The Walking Dead went on summer vacation, came back tanned and handsomeS

Last season, the survivors of The Walking Dead were haunted by two types of groans. First, there were the groans of the undead. These vocal burbles and cadaverous farts traveled far on those Georgia night breezes, bedeviling hero Rick Grimes as he attempted to zzz the Zzz's of the Innocent upon his lumpy Pillow of Moral Compromises.

But there was a much more dangerous sibilation in the distance. These were the groans of the audience, who were growing restless with the survivors' adventures at the One-Zombie-Per-Episode Corral and the cast's tendency to behave with the intelligence of single-animation-celed extras in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

Nobody expected "Road Warrior boomerang child" levels of post-apocalyptic competence from any of the survivors, except for Daryl Dixon, because he's destined to grow up to become that child. But it got to the point where certain cast members were being distilled into internet memes — see Wanderlust Carl, Nonexistent T-Dog, and "Everything I Do Is A Poor Decision" Lori.

And somebody's definitely been listening to these latter murmurs. The first episode of Season Three — "Seed" — kicks off with what feels like a course correction, a return to form after AMC imposed some Season Two budget cuts on their bona fide hit. Now, there are more walkers bursting with flavor than you can shake a katana at, and the cast feels tighter and considerably less expendable. (Spoilers on, by the way.)

For example, T-Dog's taken on an anti-zombie enforcer role among the survivors. (He also has multiple lines, some of them valuable insights!) Carl is a one-kid, Smeat-finding machine! Lori becomes sympathetic when she begins prattling about giving birth to a cannibal bun in her oven and how much her family dislikes her! We shouldn't expect to love every character on this show, but now we're getting around to half-caring about whether they are devoured or not. This is good!

"Seed" opens with a wordless five-minute scene of the survivors securing an abandoned house. Using Lori's stomach as a chronometer, many months have passed since we last saw the gang, and they are now a ruthlessly efficient zombie-dispatching squad.

It's the zombies' turn to be the unawares when Rick Grimes' SWAT team kicks down the door for a scavenging mission that yields dog food and owl meat. The show wisely leapfrogs past the target practice sequences of last season. Nobody died off-camera, so it's fair to assume they learned some teamwork while Breaking Bad was on.

The Walking Dead went on summer vacation, came back tanned and handsome

But life isn't all group hugs and trust falls under the leadership of Mean Rick. No, life consists of driving around, surviving the winter (I'm a little bummed that we won't get A Very Walking Dead X-Mas now), and scrounging for strigine sloppy joes. Life is now simply not dying, and not dying entails re-killing a lot of walkers. This episode is the closest the show's given us to a zombie-slaying procedural.

But Rick's cadre isn't our sole focus. The camera briefly swings over to Michonne and Andrea, who spent the offseason hanging out and cultivating a friendship. We don't know what kind of antics kept these two entertained for the last couple months — Michonne is a stoic ronin type, you see — but Michonne likes Andrea enough to go scavenge on her sickly behalf. Also, Michonne keeps two jawless zombies chained up for company. Anybody familiar with the comic will know who this duo is.

This isn't the only throwback to the comic The Walking Dead tosses at us. We finally get to the prison, which we saw a glimpse of in the second season finale. (The gang spent months driving in circles around it or something.) This place has walls. Zombies hate walls!

Cut to more methodical zombie slaughter, and Rick cracking a smile when he starts plugging walkers with his sniper rifle. Being leisurely locked in a guard tower with full clip is probably the closest thing Rick's had to a vacation since he took a warm shower at the CDC. Holy crap, that's depressing.

The Walking Dead went on summer vacation, came back tanned and handsomeS

Eventually they clear the yard, breach the cell block, and begin cleaning out the rest of building. The verdant wide open spaces of Hershel's Farm‎ have been replaced with claustrophobic gray corridors. I'd say the confining hallways are a metaphor for tensions running high, but everyone seems too exhausted to be argumentative. (Except for Daryl Dixon, of course, because he's a Terminator model who runs on fresh country air and scratched Waylon Jennings records.)

Things go bad real quick when Rick takes a small group to clear out the adjacent cell block, which special effects maven Greg Nicotero purposely filled with dust and dreck and unpleasantry to make the cast uncomfortable.

Everyone gets inevitably ambushed, Maggie and Glenn are separated from the group, and Hershel is bit on the leg. (In the comic, this fate was reserved for smug dead Dale.) Rick is forced to do an impromptu amputation lumberjack-style to prevent Hershel's infection from spreading.

Once the chopping's stopped, Daryl turns his crossbow of righteous upon — ta-da! — a group of inmates who survived! Pass the pruno because it's almost certainly time for alpha male penis fencing and "don't judge a book by its cover" parables! And I'm pouring another round of toilet zinfandel because "Seed" was far and away more suspenseful and gonzo than 80% of what we saw last season. Welcome back, you hungry, haggard, emotional train wrecks!