Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen the Season 6 premiere of “The Walking Dead,” titled “First Time Again.”
After a six week sojourn in Los Angeles as we watched the clueless characters of “Fear the Walking Dead” fumble through the first days of the zombie apocalypse, there’s something undeniably comforting about the familiarity of our grubby, sharp-edged survivors and their world-weary cynicism. We may not always agree with Rick Grimes’ actions, but we can always count on him not to dither in a crisis — even if it’s a crisis of his own making, as it was when he and the Alexandrians decided to clear out a quarry full of walkers in dangerous proximity to their sanctuary by drawing them out and down a long and winding road that may inadvertently lead them right back to their door.
Rick’s unorthodox (but usually effective) leadership style was the primary focus of the season six premiere, directed by Greg Nicotero and penned by Matthew Negrete and showrunner Scott Gimple. The episode was certainly meaty – it was over an hour long – and at times you couldn’t help but feel the bloat, in large part due to the decision to frame the present-day narrative with black and white flashbacks to the days immediately following the season five finale.
The device felt simultaneously practical – catching us up on days of lost time without the transition seeming jarring — and self-indulgent, as the episode wasted valuable real estate lingering on slow-motion shots of Daryl driving his motorcycle with the wind in his hair (though such imagery no doubt had its admirers) and herds of walkers ambling along quiet country roads, killing the narrative momentum every time it switched between time periods. Despite the episode beginning with a sense of urgency as Rick and his cohorts attempted to corral the quarry full of walkers, that adrenaline rush was halted every time we jumped back to the mournful days following Reg and Pete’s deaths.
Still, those flashbacks provided the most engaging moments in the episode, showcasing the delicious character dynamics set up by our group’s uneasy assimilation into Alexandria – especially now that Morgan has joined the party.
Despite having appeared in a grand total of 4 episodes prior to the season five finale, Morgan is a character that has loomed large throughout “The Walking Dead” – providing a counterpoint to Rick’s journey to illustrate how easily even the most practical man can be unraveled. It was chilling to see Morgan driven to madness by his isolation back in “Clear,” but now we’ve seen Rick touched by that same wildness even while surrounded by loved ones. Both are seemingly back from the brink now, but it’s fascinating to watch the two sizing each other up, subtly testing each other’s boundaries to see if the other will snap.
And yet, despite the need to get to know each other again (for the first time), the bond between these two men runs deep – watching Rick trust Morgan with Judith (while admitting that he wanted to kill Carter, the conspiring Alexandrian who had been trying to undermine him at every turn), was one of the most compelling few minutes of television in recent memory. Lennie James is a luminous and long overdue addition to the show’s roster, able to effortlessly convey both placidity and watchfulness in a way that never quite reveals what he’s thinking. There’s an undeniable energy in James’ scenes with Andrew Lincoln, with both actors at the top of their game when they’re sharing the screen, but it’s equally fascinating to watch Morgan interact with Michonne (“did you take one of my protein bars?”) and Carol, whose wolf in sheep’s clothing routine clearly doesn’t fool him like it does the Alexandrians.
The episode was full of delightful character beats that made me want to linger in Nicotero’s artfully shot flashbacks: the introduction of Corey Hawkins’ Heath, and his perplexed reaction to Eugene (because perplexity really does seem like the only realistic reaction to Eugene); Tara and Maggie’s heartfelt discussion about giving people second chances; Jessie’s gentle but firm warning to Rick not to overstep his bounds with her son Ron, even as Rick fumbles to try and say the right thing; Glenn and Nicholas’ awkward attempts to put up with each other’s company after their finale brawl; Daryl’s slow acceptance of the Alexandrian way of life, which in turn seems to be putting him back in touch with humanity after losing Beth; Abraham’s drunken and wordless moment of connection with Sasha when both are feeling adrift; Rick’s hilariously instantaneous rebuttal when Father Gabriel attempts to volunteer for the zombie herding mission; all instances of the show doing what it does best – allowing us to live and breathe with these characters and the relationships they’ve formed.
During the show’s world premiere event at Madison Square Garden last week, the crowd was positively electric when Rick stormed into the armory to find Carter pointing a gun at a cowering Eugene, and in moments like that, you can see why “The Walking Dead” is the most popular series on television – when it works, it’s magnetic. You hear that unidentified horn blaring in the distance in the premiere’s final moments, drawing thousands of hungry walkers back towards “home,” and you feel the same sense of dread as the characters — that’s a powerful thing six seasons into a show’s lifespan.
But the series can still fall victim to its excesses – as impressive as it is to see thousands of zombies (less so when they’re so obviously computer generated), and linger on Nicotero’s many creative ways of exploring their decay, it’s the characters that keep me coming back, not the experimentation with non-linear narratives and the never-ending quest to make every set-piece bigger and gorier and more cliffhanger-y than the last. After five years, I just hope the show maintains its focus on the humans that provide its still-beating heart, rather than the creatures trying to devour it.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.