It’s no secret that AMC has endured a difficult year filled with one PR nightmare after the next – including public contract disputes that suspended production on Season Five of “Mad Men” and threatened the future of “Breaking Bad,” as well as audience backlash over the season finale of “The Killing” – but it suddenly felt very personal when Frank Darabont, creator and executive producer of “The Walking Dead,” was unexpectedly relieved of his duties only a few days after promoting the show at San Diego Comic-Con. Though the network never gave a clear reason for his dismissal, it’s believed to have something to do with forced budget cuts for the second season, which came as a surprise to Darabont after the show set a new cable ratings record in its debut season.
But despite all the backroom drama and concerns that Darabont’s absence would spell trouble for the hit zombie series, AMC was insistent that “The Walking Dead” was in the capable hands of his replacement, Glen Mazzara. Then again, Darabont was already hard at work on the show for months before getting the axe, and mapped out the entire season prior to his departure, so audiences may not notice many differences (if any at all) until the show’s third season. It should be noted, however, that Mazzara is no slouch when it comes to making great TV (having previously spent five years behind the scenes on “The Shield”), and he’s still working with the same team that Darabont put together, including zombie experts Robert Kirkman and Greg Nicotero. In fact, based on the first two episodes alone, it’s pretty clear that fans have nothing to worry about.
When we last left Rick Grimes and the rest of the survivors, they had just escaped the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta by the skin of their teeth and hit the road once again in search of a new refuge. Though they don’t actually arrive at Hershel’s Farm – the provisional sanctuary featured in Kirkman’s comics – until the second episode, the season premiere has more than enough going on to keep them busy, including a tension-packed opening sequence where the survivors must hide from a herd of zombies after Dale’s RV breaks down on the highway. There’s plenty of action and gore as well, with one survivor wounded pretty badly in the aforementioned attack, another one shot in what is likely the first of many “holy shit” moments of the season, and a truly disgusting zombie moment that some people might not be able to stomach. Oh yeah, and fan favorite Daryl kicks a lot of zombie ass, but I’m guessing you already knew that.
Of course, the series is first and foremost about the relationships between its large cast of characters, and although some viewers might bemoan the slower pace of these early episodes, it allows for a lot of great interactions – particularly involving the Rick, Lori and Shane love triangle – that will only make you even more invested in their survival. And if there’s one thing that AMC can never take away from Darabont, it’s the amazing job he did with laying down a strong foundation on which those characters could grow. Because while he may no longer be around to captain the ship, Darabont’s fingerprints are all over “The Walking Dead,” and it’s the main reason why the show will continue to operate at such a high level of excellence. It may not have gone down exactly the way we would have liked, but the audience still comes out the winner in the end.
“The Walking Dead” returns to AMC on October 16th at 9/8c with a special 90-minute premiere. Can’t wait that long? Check out a sneak peek of the new season below.