The Walking Dead: Season 6, Episode 1 – First Time Again

“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.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After six uneven weeks of its nascent spinoff, it comes as something of a relief to welcome back the original Walking Dead, in an extra length season premiere. Six years in, though, the show has seemingly explored nearly every possible storyline in their zombie apocalypse – can there be anything left to say, or is the show simply being prolonged because it’s AMC’s biggest hit?

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Thankfully, unlike Lost or The X Files, the showrunners say they already have an ending planned, though they were vague as to when it would be. In the mean time, the show can still offer spectacle and, importantly, character drama; after all, if you didn’t care about the characters, there’d be no tension or jeopardy. This season premiere offered both, centring on the newly empowered Rick’s attempt to mobilise the reluctant Alexandrians to deal with, I think, the biggest herd of Walkers we’ve seen yet.

The cold opening showed us an impressive (and presumably computer-enhanced) horde of the undead, penned into a quarry by strategically placed trucks and rocks. Not even at the opening credits, and there’s already more spectacle than was offered in all six episodes of the spinoff show. But it’s not all about spectacle, and this ep had a lot to do in establishing new characters while getting to grips with new conflicts even for old friends.

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Most prominent of those was obviously the reunion of Rick with Morgan Jones, Lennie James at last getting a starring role after sporadically appearing since the very first episode. Having popped up every so often last year in his trek to find Rick’s group, Morgan finally caught up with his old friend at just the point Rick was ‘executing’ Pete on Deanna’s orders. Awkward. Remember, Morgan hasn’t seen Rick since Clear, halfway through season three; after so long “out there”, Rick’s no longer quite the man he remembers. As he says, “Gotta get to know each other again. For the first time, again”. That being the ep’s title made it fairly clear that their relationship was one of its most crucial aspects.

Of course Morgan’s been “out there” just as long, following a complete mental breakdown after the death of his son. That makes him an interesting comparison to Rick; he hasn’t become anything like as ruthless, but then, he hasn’t had anyone else to take responsibility for either. It’s an interesting viewpoint – having to take care of your own can push you to far darker places than only having yourself to worry about. The natural end result of that we saw with the Governor; with Rick’s plans last season to take over Alexandria for its citizens’ own good, you can see how he’s heading perilously close to that path.

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With the very opening of this ep showing Rick as a commanding leader of the Alexandrians, that’s plainly less of a problem; after the events of last season’s finale, they seem to have accepted that they need guidance from people with more experience of surviving the hostile world that exists now. As Scott Gimple’s script progressed though, we saw it hadn’t been smooth sailing.

The narrative was presented with flashbacks intercutting events in the present, which director Greg Nicotero had chosen to show in monochrome; a useful visual shorthand for “this is a flashback”, but not something the show’s needed in previous flashbacks. Perhaps Nicotero just thought it looked like a stylish homage to the original Night of the Living Dead.

Whichever, the flashbacks showed us plenty of misgivings from the Alexandrians in the wake of Rick’s killing of Pete. Even Jessie, who’d seemed to be falling for Rick before all this, was looking at him in a new light after the death of her violent, abusive husband. Sadly, that seemed all too accurate – victims of domestic abuse don’t always see their abuser in strictly negative terms.

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Neither did Pete’s son Ron, who last season didn’t seem to have an actual character. This year, he’s been given a fairly predictable one – surly, resentful teenage boy. And we’ve already got one of those, he’s called Carl (though he was barely to be seen this week).

To be fair, Ron’s got to cope with the newly established leadership of the guy who’s just shot his dad; that’s bad enough even on top of the usual emotional turmoil of adolescence. Austin Abrams, who plays him, has recently been cast in the title role of Vernon God Little, an adaptation of DBC Pierre’s controversial novel, so presumably he’s got some good acting chops; he hasn’t had much chance to prove it here yet though.

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The real opposition to the new Ricktatorship, though, seemed to be coalescing around new character Carter, played by Ethan Embry who I’ve had a bit of a thing for since 1995’s Empire Records. Carter was made into quite a big deal in this ep; his plot to kill Rick derailed by the eavesdropping Eugene, he seemed to cautiously accept Rick and even start to learn from him. There seemed every indication he’d be an important character going forward.

So it was a bit of a surprise that he was Walker chow by the end of the ep, stabbed in the head by Rick to stop his screaming distracting the herd from their pre-planned course. In retrospect, it makes sense; none of the regular main characters were offed this week, so for a bit of emotional impact, a character had to be built up before dying horribly. Shame though, I’d have liked to have seen more of Ethan Embry.

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There was a fair bit of redemption going on too. Father Gabriel, having previously denounced Rick’s gang as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, fronted up to Deanna and admitted he might have been wrong there. Sasha seems to be getting over her PTSD-inspired death wish, and may even be starting a thing with Abraham.

And Nicholas, last seen trying to kill Glenn, was pathetically grateful and eager to help when his intended victim covered up for him. Glenn may regret that, now that Nicholas seems to be following him around like an eager puppy. The whole (admittedly well done) set piece of them and Heath dispatching a store full of Walkers seemed written in there just to emphasise that point.

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All this character drama was, as so often in this show, neatly intertwined around the action, which didn’t disappoint. That horde of Walkers was obviously a real threat, however slowly they may shamble along; since we saw them knock an 18 wheel truck off a cliff by sheer force of numbers, the Alexandrians aren’t going to want them clustering around the walls. They’re a more immediate threat than the Wolves, who barely rated a mention this week, but it does look likely they’ll be the main threat this season (or half-season, at the very least).

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Even amidst all that, there was time for a few bits of humour to lighten the darkness – from the most unlikely of places. Yes, Carol was uncharacteristically all sweetness and light this week, but Morgan wasn’t fooled – “You’re always watching. Always ready”. Eugene, meanwhile, was overjoyed at the recovery of Tara, whose first reaction was, “thank God, nothing happened to your hair!”

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Gore of the week

Surprisingly, with Greg Nicotero directing an ep containing literally hundreds of Walkers, there wasn’t actually all that much of the show’s trademark gore this week (outside of the usual head-stabbing and bludgeoning anyway). The Walkers, though, are getting ever more decomposed, leading to a choice moment early on as one scraped off much of its flesh squeezing between the trucks:

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While not the goriest death of a major character (that honour must surely belong to Noah after last year), Carter’s demise was nevertheless unpleasant, as a Walker determinedly chowed down on his face. There was something peculiarly horrible about the way his eye socket gradually filled with blood – good luck amputating that:

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This was a solid season opener, which, though it was certainly not lacking in action, focused more on the characters and their development than last year’s slam bang destruction of Terminus. You may find that a little disappointing if explosions and gore are what you watch the show for, but with the heroes now resident in the Alexandria Safe Zone, it’s virtually a new format with a potential legion of new characters. That needs room to breathe, and this extra-length premiere was sufficient for that.

Not much clue as to what the rest of season six may hold as yet, though I’m betting the Wolves will be back. The Rick/Morgan relationship is obviously going to be dramatically important, and I’m looking forward to more of Andrew Lincoln and Lennie James’ verbal sparring. While I didn’t entirely hate Fear the Walking Dead (and actually really liked some of it), it’s definitely good to have the real thing back. So what the heck is that horn dragging the Walkers back to the Safe Zone? Find out next week – being the show it is, it can’t be anything good.

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