The Walking Dead: Still Staying Alive in Season Six

AMC’s hit apocalyptic drama finds its band of survivors trying to avert disaster after disaster.

Gene Page / AMC

Each week following episodes of season six of The Walking Dead, David Sims and Lenika Cruz will discuss the adventures of Rick Grimes and his group as they try to rebuild in the zombie apocalypse.

Cruz: The premiere of The Walking Dead’s sixth season opens with Rick’s blood-splattered face and the sound of a gunshot, a crunch of bone and flesh, and muffled screams. As the light flickers out, the shadows leave his face looking like a skull, and then comes a voiceover of words he’ll speak later in the episode: “I know this sounds insane, but this is an insane world. We have to come for them before they come for us. It’s that simple.”

There’s a lot to unpack in those first 20 seconds, which offer a neat encapsulation of the best and worst of the entire series thus far. The best: the cinematic moodiness, the moral heft, the high dramatic stakes of survival, a bit of gore. The worst: the overwrought dialogue, the unrelenting grimness, the preoccupation with Tyrant Rick. Not to mention that it’s irritating when a show you’ve been following for 68 episodes reminds you for the umpteenth time that its fictional world is, in fact, insane. No wonder the title of the opener is “First Time Again.”

If that seems harsh, it’s probably because The Walking Dead set a high bar for itself with a stellar season five, which ended with Rick and the crew at Alexandria, struggling between their instincts to survive at all costs, and their desire for stability and community. “First Time Again” attempts to catch up with the entire group as they deal with the aftermath of multiple scrapes and betrayals and simmering grudges; it also introduces a new threat to get the new season on track.

The gunfire at the start reminds viewers of Rick’s decision to execute Jessie’s husband, who had just killed the peaceful husband of Alexandria’s leader, Deanna. It then skips ahead to Rick and the Alexandria crew standing near a gully filled with hundreds of walkers separated from them by just two big rigs. This scene is meant to pack a punch, but the disorientation of jumping ahead, the slew of new faces, and the messy camera direction don’t get the full gravity across. Rick begins shouting (well, everyone begins shouting) about an elaborate plan they have to move the walkers with the help of flares and various motor vehicles. Why are they doing this? How did the walkers get there? Who are these new people? What time is it? Unfortunately, these questions are answered too slowly to be totally invigorating.

“First Time Again” itself moves back and forth in time, indicated by badly rendered black-and-white scenes (the episode’s big visual dud). Rick is forced to rejustify his authority after his violent spell in season five, but Deanna’s newly restored confidence in him helps. Glenn is slowly forgiving his rival Nicholas (who got Noah killed and Tara injured). Tara is better now. Maggie doesn’t fully trust Nicholas. Abraham seems to have gained a death-wish while Sasha has finally lost hers. Everyone hates Father Gabriel. A new guy named Carter threatens Rick, has a change of heart, and gets bitten seconds after shaking his hand—true to The Walking Dead’s style of redeeming terrible characters just to have them die. And then there’s the horde of undead—the result of a few trapped walkers attracting others into a big pit with their noise. Rick concludes they need to act fast before the reinforcements collapse and send the walkers straight for their homes. All doesn’t quite go as planned.

With all this going on it’s easy to forget a big thrill of the season-five finale: the return of Rick’s old friend Morgan (Lennie James), who almost lost his mind over his son’s death, and who’s since morphed into a humane, stick-wielding model of calm and competence. With the split narrative and time spent dawdling on minor characters, the moments of reconnection between him and Rick never feel as meaningful or cathartic as I wanted. Instead their dialogue boils down to some variation of “I’m a killer, Rick,” and “That’s not who you are” and “I know you, Morgan”—weighty, grumbled pronouncements recycled from the weighty, grumbled pronouncements the show has abused from its start.

