Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Lenika Cruz: David, if I had to sum up the episode into four words it’d probably be: Boom, chomp, chop, bang.
“Boom” being the heavy-metal, face-melting explosion that opened the episode and wiped out a dozen new characters mere minutes after they were introduced. “Chomp” being, really, two sets of zombie death-chomps: Sam (good riddance to him and his haircut) and Jessie (sad-face emoji), both of whom got eaten by the Alexandrian walker horde. “Chop” being the horrific amputation of Jessie’s hand via a few messy axe swings by Rick, in an attempt to free Carl from her dying grasp. “Bang,” of course, refers to another big moment comic fans have been waiting for: the gunshot that left a gaping hole in Carl’s face where his eye used to be. Crazily, three of these things took place within a roughly 90-second span.
Which, when I write it all down, sounds pretty cool! As far as midseason premieres go, this episode could have done a lot worse: It had plenty of action, lots of critical plot shifts, the demise of important characters (R.I.P Yellow-Teeth Wolf), suspense, and character development. And yet I couldn’t help but feel largely unimpressed by an episode that I think was intended to leave me with my jaw on the floor for an hour. I wasn’t a fan of how the show executed that climactic scene with Jessie, Sam, and Carl—it was poorly paced, and I found Rick’s flashbacks to be both tacky and unnecessary. If the show needs to remind viewers of how much he liked her, it probably didn’t do a great job of setting up their relationship in the first place. (On the bright side, Rick-Michonne shippers, rejoice!)
I suppose beginning a half-season with this much energy is a wise call, but I can’t help but feel that “No Way Out” should have been the midseason finale. (The actual one left us both unimpressed—I called it a “false ending,” you called it a “dud in every sense of the word.”) Part of my dislike for this episode comes from the fact that it reminded me how bad everyone’s storylines ended up last November: Morgan and Carol having that ridiculous fight over the Wolf, who then took Denise hostage; Eugene being a giant baby; Glenn and Enid watching a stranded Maggie from afar; a perennially trembling Sam leading the group to almost-certain doom. I’m relieved, though, that most of the dangling plot threads are now tied up, because that opens the possibility for new subplots moving forward.
While writing these roundtables, I often want to directly copy-paste lines of criticism that you or I have offered in past articles in reference to new episodes. I think this maybe says less about my own laziness than it does about the fact that the show, six seasons in, simply continues to make the exact same kinds of mistakes over and over again: the inappropriately timed one-on-ones; the overly earnest soliloquies about The Way Things Are Now; the blatant disregard for the internal logic of the world itself when it’s convenient to the story at hand (all the years spent pretending that cloaking oneself in zombie guts is not a highly effective trick).
On a related note, last week I went to a Walking Dead event organized by the Smithsonian Associates that featured the director Greg Nicotero, the showrunner Scott Gimple, the prop master John Sanders, and the very British and delightful Andrew Lincoln (who plays the very Southern and not-delightful Rick Grimes). Even though I spend a lot of time watching and thinking and writing about the show, I felt a little out-of-place in the crowd of diehard fans (“What if they sniff out my ambivalence?!”). But during the question and answer portion, I was surprised to find that the most critical, even provocative, questions came from two self-professed obsessives (one said she had previously met Nicotero on a Walker Stalker Cruise for zombie lovers.) The lesson being that getting mad at the show for not being better (or for not being as great as it has proven it can be) is its own kind of affection—a weird, tough-love fandom.
So what of the future for the rest of season six? I learned a little bit from the Smithsonian Associates panel. Despite all the excitement about Negan, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be a major presence the rest of this season. Nicotero and Gimple said the season would be among the darkest so far, but also would attempt to weave in more comedy (what form that’ll take, who knows). Part of me expected Alexandria to fall, in line with the show’s habit of using tragedy to periodically force the characters back into nomadism. But Rick’s final heart-to-heart with a comatose Carl makes me think they’re not leaving these dorks behind anytime soon, especially now that they’ve all finally learned how to survive and defend themselves. If a bunch of pathetic suburbanites can rise up and make Rick feel hopeful for the first time since before the zombie apocalypse, I guess anything can happen.
David Sims: Honestly, at this point, I’ll take some comedy. Probably the best two moments of this episode were the bleakly funny ones—the deadly explosion that punctuated that tense opening sequence, and then Abraham and Sasha gleefully mowing down zombies with machine guns near the end. Both times, the show was teasing us with something it had done many times before: the deaths of some major characters. Both times, it seemed delighted with the fact that it had fooled us again—Abraham, Sasha, and Glenn will all live to fight another day, but don’t you dare think they’re remotely safe, viewer. It felt a little cheap, but the show was poking at its own self-seriousness, which is something it should do far more often.
Especially since, oh boy, the rest of this episode. Lenika, I agree with you that this probably should have served as the mid-season finale—there were at least a couple episodes last year that were just marking time, and it would have been far less confusing to just wrap up the fall of Alexandria last year, rather than plunging us back into the middle of this chaos. After that opening with Negan’s gang (who are obviously being positioned as the next big baddies), this entire episode was concerned with the logistics of the Alexandria survivors trying to escape, regroup, and purge their town of the zombie horde. It felt like a classic Walking Dead finale: Having spent weeks scattering its ensemble on various missions, they all come back together and help each other out in a bunch of big hero moments.
So I liked the arrival of Abraham and Sasha, I liked Father Gabriel stepping up and being a hero, and I liked Glenn reuniting with Maggie. I even liked Carol finally getting her chance to take out that crazy Wolf, even if he seemed to be making some emotional progress in his time with the friendly doctor Denise. The zombie bonfire that closed the episode wasn’t too far off from what our colleagues Jeffrey Goldberg and John Gould suggested as a solution for the original pit of zombies way back at the beginning of this season. This show is invested in Alexandria as its base of operations, rather than having the gang wander on to some new territory, and there’s something admirable about its characters deciding to break the mold and stay put.
But to do that, The Walking Dead needed to clear Alexandria of all its boring characters, so the majority of this episode was just an emotionless bloodbath. I appreciate that the whole “slather yourself with zombie gore to move among the horde” trick cannot be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card by the writers over and over again, so it made sense that some of the characters trying to do that here had to bite the dust. But the show was so obviously killing off its most dramatically inert characters—the annoying kids—and then added Jessie to the body count because anyone in love with Rick obviously has to die, simply to add to his psychological burden. At this point, it might feel more audacious if this show stopped killing off characters. I don’t know that there’s any more surprises to be wrung from gory death scenes.
So where does this leave us, in the middle of season six? Alexandria’s walls have fallen, but the zombies have been burned away; whatever gentle citizen-driven government existed there has also been purged after attacks on all sides. The Wolves may or may not be coming back; Negan’s gang is definitely lurking around the corner. There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done, and poor Carl’s missing an eye now. Season six started with such a strong sense of purpose: There was a pit of zombies, and something had to be done about it. Now, all that purpose has been drained out of the show and replaced with a lingering sense of unease. The Walking Dead is often at its worst when it’s introspective and slow. If what you say is true, Lenika—that Negan isn’t showing up for a little while longer—I worry we have a depressing run ahead of us.