Recap Digest: The Walking Dead 6.1, "First Time Again"

Oct 12, 2015 by Alex Castle

“I don’t take chances anymore,” Rick tells his long-lost neighbor Morgan, who after being the one to fill Rick in on the zombie apocalypse and then declining to join Rick’s travel party, has been found by Daryl and brought back to Alexandria with a spiffy new set of staff-fighting skills.

Rick means that in the five years (or however long it’s been in in-show time) since he saw Morgan, he’s learned that some people can’t be saved, some people can’t help, and some arguments are best settled permanently. We don’t know what Morgan’s been doing for all this time, other than practicing staff-fighting, but it appears that he still retains a little bit of the optimism and faith in humanity that made Rick such a conflicted, at times unsteady leader in earlier seasons.

This difference in approach to surviving the post-viral hellscape is, so far, mainly a philosophical one, but little cracks are already forming; Morgan’s quiet disapproval of Rick’s handling of the Carter situation – when his screaming threatened to sink Rick’s entire plan to move the giant herd of walkers away from Alexandria – as well as his sideways looks about Rick’s disinterest in giving Pete a proper burial, and his pointing out that Alexandria has a cell, and Pete probably didn’t need to be killed, suggests that there is going to be a major break between the two at some point this season.

But the show is in no hurry to get to that, focusing instead on a major security initiative (intercut with black-and-white flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of Rick’s handling of the Pete situation) that both reveals how Alexandria has been able to exist relatively walker-free for so long, and reveals a slow-approaching crisis: It seems that all the walkers in the area have wound up trapped in a quarry, and the noise they’re making is attracting more walkers, so there are thousands of them. But the strategically-parked trucks are letting a trickle of walkers out and will eventually slide off the embankment into the quarry, causing a walker stampede, so Rick forms a plan to let them all out and herd them all to the west, away from Alexandria. I must say, unless I missed something, this plan seemed a little half-baked. Were they going to kill all these walkers, or just lead them away? Not killing them seems like “taking chances,” but then again there are so many it may just be impractical.

It all goes well, with Abraham and Sasha indulging their respective death wishes by volunteering to lead the parade along with Daryl, except for when Kid From CAN’T HARDLY WAIT plots behind Rick’s back and then ends up getting bitten and almost blowing everything with his screams, which as mentioned, Rick stops with a little too much relish. The walkers are back on the road when someone in Alexandria starts blowing a horn, dispersing thousands of walkers off the road and toward the noise. It would seem that philosophical differences can be back-burnered for the moment.

Alan Sepinwall of HitFix sees some distinct similarities between the premiere and a certain other premium cable series:

“First Time Again” wasn’t an exact copy of last spring’s Game of Thrones zombie epic, because of course it couldn’t be. These are different shows, with different settings, and also different rules about what their creatures of the undead can do. If Jon Snow, for instance, were to try out Rick’s strategy of marching the walkers to a location where they’d be easily disposed of, he’d be chased down and eaten in under 10 seconds. Game of Thrones also has a bigger budget than “Walking Dead” and has better CGI tools, where The Walking Dead has Greg Nicotero, and thus the best zombie makeup effects in the business.

But it was hard to look at those early shots in the quarry, particularly as new walkers kept piling in and falling down the cliff face, and not imagine Nicotero (who directed the premiere), Scott Gimple (who co-wrote it with Matthew Negrete) and company looking looking at “Hardhome” — and/or all the “Top that, Walking Dead!” response to “Hardhome” — and saying, “Yeah, we can do that, too.”

This was certainly the biggest scale The Walking Dead has ever operated on, even if parts of it were computer-generated. (Unsurprisingly, the most impressive-looking scenes weren’t the big crowd shots, but closer moments where Nicotero and all the practical make-up and effects people could work their magic.) And whether the idea originated from watching Thrones or not, putting this many walkers on screen at the same time fulfilled a couple of necessary purposes: 1)Explaining how Alexandria has stayed so secure, above and beyond the strength of the walls that Reg built; and 2)Giving all the pampered and poorly-trained Alexandrians an enormous threat that will force them all to either grow up fast or, like Ethan Embry’s Carter, die screaming.

Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray loved the premiere, and praises the episode’s flashback structure:

To say that this show is coming back strong would be an understatement. “First Time Again” is not just an incredible season premiere but is arguably one of the series' best installments to date, combining moody “What does it mean to be alive?” philosophizing with the kind of action-packed Big Mission that usually gets reserved for finales. From one of the chilling first shots — peering down into a ravine filled with armies of walkers, blockaded by freight-trucks — the episode heralds a heightened sense of urgency, rare for a drama where the characters have often been merely reactive. It manages to take stock of the ramifications from last season’s bloody end, while loudly roaring forward.

That’s a nifty bit of multitasking from screenwriter/show-runner Scott M. Gimple and director/FX guru Greg Nicotero, who distinguish the episode’s chronological back-and-forth by moving between blood-streaked color and stark black-and-white. We kick off in high gear, with Rick showing the residents of the Alexandria Safe Zone the dangers that await them in nearby Zombie Canyon — before they’re forced by an unexpected breach to start herding the hordes away from town early. From there, the narrative jumps around, following the intense scrambling of our heroes in the present while flashing back regularly to fill in the gaps between where the Season Five finale ended and where Season Six begins.

Here’s what this structure does: All the soul-searching and wound-healing that usually takes weeks to sort through is dished out in about 45 minutes, with another 20 minutes still left over for some of the grandest human-vs.-undead battles yet. The most important lingering issues from last year don’t get fully resolved: We have no idea whether Deanna will accept Rick’s demand that everyone follow his commands, or whether Daryl and Michonne will stand by their increasingly hardened old friend, or what’s up with the newly arrived Morgan. But they’re at least handled to the point where the story can keep steamrolling ahead.

The flashbacks also bundle most of the crises of leadership up into a single moment, when Rick stops a coup without killing anyone, reassuring his closest allies that he’s not completely power-mad. (Morgan and Michonne though do seem a little bothered by their leader’s reasoning for not executing the traitor-in-chief… because he figures anyone that stupid is going to get eaten soon anyway.)

The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen is a little frustrated with the show’s handling of the Rick/Carter conflict:

What makes “First Time Again” both compelling and frustrating is how it sticks to the idea of Hardcore Rick—the Rick who shot that guy, the Rick who ran around Alexandria with a gun, screaming at people until Michonne took him down—but can’t seem to decide if this version of Rick is a good idea or a bad one. To be sure, some ambiguity is important, but this is ambiguity that leans away from the darker choice, writing that at once pretends to raise an argument even as it hedges its bets.

The most obvious example of this is Carter, another in Alexandria’s parade of “dudes who think they know better, and then get dead.” Carter is horrified by Rick’s plans, and disturbed to see the rest of the group following his lead, especially after what happened to Pete. (The guy Rick shot. I had to look it up.) Carter objects, loudly; Carter plots against Rick; Carter comes around after Rick decides not to kill him; and Carter dies anyway, getting bit by a walker and then getting knifed in the throat by Rick. The guy is as close to a strawman as it’s possible to get and still have flesh. He has no personality beyond his objections, and he only exists to offer Rick a chance to make some choices.

Which is unfortunate, because Carter actually raised some good points before his face got ripped off. We’re conditioned not to like him because he’s working against our main characters, and because he’s kind of whiny and soft, but that doesn’t make him wrong, exactly. Rick isn’t somebody you can trust without reservations at this point. He’s got a hectic, nervous energy to him that always seems to be on the edge of collapse, and he doesn’t deal with rejection well. The only reason he doesn’t shoot Carter, as he explains to Morgan later, is that he knew that, sooner or later, the world would do the job for him. It makes sense for Rick, the character, to follow this line of reasoning. But it’s disappointing to have the show basically confirm his assumptions, because I’m not sure this current version of Rick is someone I’m interested in seeing be right all the time. He’s more effective as someone you end up trusting when you need to, but can’t live with in the long run, and while that might be what the writers are working towards, the opposition against him is so slight as to make it largely moot. There are exceptions (which we’ll get to), but the weirdest thing about “First Time Again” is how, well, calm everything is. A calm before the storm, especially given the cliffhanger ending, but Rick’s take-over of Alexandria is frustratingly smooth so far.

