Gene Page/AMC
February 27, 2015 at 07:45 PM EST

One of the most fun things about The Walking Dead is that it doesn’t really have any long-running mysteries. Almost every new genre series that’s arrived in the past decade comes equipped with a whole mass of questions. (Who caused the Flashforward? What is The Event? How did the world’s electricity suddenly turn off? Why did anyone ever remake V?) In this sense, The Walking Dead feels like a throwback to an older, far more straightforward form of science-fiction. “The zombies are here and we have to survive” — that’s the concept, simple and effective.

With one exception: The Helicopter, which appeared twice in the show’s first two seasons. In the series premiere, Rick followed the sound of the copter and rode straight into a downtown herd of walkers. In last season’s finale, we saw the same helicopter inadvertently caused another herd to migrate to Hershel’s Farm. In both events, the helicopter was a tantalizing glimpse of advanced technology. And if someone had a helicopter, then surely that same someone had food, shelter, and some kind of magic zombie-proof armor? To get really heavy for a second, the helicopter seemed like a window into a higher state of consciousness — the rough equivalent of seeing the occasional Dharma Initiative logo in the second season of Lost. The helicopter was proof that someone more powerful than our characters was out there, maybe even watching over them.

So it was immediately thrilling when the first scene of last night’s episode of The Walking Dead threw us into a helicopter flying over the wilderness. Soldiers were inside. They looked stressed out. There was some talk about “getting back in contact” with the other guys. There was some light turbulence. And then everything went to hell. The pilot told his boys to assume crash positions. The copter went down in the forest. Now, mind you, it’s impossible to know if this helicopter is The Helicopter. But, in context, the opening sequence felt like a sly statement of purpose for this series: In this world, the gods really are dead.

Andrea, Michonne, and Michonne’s mouthless pets watched smoke rising from the crash. An ailing Andrea wanted to check it out; Michonne wasn’t too sure. Naturally, it fell to the lady with the sword to investigate the burning copter, while Andrea stayed behind in the bushes to vomit. Michonne found one of the soldiers: He was cut in half, and his top half was hungry. Then a car arrived, and Michonne lurked in the bushes with Andrea. They watched as a group of men got out of the car. These men were well-armed and well-trained. They didn’t use bullets unless they had to. (Baseball bats are much quieter.) The man in charge took the lead in killing the soldier-zombies. He walked up to the half-man and stabbed his brain, methodically. In the bushes, the pets were acting up. Michonne did not hesitate: She pulled out her katana and chopped off both their heads, earning what could have been her third straight Zombie Kill of the Week award.

Alas for Michonne’s perfect record, the two women were discovered by one of the men. But not just any man. He was a man of great passion and great humor. A man who has suffered great trauma, and has emerged all the stronger for it. He is a gentleman and a scholar; he may be the last true American. I’m talking, of course, about Merle Dixon, the half-crazy redneck warrior played by full-crazy cult legend Michael Rooker. Merle was last seen preparing to saw off his own hand on an Atlanta rooftop; some Walking Dead viewers claim he appeared as a dream-demon in an episode last season that focused entirely on Daryl Dixon climbing a hill, but that didn’t actually happen and we’re never going to speak of that episode again. Dixon said, “Hi, Blondie! You look good!” There was a walker approaching behind him; without even looking, he stabbed it through the head with his new prosthetic bayonet-arm, thereby ensuring an easy victory for the Zombie Kill of the Week. “How’s about a hug for your old pal, Merle?” Heads up, people: Michael Rooker is back, and the government has officially declared a state of emergency.

NEXT: The Governor Cometh

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AMC’s zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
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