When the going gets tough on The Walking Dead, the tough still behead zombies, but sometimes it's the young ones doing the beheading.
American television's most gruesome – and most-watched – prime-time drama returned Sunday night with the show's fourth midseason premiere in which the normally resilient protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) was on death's door – all of which only served to push his teen son Carl (Chandler Riggs) toward a terribly unkind manhood.
Airing on AMC, the first new Walking Dead episode in months also provided viewers with rare insight into the back story of the Samurai-sword wielding warrior known as Michonne (Danai Gurira).
The much-anticipated return of the fourth season's final eight chapters picked up moments where the show left off last December.
To recap: The prison stronghold of Rick, Carl and their ragtag group of survivors had barely survived an all-out military assault by the one-eyed despot known as The Governor (David Morrissey), but now the facility was overrun with flesh-hungry zombies.
The Governor himself was now dead (as confirmed in the episode's opening moments), and Rick wasn't far behind him. Battered and bruised, Rick stumbled several steps behind Carl as they instinctively moved away from the carnage.
The tense relationship between father and son wasn't helped in the least by the fact that Rick appeared to have already accepted that his infant daughter Judith – Carl's sister – had met a terrible fate at the hands of walkers.
"She's gone," croaked Rick, to Carl's disdain.
As the pair trudge along, Carl is repeatedly forced to protect Rick against random walkers, which he now executes with cool and unerring accuracy. The nightmare began with the father protecting the son; now the reverse is true.
"I killed them, I saved you, I don't need you any more," Carl yells at his unconscious father at one point. "I don't need you to protect me any more. You probably can't even protect yourself."
The episode then shifted focus back to the prison, where the fearsome Michonne seemed to be the only human in a sea of aimless, snarling walkers.
In the episode's horrific high point, Michonne stumbled upon, literally, the head of her former friend Hershel (Scott Wilson), who was beheaded by The Governor.
Michonne gave viewers a brief reintroduction to her formidable killing abilities by dispatching a dozen or so walkers wandering aimlessly in her direction. She also reverted to her former survivalist ways by taking in two "pets": armless and jawless walkers that she leads around on a leash.
When Michonne finally found time to take a nap in an abandoned car, she lapsed into a dream that for the first time showed viewers her idyllic life in the days before the zombie apocalypse.
In the flashback, it was revealed that Michonne was formerly the mother of a fine young son and enjoyed the company of a handsome boyfriend named Mike. When the dream became a nightmare and Michonne saw her lover with only bloody stumps for arms, she woke up screaming.
Meanwhile, Carl and Rick found refuge in a house. While Rick, by now seemingly on death's door, laid unconscious on a sofa, Carl explored the house.
Ironically, Carl discovered a teen's treasure trove of electronic games, none of which were of any use in a world without electricity. He also happened upon a large tub of chocolate pudding, which he scarfed down post-haste.
In one bedroom of the house, Carl also discovered a ravenous walker, and barely escaped with his life – and minus one shoe.
Carl then wrote in chalk on the door: "Walker inside. Got my shoe but he didn't get me." In keeping with the original series of Walking Dead graphic novels, the Carl character is getting cockier with each new episode.
But not too cocky.
Shortly after, when Carl wrongly fears that his father has died and become a walker, he is unable to kill him.
"I can't, I was wrong, I'm scared," admits Carl, making the transition from cold-blooded killer to teary-eyed teenager in a matter of seconds.
Once father and son finally come together in a touching moment, they hear a knock at the door. It's not a walker, but rather Michonne, come to rejoin her former comrades in surviving the zombie apocalypse.
And then there were three.