This is a spoiler-free review of “The Walking Dead’s” Feb. 14 return.
“The Walking Dead” doesn’t need to redeem itself, exactly, but after its way-too-cute handling of the “Is Glenn dead?” situation, it really should do some penance. Fortunately, the show comes roaring back (on Valentine’s Day, no less) out of its midseason break — operating on multiple fronts with various characters, and a sustained level of tension that has become its hallmark. Throw in a couple of particularly jarring moments, and even for those of us who engaged in a fair amount of grumbling about the sixth season’s opening salvo, that’s a good, adrenaline-filled way to kick off its bifurcated run’s second half.
Those eagerly anticipating Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s arrival during Season 6B as the villain Negan will have to wait a bit longer (reportedly until the finale), though they can always take solace in watching his canoodling with Alicia on “The Good Wife.” But events have clearly been set in motion, auguring a crisis that can’t be addressed until after the core group and their less-hardened charges deal with all hell breaking loose around them in Alexandria, which was where things left off.
In the latest of the program’s extended arcs, as Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his posse seek something approaching security in a lawless world, the primary band has sought to mesh with that community, whose formidable walls had shielded them from the horrors of this post-apocalyptic society. Rick’s efforts to toughen up those residents yielded mixed results, before everything was thrown into utter chaos – first via an attack by human predators, and later by a staggering zombie horde, which must have surely employed every background actor and makeup artist in Georgia, where the show is filmed.
Without giving anything away, the latest trial by fire does a nice job of further cultivating those narrative seeds, which in a strange way bring to mind “The Magnificent Seven.” Sure, the farmers might have relied on hired gunslingers to keep the bandits at bay, but looking outside for such protection doesn’t come without trade-offs and sacrifices.
With the return of Lennie James and the addition of Michael Cudlitz, among others, the core cast has perhaps never been stronger, which is a boon, but also poses risks. As witnessed in the first half of the season, the audience’s fondness for key players makes the prospect of losing them dicier. At the same time, given the program’s mortality rate, that can foster a climate that turns everyone who isn’t in the opening credits, even more so than usual, into the expendable equivalent of the red-shirted crewmen on “Star Trek.”
In a broader sense, the show has established a somewhat frustrating pattern of opening and closing its runs on rousing notes, only to shuffle around somewhat drunkenly – sort of like a you-know-what – in between those bookends. Then again, “The Walking Dead’s” inordinate success has built in a cushion in that regard, one that has allowed the program to weather creative missteps and personnel losses, from actors to showrunners, and even emboldened AMC to expand the brand with a thus-far uninspired spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Indeed, if “The Walking Dead” has demonstrated anything, it’s that the main franchise has become bigger than its individual parts (or at least, most of them), in a program where death — and the creative risks associated with it — is a fact of life. For AMC, that should be highly reassuring. As for those fans who tend to forge emotional bonds to one aspect or another of the show, the best advice might echo that given to, say, a zombie with a dangling limb: Don’t get too attached.