Richard Rys of Vulture takes stock of the various subplots introduced in the premiere:

As Rick’s master plan unfolds, a number of subplots develop. Sasha and Abraham try to keep their suicidal tendencies in check as they execute the Cannonball Run portion of the playbook. (As the Sarge so eloquently puts it, Sasha seemed ready to “go buckwild with the breath-impaired.” Less delicately, he laughs about still having some pieces of Pete’s brain in his ear. Sasha looks appropriately disturbed.) Father Gabriel is on the outs, now that Deanna understands his shit-talking about Rick’s group was misplaced. We meet even more new Alexandrians, who return from a long run and get props from Eugene (to Heath, who’s rocking specs and long braids: “I fully respect the hair game”). And our old pal Morgan vaguely explains he picked up his badass staff-spinning skills from a “friend,” which means he’s either lying or a really fast learner. He thinks Carol was a cop in the old world, because she’s always watching people and is “ready to handle things.” (So he’s wrong, but right.) He also grills Michonne on the whereabouts of his missing peanut-butter protein bars — sure to be a major issue moving forward. (Speaking of missing, where is Aaron? Figured he’d be a key player in the zombie-herd roundup.)

The most intriguing story lines belong to Glenn, who has a great comeback when Heath complains that they were supposed to do a dry-run of Rick’s plan first: “I’m supposed to be delivering pizzas, man.” When Glenn and Nicholas came back from the woods, Glenn brushed off his gunshot wound as a ricochet. He’ll later tell Maggie what really happened, and she tells Tara, but Nicholas gets a chance to redeem himself. Now, Glenn is totally the boss of Nicholas, who seems both thankful for Glenn’s mercy and a little afraid of him. Nick redeems himself a bit at the tractor joint with some timely kills, but Glenn doesn’t seem ready to trust him yet (and rightly so).

Then there’s a subtle moment at Deanna’s house between Glenn and Maggie that could have major implications. Glenn says he wants Maggie to stay behind and keep an eye on Deanna and the others, which prompts this exchange:

Maggie: That’s not the only reason.
Glenn: Yeah, it isn’t.

This could simply mean Glenn wants to keep her safe. But that look they exchanged hinted at something more than just the G-man protecting his woman. Could Maggie be pregnant?

What seems like another minor plot point may actually hold major significance: Jessie and her kids in the wake of Rick’s execution of Pete, the drunken, abusive husband and dad. Jessie doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge, but she’s keeping her distance from Rick and advising him to do the same with her kids. (Probably better for Rosita to give her firearms lessons than the guy who shot and killed her husband.) Her eldest, Ron, was understandably not happy with Rick for killing his father and dumping his body far outside the gates. Good news: The trip to turn Pete into “tree food” is how Rick and Morgan stumbled across the quarry. The bad: Rick grabs Ron and gives him a stern talking to — something the boy doesn’t take too well.

And Forbes’ Erik Kain drills into the Rick-Morgan dynamic:

Rick is a loose canon, bitter and reckless and eager to get things done regardless of input. I get why he’s this way, but I find myself feeling exhausted whenever he’s on screen. That he still thinks Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) will fall for him after killing her abusive ex-husband and the father of her children shows just how skewed his worldview has become.

After he hollers at her eldest son, Ron (Austin Abrams) Jessie actually confronts Rick and tells him to back off. And no, he won’t be teaching them how to shoot thank-you-very-much because, you know, he’s acting like a psycho who can do no wrong.

Rick won’t even bury Pete in Alexandria because “We don’t bury killers” here. It’s not hard to see the hypocrisy of this statement, which Morgan does point out later. “You’re a killer Rick. We all are.”

As I noted in my preview of this episode, much of “First Time Again” boils down to a war of philosophies between Rick and Morgan. What does it take to survive, and what does it take out of us to adopt this survive-over-all-else mentality? Rick has slowly removed almost every obstacle to his quest for survival, even if that means killing and brutality. Morgan has adopted a more peaceful, live-and-let-live approach.

I admit, I readily take Morgan’s side in all of this. But what if he’s wrong? We see the Wolves again in tonight’s Walking Dead premiere. Men Morgan spared who are obviously not going to stop being awful, murderous psychopaths. Maybe there’s a balance between mercy and justice, between treating life as sacred and knowing that sometimes you have to kill or be killed.

This isn’t a new theme for the show, so I hope it’s explored in more depth this time around. Rick is teetering very close to full villain at this point. I think it’d be more interesting if he went all the way and had to be stopped.

New episodes of The Walking Dead air Sunday nights at 9pm ET on AMC; recent episodes are available On Demand.

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