Again, I realize this all sounds perhaps unfairly negative, but the show last year proved to viewers that it could balance the straightforward and the ruminative, the high-octane action and the emotional slow-burn. This episode didn’t manage quite as well, but it didn’t dull my excitement for the rest of the season either. Though I wasn’t fully swept away with “First Time Again,” it did have some memorable moments: Rick shutting Father Gabriel out of their plan with comic brevity (“I’d like to help.” “No.”); Glenn telling a new friend, “I was supposed to be delivering pizzas, man”; Abraham cackling insanely while covered in blood next to Sasha in the car; the walkers banging their heads open on corrugated metal siding; and Morgan asking Michonne if she stole one of his peanut-butter protein bars. Which is to say, the best moments of the episode to me were the ones with a bit of levity to them, however morbid. Let’s hope season six will bring more of those—judging from that swarm of walkers heading toward Alexandria, and the W-carvers still out there, we’ll need a few laughs.

Please, David, tell me I’m being overly judgmental.

Sims: I understand all your fears, Lenika. We’re six seasons in with The Walking Dead, and it’s pulling one of the most overdone tricks in the TV writing book—the in medias res opening, flashing forward to some crazy chaotic situation and then flashing back to explain how everything came together. It’s especially annoying because the answer behind the main set-piece in “First Time Again” isn’t remotely interesting. Rick seized control in Alexandria, got the deference he wanted from Deanna, and incorporated the haunted Morgan into the group. Then, one day, they found a big weird pit full of zombies, and decided to deal with it.

It’s leading with the set-piece first and finding some bits of story to justify it second, which is not the best approach, although it makes sense for a season premiere, since it starts with a bang. Still, this is one of the most-watched shows on TV: Viewers will give it a little leeway if it starts slow. They certainly have in the past. But despite the laziness of the setup, I really liked the set-piece. It’s fun watching the Walking Dead crew work like a well-oiled machine, guiding those zombies away from threatening range like some well-oiled Ocean’s Eleven team. And it’s just as fun watching it go horribly wrong, and I can’t deny being immediately drawn to the cliffhanger of the mysterious horn that undoes their plans. Who’s making that zombie-calling noise? Is it these “Wolves” we keep hearing so much about?

The black-and-white, as you briefly mentioned, was unforgivably bad. If you’re going to do that, make sure it looks good—otherwise what’s the point? The show needed some way to delineate between flashbacks and the present, I suppose, but the black-and-white was grainy and washed-out, even less palatable than the usual Walking Dead color schemes. More unforgivable was the fact that the flashback scenes did next to nothing to contextualize the rest of the plot. Yes, Morgan has some new kendo skills and is generally haunted by his past—that’s already been made abundantly clear. Yes, there’s some newcomers to the ensemble, but that’s fine, there’s plenty of ways to establish who they are. And yes, Rick is still establishing his supremacy among the Alexandrians, but that was last season’s plot, so why rehash it with Ethan Embry?

Still, there was enough excitement in the whole elaborate zombie chase to forgive those weaker flashback elements. With this special 90-minute episode, The Walking Dead has hopefully gotten all the season five remnants out of its system. As good as last year was, the show needs to find new territory to explore, and the “Dictator Rick” stuff can’t be the spine of yet another season. We understand the compromises he’s made as a leader, but the show is also clearly endorsing his viewpoint as a proven way to survive. He won that battle, so hopefully these horn-sounding villains can provoke a new one.

Season five was also fascinating in the full spectrum of human villains it gave us, and what a challenge that will be to top. There were the abjectly evil cannibals of Terminus, the morally compromised mirror-image survivors of Slabtown, and the coddled fools of Alexandria. That was a hugely underrated component of what made season five so good: The Walking Dead had struggled so much with its big bads, like the Governor, in the past. What the show does boast now, however, is a truly outstanding group of actors. Before, half of the cast of The Walking Dead felt expendable, and when a character died, you barely shed a tear for them. Now, it’d be heartbreaking to lose anyone—and that’s a tension the show should exploit as much as possible. There’s few things on TV that possess that real sense of danger, but The Walking Dead has proven time and time again that it is happy to sacrifice its sacred cows. The only question with season six is who will be first on the chopping block.