Well, that was intense. Last night marked the season premiere of Season 2 of The Walking Dead (although I’ve only just now had the chance to watch it), and any concerns that the series would be hitting its sophomore slump can easily be dispelled after that powerhouse of a premiere. With greater attention paid to character development than the already drama filled first season, and more tension than anything this side of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead kicked off its sophomore season in pure style (and added what can only be called the biggest twist of the series to date). It goes without saying that The Walking Dead is on track to not only keep pace with its first season, but it now has the potential to surpass it if the stakes remain as high as they were in the initial episode. My only concerns going forward at this point is the departure of Frank Darabont. This was the last episode of the series he produced as he was fired by AMC because of the show’s budget and creative differences with the network. He’s an auteur and I’m not sure the show can afford to lose him.

The season begins with Rick radioing Morgan one last time to try and let him know that the group has given up on Atlanta, and now they’re trying to head to Fort Benning. Packing up in their two cars (plus Daryl’s motorcycle), the group heads out. Their plans hit an immediate snag though when they come across a giant pile up of traffic blocking the road. As they are weaving through the wreckage, Dale’s RV dies, and the group has to stop in order to scavenge for supplies and fix the RV. While they are enjoying a moment’s peace, Rick and Dale spot a veritable herd of zombies heading straight their way. The group all hide under cars (except for poor Andrea who is caught unawares and has to fight off a zombie in the RV bathroom with a screwdriver) and allow the herd to pass. This seemed to work, until the little girl Sophia peeks her head out only to be attacked by some stragglers. She runs off into the forest and Rick chases her. After instructing her to hide and then make her way back to the camp, Rick draws the zombies away, but Sophia never makes it back to camp. After organizing a full search party over the next two days, the group never finds Sophia but only draw out more of the bitterness and hostilities that the group is holding in. At the very end of the episode, Rick, Shane, and Carl are out in the forest still looking for Sophia when they come across the deer. Carl goes to pet the deer only to be shot in the stomach by some unknown presence. Shit just got real.

Let’s place this into perspective. We’re one episode into the season (and only seven episodes into the series as whole), and we’ve already completely lost one child and there’s a good chance another one is  about to die, if he isn’t already dead. The Walking Dead is not playing with kid gloves and knowing that it’s not going to be sparing any of its young characters from the violence and horror it inflicts on its adults really lets us know as an audience just how seriously this show is going to play. Normally, works of fiction (George R. R. Martin a brutal exception) tend to spare the children that they make the audience attached too. The Walking Dead is playing by the rules that anyone can die, and now we know they aren’t messing around. The comics are known for putting Rick Grimes into one hellish situation after another until he’s become a shell of a man and the definition of a tortured soul. It seems like the show is going to be following suit, and it should make for compelling drama.

Those early moments where the group was trapped by the zombies on the highway were among the tensest of the entire series, and some of the most knuckle-whitening TV I’ve watched since Gus killed Viktor on Breaking Bad or we thought (just for a moment) Jesse might shoot Walter on (also) Breaking Bad. This show doesn’t simply rely on the blood and gore that is the bread and butter of the zombie sub-genre (although tonight’s episode had gore in spades. The scene where Norman Reedus’s Daryl guts a zombie was especially graphic); instead, it delivers on more substantial thrills by jacking the levels of tension and anxiety up until the show bursts with some shocking bit of violence. The series’ strongest moments are when the survivors know that loud and explosive violence will only make their situation worse and they have to rely on stealth and silent kills if not complete inaction and hiding to survive. There were scenes this episode where my heart was simply pounding out of its chest in anticipation of whatever crazy thing could possibly happen next.

I’m really excited to see exactly where this season is going to take us. The actual writer of the comic, Robert Kirkman, penned this episode, and this felt so much like an issue of the comic come to life. The Walking Dead has the potential to be the greatest bit of zombie fiction ever made, and for the most part, it surpasses its source material. My hopes are that the show can maintain its high quality after Darabont departs (which will be every episode after this). Now that Breaking Bad is off the air until its final season, I’ve needed a really high quality drama (cause Glee is fun but not art) to fill its shoes, and it’s looking like The Walking Dead will fill that void and then some.

Final Score: A