[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is an interesting strategy on display during the season 6 midseason premiere of The Walking Dead. It primarily has to do with the series disentangling itself from the many go-nowhere threads that held the previous eight episodes back. 'No Way Out' is a direct continuation of last year's midseason finale, which means it picks up in the midst of the apparent fall of Alexandria and, maybe more immediately important, Rick's attempt to lead his small group of survivors to the armory, utilizing the tried-and-true method of zombie-gut camouflage. And while the act is compelling for anyone who regularly watches the show, it's the way in which the episode essentially washes its hands of the idea about halfway through, offering up another handful of characters to The Walking Dead abattoir, while simultaneously eliminating a number of potential story threads the series is clearly uninterested in exploring anymore.
The deaths of Sam and his mother Jessie read less like the series is trying once again to prove just how harsh and unforgiving this "new world" is and more like the producers and writers talked it over and it's just not worth the effort to try and carry this "Rick and Jessie romance thing" any further. For Sam to die in the midst of what might be a panic attack was bad enough, but the series never really had any idea what to do with the character anyway. He mostly existed as a way to round out Jessie's character and to potentially add some weight to the season 5 finale, when his drunken, abusive father was introduced to the business end of Rick's revolver. Since then, the Anderson clan has basically been remanded to the role of future… somethings. Jessie was Rick's future love interest, Ron was everyone's future problem, and Sam was a future bit of indigestion for some walkers.
Those story threads could have been stretched out in any number of ways, offering Carl a brotherly nemesis and Rick a love interest that might have smoothed his increasingly rough edges and given him a more personal stake in the community he is so determined to destroy/save. But there's a Big Bad on the way, and The Walking Dead just pulled itself from a mostly mixed eight episodes that largely suffered in part because the show had no idea how to make Jessie, Ron, and Sam interesting beyond their already nominal contributions to the plot. And so, they became a walking buffet with Rick's look of "well, shoot, so that happened" essentially providing the necessary behind-the-scenes commentary on their demise.
But it wouldn't be The Walking Dead if someone weren't maimed in the process of tossing narrative dead weight overboard, because that's the greatest sleight of hand trick this show has. Knowing that the Andersons are on their way out, not-at-all-reformed Ron gets in one parting shot before being run through with Michonne's sword. Ron's bullet seemingly went nowhere until it's revealed to have done the sort of grotesque, cartoony damage that will have everyone talking about Carl missing a portion of his face, instead of the lackadaisical thread cutting that facilitated the graphic injury.
But that too is part of the episode's house-cleaning tenet, as the injury to Carl, like Gabriel's offer to babysit Judith, frees Rick of his duties as a human being and a father to go on a robotic zombie kill-spree. While it's more perfunctory head slashing and bashing that's been seen on the show a thousand times, Rick's violent outburst winds up being the biggest community-building exercise since Deanna's Homemade Jam Jam of '09. There is simply no better way to get to know your post-apocalyptic neighbor than by forming a small posse to mow down a horde of zombies in the middle of the night.
There's a hint of old-school horror in the way director Greg Nicotero uses quick cuts of actors making equally quick cuts on their undead adversaries that livens the hour up and surprisingly gives it some room to breathe. Much of the episode seemed to reveal the show's desire to be more indirectly attentive to details, and as such, 'No Way Out' utilizes its loose idea of time to its advantage. Once night falls – apparently during Rick's aborted journey to the armory – the hour skips along at a faster clip, tying the various loose threads back together after letting them dangle for far too long.
The benefit of this is seeing Glenn and Enid stage a gallant – if not potentially unsuccessful – rescue of Maggie, before Abraham and Sasha show up to save Glenn's bacon. Then there's the episode MVP, Daryl, who, after dispatching Negan's men with what may be the most delightfully disrespectful RPG launch in television history, sets fire to Alexandria's water features and essentially saves the community's collective hide. All of this is great because, in the end, Rick finally sees that, when a horde of zombies he's technically responsible for is prepared to decimate the community he's nearly crippled, the once-timid townsfolk of Alexandria can pick up their machetes and their knives and band together as one to help clean up Rick's mess.
So there is a significant upside to what is essentially a messy episode that brazenly disposes of plot threads by cataloging them as obstacles rather than potential paths for the show's many characters. That's certainly true of Dr. Denise's halted abduction story line, which doesn't even get her outside of Alexandria before the Wolf ostensibly proves Morgan right – just before he dies, of course.
While it is by no means a great episode of The Walking Dead, 'No Way Out' is an efficient housecleaner. It's like a specialist brought in to help someone on an episode of Hoarders: unsentimental in its approach to what needs to be tossed while shaking its head at the messy plot threads and superfluous character excesses the series somehow accumulated like so many stacks of old newspapers and worthless trinkets. If this impassive approach to cleaning up the detritus of the series helps make it less of a slog, then it'll have all been worth it in the end.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'The Next World' @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC