James Hibberd
October 21, 2013 AT 07:03 PM EDT

Could this be the best season of The Walking Dead? Not just in terms of the numbers, but creatively?

First here are the latest ratings: Sunday night’s The Walking Dead viewership was down from last week’s premiere. Yet it was still easily the biggest audience the AMC zombie drama has ever delivered before this fall. The Walking Dead had 13.9 million viewers and and a 7.1 rating in the adult demo, slipping 14 percent from last Sunday’s record setter. That’s a typical second-week percentage drop, and The Walking Dead also faced a massive telecast of Sunday Night Football (the NFL’s biggest overnight October deliver since 1998). So I suspect DVR will recover a lot of that ground.

Now, here’s my take on season 4’s first couple weeks:

As much as I’m firmly against spending yet another season at the prison, new showrunner Scott Gimple is doing an extremely impressive job executing this show so far. Aside from the frequently outstanding six-episode first season, The Walking Dead has seemed like a good show that could and should be a great one, and has been blessed with extraordinary ratings despite its weaknesses (I was convinced this season we would see a turning point in the show’s popularity). Yet so far, Gimple has shed the oft-cartoonish feel of the last couple seasons, while also avoiding dipping into the bleak nihilism that’s likewise plagued this drama (as I’ve pointed out before, The Walking Dead lacks any real hope, and often feels like we’re just watching people starving plus zombies — a point Washington Post critic Hank Stuever also rather effectively made recently).

The storytelling during the first couple hours has been character-focused, yet not slow — a tricky balance to pull off (AMC’s Breaking Bad was masterful at this). And despite being trapped at the farm prison, the show hasn’t felt claustrophobic (yet). Sunday’s scene with the two distraught girls in the jail cell being coldly told to kill their dying father as an object lesson in survival was more horrifying than anything in the last couple seasons (and three of the four characters in that scene weren’t even familiar players).

Another refreshing element: Mysteries. The Walking Dead is layering in more questions than before (What’s the disease? Who’s feeding the walkers? Where’s the Governor?). And here’s another: We’re constantly seeing little reminders that these characters really care about each other and feel affection toward one another. That makes us like them more, and makes their brutal decisions all the more emotional.

What the season has lacked so far is anything happening that really impacts our major characters (thus some readers calling it “dull,” below). But such plot mechanics are relatively easy for TV writers. What’s hard is coming up with an oddly intriguing and menacing scene like where Rick is gardening while listening to headphones to drown out the zombies, or making us actually care about a crazy lady in the woods we’ve never met before. In other words: The first two episodes did the hard stuff well, which bodes well for the bigger moves that are presumably still to come. Norman Reedus says this is the best season by far. Could he be right? It’s far too early for us to know. Yet after a couple years of feeling like The Walking Dead was creatively trying one tactic after another (and I’ve been as critical of AMC making showrunner changes on this program as much as anybody) it feels like TV’s highest-rated drama might be on the right path.

What do you think so far?

RELATED: 10 TV characters who never change their clothes (gee, thanks for burning your shirt, Rick!)

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