On the season premiere of The Walking Dead, the survivors screw up a pit stop

The last time we saw the plucky survivors of The Walking Dead — way back in December 2010 — they were trapped in Atlanta's Center of Disease Control by a very depressed scientist, shatter-proof glass, and an invisible force field of melodrama.

And now that the show's back on the air, the gang's flipped 2010 the bird, peeled out of the smoking crater that was the CDC, and hit the highway! The wind is rustling through their hair and the undead roamers are nipping at their heels! This week's problem: the world's most dangerous traffic jam — which consists solely of parked cars — and damn kids who don't listen to directions. Spoilers on.

Tonight's season premiere — "What Lies Ahead" — kicks off with Rick recapping Season 1 in a one-sided walkie-talkie to his perpetually off-screen buddy Morgan. Is Morgan alive? Dead? Who cares! After shedding a single tear for Jacqui (a.k.a. the lady who had five lines before blowing up with the CDC) we're out of Atlanta and off to Fort Benning, the military base Shane wanted to go to before Rick led them to Motel Thermite.

But the survivors don't get far. In the episode's best sequence, their caravan is blocked by a stretch of highway that's inadvertently become a parking lot. Everyone else sees it as a buffet of free necessities — Water! Gas! Guns! — but Rick's wife Lori pointlessly admonishes everybody. "This is a graveyard!" she tut-tuts.

(Look Lori, the entire damn planet is a graveyard at this point. Except for that lab in France where those scientists are maybe cooking up a cure, the Himalayas, select island nations, and communities of fantastic eccentrics who enjoy living in hot air balloons, ekranoplans, and bathyspheres. 50% the planet is dead, and the other 50% walks a 5K daily while pooping out their kidneys and Islets of Langerhans. Let Shane have his Poland Spring baptism, dammit. Seriously, nobody's bathed since that shower montage 10 months ago.)

Unfortunately, Lori's schoolmarm routine bears judgmental fruit. Just as soon as everyone begins siphoning gas en masse, a herd of zombie roamers begins wobbling down the freeway. This sequence did a fantastic job ruining a lovely, sun-dappled afternoon. I really enjoyed how the car maze heightened the tension — the open highway left the survivors exposed, but their decision to hide under the cars made this scene very claustrophobic.

Everyone is unscathed by this herd of zombie — Speaking of which, what should we call zombies in the collective? A Horde? Murder? Pod? Clowder? Parliament? — save T-Dog (who slices up his arm) and resident little girl Sophia (who is chased into the woods, where she subsequently disappears).

At this point, the gang gets sidetracked from their Fort Benning trip to play Lost. In other words, the survivors split up and wander around the woods for a while, backtracking and bickering. They don't find Sophia, which guarantees more stumbling around the forest next Sunday.

This plot was less interesting than the highway herd, but some promising stuff came out of it. I'm glad the show's moving Shane away from the psychotic, dollar-store Rick Grimes knock-off he was shaping up to be last season. Shane's damaged goods, but he's more interesting as a competent, unhinged guy with good intentions. I hope he and Andrea do strike off on their own for a while. This side trip would delay Shane's predictable stand-off with Rick and give Andrea a chance to be the wild card.

Speaking of which, good on Andrea for telling Dale to shove his collection of pork pie hats up his keister. Remember Dale's impassioned speech to prevent Andrea from blowing herself up? For me that didn't ring true, as those characters weren't super-fleshed-out last season. I mean, you could sum up Dale as "the Ernest Borgnine of the gang" and Andrea as "the girl whose sister died asking for toilet paper." When she angrily tells Dale "you don't know me," we're bound to agree. Barring the leads, a bunch of these characters are still unknown quantities*. Moving them out of Rick's shadow has potential.

*And no, I'm not talking about you Daryl Dixon, you flinty beautiful bastard. You keep on wielding that crossbow, being grizzled, and making the rest of the people you're slumming it with look like meatloaf mannequins. I hope you adopt that woodchuck skull and use it like Prince's puppet in Purple Rain.

The episode ends with Rick's son Carl getting shot by a mysterious assailant. Can the zombies use firearms now? That would be an Nth-degree Shyamalanian twist, but let's chalk it up to human error. Carl was wearing a camouflage shirt after all. Some confused hunter probably lost his shit after seeing that a child zombie's head had taught itself to levitate. Anyway, anyone who's read the comics knows where this goes.

"What Lies Ahead" should be a bittersweet affair for the Frank Darabont loyalists in the audience. On one hand, it was a fantastically creepy return to form after a year off and some silliness late in Season 1. On the other hand, this episode is the culmination of Darabont's scripting of The Walking Dead after he was canned by AMC. Will the rest of the season keep up the momentum? I bet an exaltation of zombies on it.