead is bratty, whiny young Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) will no longer be able to wander around the wilderness and put himself and others in jeopardy.
Carl's tendency to totter off without parental supervision was a recurring theme during Season 2 of The Walking Dead, to the point where, "Carl, stay in the house!" became a viral Internet meme and even showed up on T-shirts.
No big deal, it's not like they're surrounded by flesh-eating undead monstrosities or anything. (One of which, after being taunted by Carl, followed him back to the farm and killed Dale. Nice going, kid.)
Carl's life-endangering disobedience even prompted questions to The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara about why the kid wouldn't stay put like he was told.
"Well, it's boring to sit in a house," Mazzara told the L.A. Times. "And he's a little boy and he wants to mix it up and stuff."
But Carl's roaming days should be over, now that Rick and his people have been routed from the farm and will be settling inside the walls of an abandoned prison. Not even Carl can get past 12-foot high fences topped with razorwire. Though we'd love to see him try.
Feed your 'Dead' cravings
Like shambling zombies hungering for human flesh, fans of The Walking Dead have had to weather long stretches without the nourishment of their favourite show. The gaps between seasons seem to stretch on for an eternity, as did last season's mid-season hiatus, which we will also have to endure again this year. What's a Walking Deadhead to do?
While devotees of Breaking Bad have to make do with their Walt/Jessie erotic fanfiction, there are actually a lot of ways to feed Walking Dead cravings outside of the TV show itself. Here are the three best.
If you love The Walking Dead but turn your nose up at the idea of reading comic books, you're missing out. The TV show gets its engrossing darkness from writer Robert Kirkman's ongoing series (currently on issue #102), but the comics are arguably even better than the show. What's also appealing is the TV adaptation is markedly different from the source material, meaning lots of twists, surprises and new material in the comics. Our advice is to pick up The Walking Dead Compendium One, which collects issues #1 through #48 into one hardbound volume. It syncs up with where the storyline will go in Season 3, and ends with a hugely shocking turn of events. If that doesn't hook you, nothing will.
The video games
Video games based on movies or TV shows tend to be crap, but The Walking Dead episodic game series -- available for download on the PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and iPad -- is inspired by the comic books and is incredibly faithful to their tone. The five-episode "season" tells a parallel story to that of the comics and TV show, with an all-new cast of intriguing and well-written characters. Players must explore zombie-infested locales, solve puzzles and make difficult moral decisions, often without time to fully consider the consequences. It's mature, gripping stuff.
Make sure the young'uns aren't in the room, then surf over to AMCTV.com to check out The Walking Dead's latest webisodes. The new batch of Season 3-inspired mini-episodes tell the tale of a survivor named Chase (Josh Stewart) who stumbles across a self-storage facility run by the affable B.J. (Lost's Daniel Roebuck). All is not as it seems, though, and Chase soon learns that the undead apocalypse does terrible things to the living. As with the Season 1 and 2 webisodes, the story connects to the TV series' plot in only a minor way, but the production values -- and zombie gore - are definitely television-worthy.