Eleven months and one creative team overhaul later, AMC’s The Walking Dead is back. Like a sanity-vanquished zombie, I openly salivated for its return, based more on long-term anticipation than unadulterated fandom. I recapped the show last year for this life-reaffirming website. To me, the first season was pretty good television, full of awesome moments dragged down by sloppy plotting and character-work. Still, I have a trash bag full of benefits for the doubt where The Walking Dead is concerned.

The budget cut and extended episode time are contrasting factors here in “What Lies Ahead,” almost entirely a slow burn episode that inches forward toward its equally-contrasted but seemingly unrelated final scene. I won’t say I got bored, but much of the episode left me unmoved, and far less tense than I should have been. This is probably due to my own over-saturation with zombie-related media over the years. I enjoy the comic as it’s a good medium for the story it’s telling. Even something previously un-zombified as cable television is still visual storytelling, which we're used to. After this many years, the undead are less fresh than the underwear they never change. I would not be able to take those smells. I would not be a survivor.

Essentially,four different things occur in “What Lies Ahead,” and two of them include varying degrees of success in Andrew Lincoln’s accent. I expected a balls-out opening to hook the audience in. Instead, Rick “Prime Time” Grimes waxes desperately hopeful into a radio on the off-chance that his former neighbor Morgan is on the other end listening. The corniness of this monologue about leaving Atlanta only bothered me as I continually realized there’s probably no one on the other end, and this is Rick’s pep talk to himself. Had he yelled, “Break!” afterward, he might have regained some clout.

The drive out of Atlanta is a strong string of sequences that starts with Rick making a point of telling Carol’s daughter Sophia that he would look out for her. You know what that means: she goes missing. Dammit, Rick! The instigating catalyst is an abandoned post-outbreak traffic jam, where cars are filled with corpses and nice dresses Carol’s late husband wouldn't have let her wear. Also, the RV has a blown radial siphoning gasket valve, or something less technical, so the group is stuck in their present surroundings. As most of the group searches for supplies, and Shane teaches Andrea how to clean a gun in the RV, the area is swarmed by… you guessed it: Badgers. Or zombies. Everyone hides under a car except for T-Dog, who gashes his arm open on a car door, and Daryl, who saves T-Dog from getting his brains eaten. Look at Daryl giving racism the middle finger. Daryl continues to kick ass as things go on.

Eventually a rogue zombie chases Sophia into the wooded area nearby. Rick saves the day and explains to Sophia how to return to the group, using such exact phrases as “keep the sun over your left shoulder.” When it’s realized she never made it back, Rick and Daryl head out on a search, stopping along the way to amateurishly dissect a zombie to find out if Sophia’s digested remains were in its stomach. It turned out to be a woodchuck. Daryl’s reaction, “At least we know. At least we know,” was pitch perfect. You won’t see that on Private Practice.

Later, more people search, and a suicide victim’s camp is found, but no Sophia. A church bell draws the group to a church on the outskirts. Inside is a trio of nasty looking mofos whose presence inside such a place is worth ten seconds of contemplation. The ringing bells turn out to be a recording set on a timer. Story threads one and two, complete.

The less-effective plotlines involve Lori and Andrea, two of the more poorly written characters on the show, if not all of Sunday night television. Andrea and Dale get negatively up close and personal, caused by Dale’s unwillingness to return Andrea’s gun, in reaction to her suicidal motives last season at the CDC. Andrea’s best lines are in this argument when she demands to be allowed to choose her own fate. This works much better than Andrea's average attack scene inside the RV during the swarming, which is what fueled her need for her gun in the first place.

Remember when Shane went all Comedian and tried to rape Lori at the CDC last season? Lori apparently doesn’t. In the wake of a zomb-pocalypse, if any of the last dozen people I’m ever going to know tries to rape me, I’m going to hold a grudge. Call me shallow. Lori’s problems with Shane have been reduced to the rude manner in which he talks to Carl, and that she's against him wanting to leave the camp to strike out on his own. Incidentally, Andrea wants to join Shane on that. It's unfortunate, but I'm pretty sure these characters aren't going anywhere, so the mere mention of it feels cheap. A lot of this feels cheap. Then we get to the end.

Rick, Shane, and Carl are out looking in the woods, an all-too common task here, and they happen upon a deer. The show goes for "majestic moment" and falls slightly short, but manages to reinvigorate things with a shotgun blast, which fells both the deer and Carl, who has a bloodstain forming on his chest. The shit always hits the fan when a kid gets shot. This happens after a good chunk of the group has a melodramatic word or two with the Jesus statue inside the church. I guess it does play on Sundays.

So unless Sophia's absence plays a major role through the season, Carl getting shot is the main event to produce some urgency next week. The occasionally atrocious dialogue takes me out of the show sometimes, but it could be much worse. I'm glad you're back, Walking Dead, to take the brains out of my television viewing.

Watch: The Walking Dead Season 9 Trailer

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