Through two seasons, AMC's "The Walking Dead" has been a show that's great at beginnings, quite good at endings, and really problematic when you get to the middle. With many returning shows, it would be reassuring to hear that the start of the new season (it debuts Sunday night at 9) is strong; with "The Walking Dead," it doesn't tell you anything you don't already know.
 
The series' pilot episode is a marvel of silence and dread, as our hero, local deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma to discover that the world turned into a zombie apocalypse while he was sleeping. The succeeding episodes of that season stumble with a collection of loud redneck caricatures and bumpy storytelling choices, before things mostly recover with an unsettling episode set at CDC headquarters, where Rick and his group found out just how hopeless the world has become.
 
Season 2 starts off with a terrific set piece where Rick and the others have to hide from a zombie herd in the middle of a traffic jam. Things grind to a halt once they find temporary shelter at a farm whose occupants have been able to live at some remove from the zombie plague, before picking up in the mid-season finale (Rick's jealous sidekick Shane massacres the zombies their host had been keeping in his barn), and then again with the end of the season (zombies overrun the farm, Rick kills Shane in self-defense, and Rick takes a firmer hold of the leadership reins).
 
We return for the third season with another location that will be familiar to fans of the Robert Kirkman "Walking Dead" comics: an abandoned prison that Rick realizes will be the ideal location to stay protected from the zombies. The premiere deals with how the group discovers and then seizes the prison, while the season's second episode has the group discovering that the place isn't as simple or safe as they had hoped.
 
The two episodes are as exciting and scary in equal measure as I'm sure the creative team (led by producer Glen Mazzara, who wrote the premiere) intended, and suggest that the show's strength isn't so much the bookends of each season, but certain aspects that get more play at the beginning and ending of each year. "The Walking Dead" is excellent with action, with suspense, and with atmosphere, and these early episodes have all three in spades. There are long stretches of the premiere where Mazzara doesn't include any dialogue at all, trusting the actors and director Ernest Dickerson to tell the exact story he wants them to.
 
And a big, welcome part of that story is the way that the group has adjusted to post-apocalyptic life. They are not happy to be constantly on the run, barely surviving, but they've gotten pretty good at it. So much of the story is conveyed in just seeing how the characters move now, which demonstrates how they've developed an unexpected teamwork and some genuine zombie-fighting skills. One of the many issues with the previous season is that the characters never seemed particularly proactive about their situation. You can sympathize for a while with people who are just running and reacting, but when the series goes and goes and they haven't gotten better at what they're doing, they become tiresome. That's no longer the case.
 
But with the prison establishing itself as another potential safe haven, I do wonder what will happen if/when Rick and his crew get it fully secured. "The Walking Dead" characters have never been as well-drawn as the world they're trapped in(*). When the action slows down and we're asked to care about the state of Rick's marriage to Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), or the budding romance of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), it can be problematic. But the talking scenes in the first two episodes didn't drag in the way many of them did last season, and I even wasn't all that troubled by Rick and Lori's son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who's grown up just enough to be useful rather than a constant distraction.
 
(*) This is the point where I should acknowledge that I was never a huge fan of the Kirkman comic, in part because I found the characters thin (the show's most compelling personality, Norman Reedus's Daryl, wasn't in the comic), in part because it felt like an exercise in misery porn after a while. I stopped reading partway through the prison arc, after the introduction of a character who will be appearing in this season of the AMC show, played by actor David Morrissey. I'm curious to see if I respond to him any better in flesh-and-blood than I did on the page. 
 
One of the running debates between the characters is whether there's any reason to have hope for the future, given their circumstances. I can look at yet another excellent beginning to a "Walking Dead" season and assume things will start to drag in a few weeks. Or I can hope that this is the year Mazzara and company learn to play to their strengths throughout the season, and not just at the beginning and end of it.
 
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com