Spoilers for all aired episodes of The Walking Dead
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve not been the biggest advocate of AMC’s The Walking Dead in the past. The first season captured me, but the slog of Seasons 2 and 3 wore on me and I abandoned the show faster than Rick Grimes abandoned his humanity. But it turns out The Walking Dead wasn’t quite done with me and after Season 5, it was clear that I wasn’t done with it. In it’s fifth season The Walking Dead became lean, focused, and heartbreakingly effective. I was pulled so far back into the apocalyptic wasteland that I found myself as one of the millions anxiously sitting down last night to watch the Season 6 premier. It’s unfortunate therefore that “First Time Again” suffered from season opener syndrome and made the episode feel more like the old Walking Dead than the new.
There’s been a lot of talk about the show’s decision to shut down the narrative momentum halfway through last season to once again find our characters staying put, this time in the tranquil city of Alexandria. As much as I agree with those sentiments I loved what Alexandria represented to our group of survivors: actual safety. It was a joy seeing how each character reacted to this feeling of safety. Some readily accepting new jobs and new roles, ready to be happy and at peace. Others, after finally getting to slow down, realizing just how miserable they truly were.
And then there’s our main character, Rick Grimes. Rick’s reaction to Alexandria was one of doubt. To Rick the community didn’t represent peace, but rather a disaster waiting to happen. These people were not safe and they didn’t even realize it. They would never survive this world, and he, Rick Grimes, was the only one who could help them do it. To the people of Alexandria Rick seemed unhinged, ready to create problems where there were none. And I have to admit, by the end of the 5th season I kind of agreed with them. This place was safe. Maybe our characters could finally be happy.
But of course, Rick was right. We see this early on in last night’s episode as we learn that the only reason Alexandria hasn’t already been overrun was the handy rock quarry nearby that was accidentally trapping thousands of walkers, preventing them from attacking the city. And that’s the brilliance of The Walking Dead to me. Rick’s journey has for the past couple of seasons always appeared on the surface as the hero slowly turning into the villain. Gone is the Rick who hangs up his gun and takes up the plow. Gone is the man who wants to shield his son from the violent world. Rick has abandoned his humanity in order to make sure that the people he loves survive. And as The Walking Dead keeps showing us, Rick keeps being right. Is he crazy? Probably. But maybe that’s what it takes to survive.
Episode 1 finds the residents of Alexandria, led by Rick, working together to accomplish a goal. That is, getting all of the walkers in The Quarry of Doom to go away before they break out and overrun Alexandria. The plan is to literally lead them out of town using Motorcycle Darryl as moving bait, a plan so ridiculous, complicated and likely to fail that it’s instantly obvious that it came from the mind of Mr. Grimes. It also works really well because of course it does.
The episode also chooses to flashback to scenes immediately following Rick’s brutal head explosion of the abusive town doctor, Pete. The showrunners chose to show these flashbacks in black and white, which serve to clearly segment them. It also serves another purpose, however. Once Rick seizes control of Alexandria the sunny, peaceful existence is gone, replaced by the cold, hard real world. Rick’s world is one of black and white: us and them. By shooting these scenes without color, this point is driven home all the more.
Unfortunately this flashback structure really hurts the pacing of the episode. “First Time Again” is 90 minutes long but it moves painfully slow because we’re not pulled through the narrative by anything. Each time the tension ratchets up we’re sent back in time to a flashback moment, which normally just involve characters talking to each other. These moments are great, but they’re so disjointed that the episode doesn’t feel like it has any kind of flow.
Despite the bad pacing, the episode manages to do a good job setting up what will be the central conflict of the season. At the end of last year we got to see our old friend Morgan Jones finally meet up with Rick. Episode 1 immediately sets up Morgan as Rick’s foil and future enemy. When last they met, Morgan was the crazy one, while Rick was still fighting to cling onto humanity. These roles have reversed now and some of the best scenes of the episode are Morgan struggling to pull Rick back from the brink. We see that Rick doesn’t want to bury Pete inside the walls of Alexandria because “we don’t bury killers here,” an interesting line in the sand considering the owner of the bullet that exploded Pete’s head. Morgan is there to deftly point out that both he and Rick are, in fact, killers. Morgan says he knows Rick would never kill the sniveling mutinous Carter (Ethan Embry), but Rick only spares him because he realizes that his death is inevitable (he’s right…again). These two characters both known how the world works, but approach it from fundamentally different places.
The episode ends before we get any satisfying conclusion to the 90 minute long arc. As with most season openers, we’re setting up so much that we don’t actually get time for anything to happen. Next week we’ll get to see what happens when a wave of zombies hits the walls of Alexandria. We’ll get to see who’s honking that horn bringing them there. We’ll probably get to see what’s the deal with these Wolves the show has been teasing for episode after episode. But, honestly, I don’t really care about any of that. I know our characters will find a way to survive (well, some of them at least). What I’m much more interested in is the growing conflict between Rick and Morgan and how it will change our main character. Will Rick be right again or will he finally become the villain we’ve been waiting for? I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out.