[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Is zombie wrangling a thing? If not, it seems likely the folks at AMC will see the marketing potential in making it one. After what undead make-up mastermind Greg Nicotero and his crew accomplished, delivering the biggest, most visually impressive spectacle The Walking Dead has ever witnessed, zombie wrangling may very well become an attraction the network will peddle out nationwide – in between the soon-to-be year-round installments of post-apocalyptic mayhem, of course.
While it may be a ratings juggernaut, The Walking Dead has never been much of a visual marvel; it's never really aimed to tell its story by going big visually, in the way, say Game of Thrones continually impresses with its lush visual style. And it's not because the series' narrative couldn't support it or that it would feel out of place. After all, events don't get much bigger than the end of the world. Much of this is a budget thing. Game of Thrones has an enormous budget to not only cover its colossal cast and far-reaching filming locations, which often require an additional but necessary flourish to enhance the fantasy setting, whereas TWD is largely set in a relatively rural area on the eastern United States.
So, in a sense, The Walking Dead doesn't absolutely need that extra bit of spectacle, since it is telling a massive story on a smaller scale. It's the end of the world, sure, but it's being told through the lens of an incredibly small portion of the population. Despite the narrative's relatively narrow frame, though, you expect one of TV's biggest shows to be able to go big when it needs to. And as the show begins season 6 – and the audience's familiarity with the titular dead has become such that the sight of a "walker" or "roamer" means it will immediately be followed-up by a knife, screwdriver, or some other implement to the head – spectacle has the added benefit of bringing a much-needed sense of dread to the now too common sight of the undead.
But in The Walking Dead, spectacle works two ways. On one hand, there is the massive opening shot of thousands of walkers penned into a quarry. It's a striking display that expands the scope of the show's visual achievements (there have been wide shots before, but not with so many moving parts all designed so specifically to impress the way this shot did). At the same time, though, there is the spectacle of Nicotero's make-up work, which delivers the shot of a zombie's skin peeling away, like he was taking his jacket off upon entering someone's home (a polite, but maybe too revealing gesture). Both are memorable in their own way – though only one might leave you feeling queasy.
To that end, 'First Time Again' is an example of everything you want in a season premiere of The Walking Dead. It is a big, splashy affair that touches on the interpersonal conflicts as much as it does the bigger picture stuff – i.e., the necessary efforts to make Alexandria a safe haven beyond just dumb luck – and it features Ethan Embry screaming like a ninny until Rick sticks a knife in the back of his skull. Basically, it checks all the necessary boxes (and then some) of what the show needs to do in terms of spectacle.
There are interesting functional elements, too, like the use of black-and-white to distinguish between present-day events and recent history. In the past, The Walking Dead has gotten a little caught up the one-dimensionality of its own story, which basically results in long segments of characters explaining what's going on to one another (see most of season 3 for this phenomenon). This hasn't been much of an issue since Scott Gimple took the reins and, despite the repetitiveness of the overarching storyline – i.e., Rick & Co. go looking for a safe place to live, safe place is compromised by either the undead or the ruthless living, Rick & Co. go looking for a safe place to live again. Rinse. Repeat. – the series has managed to infuse even the portions of the story set in a stationary location like Alexandria with enough of a dramatic thrust that keeps it from getting stagnant. So the use of black-and-white isn't really meant as a visual flourish, like, say, the touches put in during 'What Happened and What's Going On.' Instead, it has essentially the same job Sasha, Abraham, and Daryl do in the premiere: to keep the audience on track, to lead them to the place they need to be led.
And that idea of leading herds of people to where they need to go, is really the underlying theme of 'First Time Again.' While the episode is sprinkled with a few interpersonal moments, like Rick and Morgan discussing who they are now versus who they were when they first met, or, Maggie and Tara's conversation about essentially the same thing, it is the idea of shepherding a flock from one physical location or an ideological position to another that resonates most here. Yes, the Ethan Embry stuff is perhaps more heavy-handed than it needs to be, but it is still successful in presenting the moral quandary Rick is faced with, as he is charged with protecting a community that's basically incapable of protecting itself. Even though his own personal ethos has changed to the degree that he sees most people outside his core group as those who are "going to die anyway," there's still something inside Rick that wants to save everyone.
Rick's instinct to survive has been at odds with what's left of "normal" society before, but he's never been put in charge of a group this large or a location with this much potential. So the Great Zombie Drive he leads becomes not just an effort to remove a serious threat, or to instill some sense of self-reliance in the sheltered denizens of Alexandria, it also becomes Rick proving there's still something left in him that cares enough to do so.
What works about the premiere, then, is how its narrative goals are successfully blended with the presentation of spectacle and the actual needs of the characters within the story. Granted it takes 90-minutes to accomplish this, but to its credit, it manages to do so without getting them confused or muddying up the visual metaphor at the heart of it all. Going this big, shoving this many walkers into one episode, could have felt like superficial overkill, but The Walking Dead made it more than just a visually entertaining endeavor. Added to the complication of the horns sounding in Alexandria at the end, the premiere also managed to make its plentiful walkers feel like a legitimate threat again.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'JSS' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC