Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon in a scene from AMC's "The Walking… (Russell Kaye / AMC )
The trouble with zombies is that after a while they get boring. They do not scheme, they do not regret, they do not engage (mercifully) in any form of seduction.
They just lurch around moaning, trying to eat whatever human flesh crosses their path. Putrefaction may continue — the elements are notoriously unkind to the undead — but even that gets old; fans soon develop the sort of imperturbable gag reflex that allows the "Bones" team to do its job.
Which is why stories about a zombie apocalypse, such as AMC's "The Walking Dead," are not really about zombies; they're about survival and human nature and the rise of a new social order under extreme duress. Balancing all these things is a very tricky business, especially when your original executive producer leaves amid reported budget cuts.
In Season 2 of "The Walking Dead," the writers reacted to Frank Darabont's departure by focusing on character development. They sent their scrappy band o' survivors to an idyllic, relatively zombie-free farm and had them work through a lot of personal issues, including the love triangle between team leader Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and Shane (Jon Bernthal), whose slide into sociopathology reminded us that a pulse does not prevent a person from becoming a monster.
Many fans complained of pacing issues (i.e. too much yakking, not enough hacking), but then Rick finally killed Shane, new show runner Glen Mazzara released the slavering hordes and everyone was cast out of Eden.
If early episodes are any indication, Season 3 will provide a glorious payoff for those EST-ian weeks down on the farm. The action opens months later, which we see almost immediately from the size of Lori's pregnant belly and, more important, the air of grim resignation that has fallen over the troops.
Finally discovering the prison we saw on the horizon in the finale (it's not clear what took them so long), Rick and friends set about taking out the zombies "living" there with a methodical ferocity that makes slaughter look like factory work. Because that is what it has become.
Any thought that the plague will run its course or that the walkers will die of starvation is gone; killing zombies is just part of life, like scavenging for food and keeping the water supply uncontaminated. Love and hope may still bloom, but the only sense of humor left on the planet appears to belong to Daryl (Norman Reedus), whose job seems to be preserving these important parts of humanity in the same way Irish monks preserved writing during the Dark Ages.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest (sorry, but geography, like time, gets a little blurry in "Walking Dead" land), Andrea (Laurie Holden), who got left behind at the farm, has been rescued by the Japanese-sword-wielding, chained-zombie-dragging Michonne (Danai Gurira), one of the graphic novel series' most beloved characters, who promises to be the alpha female many of the show's fans (OK, me) have been waiting for.
Their journey marks the first real narrative fork in this road, offering a peek at the larger post-plague universe. More important, it takes some of the emotional burden off the shoulders of Rick and Company, whose lives have become increasingly claustrophobic (they're setting up house in a jail, after all).
Though it's difficult to beat the imminent arrival of a baby in zombie-land for added tension and sentimental contrast, the much-anticipated appearance of Michonne and, in Episode 3, of David Morrissey as the Governor will give us a whole other cast of characters to worry about and a new existential plane to do that worrying on.
The theme of any good post-apocalyptic tale comes down to the definition of survival. As in, it's relative. For what, to paraphrase Matthew, does it profit a man to survive a land chock-full of zombies if in doing so he forfeits his own soul?
'The Walking Dead'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)