The Walking Dead returns to AMC for its second season this Sunday, and I don’t blame you if your expectations are a bit mixed after last year’s short, powerful but largely inconsistent season one.

The series premiere was the biggest in AMC’s history, and for good reason. Seen through the eyes of small town sheriff Rick Grimes, the premiere was a masterful 90-minute thrill ride through the initial horrors of a zombie apocalypse. The five episodes that followed had their moments, but none could really live up to the show’s initial outing. Too many and too broadly drawn characters, hyper-realistic gore layered atop unrealistic plot developments and serious pacing issues too often distracted from the show’s strengths: its action sequences, mainly, and its actors, who have been consistently great even if their material wasn’t. While not an outright disappointment, the lasting impression of The Walking Dead season one wasn’t of amazing, groundbreaking television, but of glimmers of brilliance amid a sea of unrealized potential.

Over the break, the show has also been plagued by behind-the-scenes shakeups that threatened our hopes for the series (shakeups that, if you care enough to know about them, you’ve probably read enough about them already) with the short version being: Co-creator Frank Darabont, the man behind the series premiere, left the show this summer for unconfirmed creative reasons, and everyone freaked the eff out, wondering if the show would be able to survive without him.

I name all of these complaints and concerns that I and others threw at The Walking Dead after season one not to rub them in, nor because I refuse to move on, but because they make the season two premiere, “What Lies Ahead,” an even more impressive 90 minutes of television. Maybe The Walking Dead just needed a few of its initial hours to figure out what it wanted to be, and if that’s the case, my hope is that Sunday’s episode is the identity the show decides to stick with.

We pick up shortly after the CDC explosion, a tragedy for the characters (who hoped to find a cure) that actually leads to positive developments for the show. The group of survivors is now smaller, and unified around one goal: Get out of the city and to Fort Benning, in the hope that some of the army has survived. This goal — simple in theory, not even close in execution — leads them on a journey that is quickly sidetracked by a block of abandoned cars and — surprise! — a hoard of walkers, which the humans note seem to have developed a new and terrifying “herd” (un)mentality.

What follows is a thrilling game of undead hide-and-seek, made more so by the fact that this episode is significantly less rushed and more focused than any Walking Dead episode that I can remember since the series premiere. We get to live in the moment with the characters, for whom every walker is a threat. A feeling of prolonged, quiet dread has become their new normal, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable — for them, or for us.

And The Walking Dead is at its best when we are at our most uncomfortable. The show has always done gore well, but seems to be growing more adept at tying these gross-out moments into the stories. The necessity of the violence and gore make them more real, and more horrifying. (On a sidenote, the press materials I received with my screener teased that one upcoming zombie took the effects team five weeks to build. I can’t wait to see what that bloodbath looks like.)

This seems to be a natural outcome of another positive development — that is, actual character development. At times in season one, the survivors felt more like robotic archetypes (the sheriff, the racist, the old guy, etc.) who were so busy reacting to their environments that any relating they did to one another had to be quick, spelled-out and on-the-surface. Those roles begin to change and expand in the premiere, and though there’s still lots of room to grow, the effects are immediate and welcome.

Even the character I hated most in season one for his over-dramatic, unrealistic outbursts about his affair with Rick’s wife, Shane (Jon Bernthal), has a more nuanced and interesting air about him now. With his sadness finally grounded and substantial, not just a plot vehicle for causing conflicts, I even found myself rooting for him a little bit. The rest of the cast similarly seem to have (if you’ll pardon the term) fleshed out their characters, and it’s a testament to the actors and the writers that they’ve achieved this level of development without completely changing the tone of the show.

I’ve seen the first two episodes of the season (produced under Darabont’s vision), and so far, the only complaint I have for The Walking Dead season 2 is that they didn’t send me more. What lies ahead for the show remains to be seen, but if “What Lies Ahead” the episode is any indication, The Walking Dead may have finally found its stride.

(Image courtesy of AMC)

Meghan Carlson

Senior Writer, BuddyTV

Meghan hails from Walla Walla, WA, the proud home of the world’s best sweet onions and Adam West, the original Batman. An avid grammarian and over-analyzer, you can usually find her thinking too hard about plot devices in favorites like The OfficeIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and How I Met Your Mother. In her spare time, Meghan enjoys drawing, shopping, trying to be funny (and often failing), and not understanding the whole Twilight thing. She’s got a BA in English and Studio Art from Whitman College, which makes her a professional arguer, daydreamer, and doodler.