[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
When it comes to The Walking Dead, death and misery and pain are sure things. They are an inescapable fact of life in this bleak, bloody world. But even though the audience knows those elements are coming over and over and over again, it doesn't mean they can't be presented in such a way that at least the degree of creative difficulty can be appreciated. When it comes to the season 6 midseason finale, 'Start to Finish,' The Walking Dead clearly remembers the first part, as the community of Alexandria finds itself under siege by a zombie horde. But it fails to acknowledge the second part, as the aftermath of said zombie horde quickly devolves into a series of familiar scenarios that suffer from the show's recent, inadvertent lowering of its stakes.
The handling of Glenn's supposed death and his subsequent survival against seemingly insurmountable odds may have gotten everyone talking in the short term, but it didn't do much for The Walking Dead's unspoken credo that "no one is safe." Instead, it led to a mostly dull siege where, in the face of real peril, the audience is now slightly skeptical that any member of the core group is actually in any real danger. The show doesn't need to off a major cast member every week, or even every season or mid-season finale, in order to maintain its status as overseer of one of television's most high-stakes environments. In fact, this fixation on TV character death is actually a large part of why the Glenn "death" backfired in the way that it did. But even without a major character death, the show has to maintain the illusion that "no one is safe" and that means not dropping a well-liked character into a seething mass of hungry, rotting flesh and having him survive under a dumpster for a day.
It also means that new characters that are introduced need to have some purpose other than to be fodder and to make Rick look like the best leader in the world when he's clearly the reason Alexandria is in the situation it is currently in. But in that, too, the show finds itself in a bit of a creative quagmire, as the distinction Rick has been making all season long, between his group and the Alexandrians, is supposed to add weight to the moment Deanna puts the community in Rick's bloody hands. These are his people now and he's supposed to take care of them. The only problem is, The Walking Dead sees the lives of the mostly faceless denizens of this sheltered community the same way Rick does: as mostly disposable.
In other words, The Walking Dead finds itself in a situation where the stakes are oddly nullified because the audience knows the characters it cares about will shoot, hack, and dumpster dive their way out of any predicament, while the characters it already knows to be zombie vittles are the only ones in any peril. And when it comes to a run-of-the-mill midseason finale like 'Start to Finish,' most of that peril is handled off screen. It's as though the show is just working its way toward something it is far more interested in revealing, so it puts forth as little effort as possible until it can make that reveal. As such, it is telling, then, that the most compelling part of the midseason finale happened after the first commercial break of Into the Badlands. And even the name-dropping prologue wasn't all that compelling. In fact, it was mostly confusing, since Abraham has those RPGs and Negan's emissary talked long enough that Abe or Sasha should've been firing explosives at him instead of taking the bait on what was obviously a speech he'd been working on for a very long time.
But Negan's men, like nearly everyone else, remain untouched despite finding themselves in a precarious spot. This is made most evident by the shot of Rick, Carl, Michonne, Jessie and her two kids standing unmolested in a sea of zombies. Yes, the zombie-guts camouflage Rick slathered them all in works and that's playing by the show's rules, so fine. But the image is still indicative of an ongoing problem with this half of season 6: It doesn't feel like anything is really at stake.
So, in the meantime, 'Start to Finish' rehashes a series of familiar scenarios, like the zombie gut camo, a bite victim (in the case, Deanna) looking wan while waiting to put a gun to their head, and of course the old chestnut of two characters at opposing ends of an argument sharing space with one another. Conflict between individuals who are ostensibly on the same side can make things more interesting, but the fight between Carol and Morgan isn't designed to ask a larger question about ideology or morality in such an extreme world; it's there to prove one of them right, which it does when the Wolf takes Denise hostage. Carol is right not to trust Morgan and his "no kill" policy, but at the same time, she's like Rick: the action she takes to prevent a dangerous scenario from unfolding actually sets the danger in motion.
Basically, the arrival of Rick & Co. is the worst thing that has happened to Alexandria since the world ended, and yet everyone, especially Deanna, acts as though his hot-dogging actions are just what the doctor ordered. Sure, having Rick around may pay off when Negan comes knocking, but that won't necessarily excuse the calamity that has followed their arrival. All of this would be worth it if the show were trying to make a sardonic point about overconfidence in a world designed to humble people at every turn, but the level of self-seriousness on display suggests otherwise.
Instead, it's just more of the same punishment the series has delivered from day one. Alexandria may be a lost cause, or it may be something still worth fighting for. At a certain point it doesn't matter, because everyone watching knows its part of the same cycle of death and despair that is this show's narrative. Those elements are arguably the cornerstone of The Walking Dead's continued ratings success, but that's just all the more reason they should be captivating, and not part of the same recursive loop as everything else.
The Walking Dead season 6 returns Sunday, February 14 @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC