Picking up where season 5 left off, while embarking on new plots, “The Walking Dead” looks very much at the top of its game, with strong character material mixed with a massive set piece in the extended premiere made possible, no doubt, by its enormous popularity. Blessed and cursed with a vagabond mentality, the first episode finds the gang still trying to fit into a gated community, where the promise of security is balanced against the cultural clash separating the battle-hardened travelers from those sheltered within. Add one familiar face to the mix, and it’s a pretty irresistible feast.
Said face belongs to Lennie James, who appeared in the show’s early days, an actor who has a way of classing up whatever joint he visits. James’ Morgan turned up again at the close of last season, and having known Rick (Andrew Lincoln), the square-jawed sheriff, in those days when he could honestly proclaim, “We don’t kill the living,” it’s fascinating to see the character through his old pal’s eyes. James also has a couple of priceless little scenes with co-stars Melissa McBride and Danai Gurira, underscoring the gallows humor that’s found in this script from showrunner Scott M. Gimple and Matthew Negrete.
Of course, “Walking Dead” features a large ensemble, and has a way of shedding them when one least expects it. One of the challenges with this current crop is that they’re such a tough group it’s hard to see some of the more recent additions succumbing, and as with some of last season’s casualties, most fans would likely hate to lose them.
That said, the show has constantly reinvented itself by both shifting venues and turning over characters, a formula that has kept the program’s soap opera aspects fresh, even if the threat from marauding zombies remains continuous. The real treat in this episode, on that score, involves a detailed operation deftly chronicled in flashback, cutting back and forth between its implementing and planning.
Granted, “The Walking Dead” has a way of front-loading its seasons (witness last year’s spectacular escape from Terminus) and wrapping them up with major cliffhangers, while meandering a bit – sort of like a you know what – in between. What bodes somewhat better this time around is not only the return of James but the fact that the main cast can at least initially be found in the same place, creating interactions that tend to be lost when the group gets scattered. There’s also an intriguing dynamic in Rick especially trying to educate the community he’s inherited and its leader (Tovah Feldshuh), essentially preaching a maxim from the movie “Wyatt Earp,” in which the hero says, “This is a harsh land. It doesn’t suffer fools.”
In a perverse way, AMC’s experiment with spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead” only enhances the original, having demonstrated that even a zombie apocalypse can be rendered mundane and lifeless by plodding storytelling and weak characters. And while the ratings were unsurprisingly good enough to justify a renewal, those six weeks in L.A. have likely done nothing quite so much as stoke appetites for another gory helping of the real deal.