I came into this season of The Walking Dead more interested than I had been since those heady days back in 2010, when the postapocalyptic zombie hellscape was mostly unmapped, Rick Grimes had no idea what was going on, and the endless circular debates about whether to stay on the farm were but an index card on Frank Darabont’s white board. I’m ending this half-season with the dashed hopes of what might have been.
Season 5 ended in a fascinating place, with Rick and company arriving at the Alexandria Safe Zone, whose citizens had managed to stay safe enough to retain their humanity and the structure of their small Mayberry-esque society. Rick, on the other hand, having been through the farm, the Governor, the prison, and Terminus, had become terrifyingly ruthless, thinking little of killing those who stood in his way. His crush on Jessie, Alexandria’s resident hairdresser, presented a fascinating problem: would he kill her husband so he could have her for himself? And if he did, how would the rest of his group react? Was Rick about to, for lack of a better term, break bad?
Showrunner Scott Gimple and his team painstakingly set this storyline on the tee, and then steadfastly refused to even swing at it in these first eight episodes of season 6. Rick did kill Jessie’s husband, but the show chickened out by making the husband a wife-beater, thus justifying the murder, and while there were a lot of long faces immediately afterward, no one has said anything to Rick about it, other than to apologize, tell him he was right about everything, and apologize for ever doubting him.
Even the looming confrontation with Morgan, whose philosophical conversion to (relative) pacifism provided the season’s best episode and promised dramatic fireworks of the kind you can only get when both sides of an argument are basically correct, fizzled out in this episode, with Carol (not Rick) confronting Morgan about his Wolf prisoner and immediately being proven right, as the prisoner took advantage of the confusion, grabbed Dr. Denise as a hostage, and bolted.
Having the Alexandria fence collapse under a fallen tower and flooding the Safe Zone with walkers should be a pulse-pounding, suspenseful, terrifying moment worthy of a midseason finale. But the show has done so many of these seiges, where all appears to be lost, only to have everyone escape unscathed, that the impact was nearly nil. Everyone holed up in the nearest house, a few walkers got in, and Rick decided to make everyone a Gore Poncho out of their entrails so the living could walk right out the front door, like they did way back in episode 2 of that first season. No real surprises there, other than that Jessie didn’t tie her hair back. (She must have a lot of faith in her shampoo.) It seems clear that her terrified younger son is going to get himself killed with his mewling, but then that’s table stakes for this show. Where are the surprises, the gasp-out-loud moments? Deanna got bitten – hardly a shock, as she had zero zombie-fighting skills – so she’ll go to her grave (and maybe climb out of it) without ever having it out with Rick on the whole Security vs. Freedom conflict the show seemed so eager for.
On the whole, season 6A feels like a huge missed opportunity, even though its first few episodes were some of the best the show has done. 6B is reportedly going to bring in Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a ruthless cult leader, which would sound incredibly exciting if it didn’t also sound so familiar.
Todd VanDerWerff of Vox is with me:
Remember how season five ended with Rick looking like he’d completely lost it, while Morgan strode into Alexandria, cool as a cucumber? I’m not saying I wanted to see Rick completely lose his mind and Morgan take over the group — though the latter might have made for an interesting arc — but it seemed as if the show forgot about this entirely. What I’m saying is that when season six began, Rick was just commandingly making plans to rid the quarry of its zombie horde, Morgan was a bit of an outsider with unorthodox ideas on life and death, and it was only a matter of time before Rick took over Alexandria, too. By the middle of the half-season, Deanna was all but handing him the job, and by the end of this episode, she’s presumed dead (more on this in a moment), while he’s leading a bunch of people to the armory. I’m not just talking about anything so simple as Rick being back in charge of the group, either. That, sadly, is something the show seems to think is necessary to its very core being. No, I mean that any time there seems to be a potentially interesting development or conflict — like, say, Morgan and Carol fighting over the value of the lone Wolf’s life — it’s resolved in a fashion that directly leads back to the show returning to its status quo. (In this case, Carol is proved correct. The world is still a cruel and random place, and Morgan is wrong — or at least naive — to want to change it.)
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix is nonplussed:
Now, I don’t need to see Walking Dead characters die every week. If anything, this show and Game of Thrones have pushed TV drama’s death obsession to an extreme, and The Walking Dead has whacked enough regulars over the years that new deaths tend to have less impact unless they’re done with a higher degree of effort and artistry than is the norm. But when you drop one of your main characters into a zombie mosh pit and let him literally crawl away unscathed, and then when you send a few hundred zombies roaming through your new post-apocalyptic paradise and only bump off the old lady whose entire family has been canon fodder since they first appeared? When you can’t even bring yourself to murder Father Gabriel, whom no one in the audience or on the series likes? Then you aren’t just undermining the illusion of life and death stakes; you’re actively telling the audience not to worry about this or any future peril in which our heroes find themselves. You’re just inviting the audience to stand around, slack-jawed, like Rick and the gang on Jessie’s porch, marveling at the spectacle but untouched by any of it. I don’t expect this moratorium on main character deaths to last forever, but the show has dug itself a pretty deep credibility hole. Even if we were to return in February with Glenn falling out of that tree, being torn to pieces by zombies, and having Enid deliver his lifeless severed head to a weeping Maggie, I don’t know that it’s going to magically unring this particular bell, particularly since the storytelling beyond who lives and who dies has been so lazy and uncompelling this fall. From Rick’s horrible plan that everyone kept insisting was secretly awesome, to the weirdness about the passage of time, to that strangely inert Daryl/Abraham episode a few weeks ago, to Morgan’s refusal to kill under any circumstance turning him into a strawman whom Carol was right to mistrust and attack, it feels like nothing’s being properly thought through because, hey, the zombies still look great and the audience hasn’t stopped watching, so why put in more than the minimal amount of effort?
The A.V. Club’s Zach Handlen wonders why [people are still listening to Rick(http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/walking-dead-shuffles-through-its-midseason-finale-229017):
The problem isn’t that Rick is a determined dumb-ass whose big plays nearly always end in disaster. That’s not great, but it’s a legitimate character type, and, if handled well, could be a savage satire of hubris and entitlement. The problem is that despite his never ending series of f—ups, Rick remains the go-to hero for just about every character on the show. The only people who disagree with him either wind up dead or else are so infuriatingly stupid themselves that the disagreement carries no weight. Deanna, who gets bit this week and finally ends her time on the show (I guess we could see her again later, but she’s not long for the world regardless), hands over the keys of the kingdom to this man who has destroyed her paradise. Sure, not everything that has happened is Rick’s fault, but at the very least, you’d think folks would be taking his word with a grain of salt instead of swallowing it all without chewing. (That metaphor got a bit weird. Apologies.)
Noel Murray of Rolling Stone liked the episode, and sees “a whole season” in the pre-credits sequence:
But there’s something else going on with that nail-biting non-conclusion. As Rick and company hold hands and move in a line out the front door, don’t they look a little bit like ants? And isn’t there a positive way to spin an infestation, as way of proving that life — in its myriad weird forms — will always go on? Here’s the thing: The Walking Dead really does need to develop a more intricate, far-reaching plot again in this season’s second half, and to stop focusing so much on theme-building. Given what’s coming up in the original comics, that’s bound to happen soon (or at least the post-credit teaser for next year’s episodes suggest as much). Still, it’s hard to discount the moment-to-moment excitement, anxiousness, and existential musings that this show keeps on generating. Even when it’s moving too slow, the series still has some bite.
And The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz thinks the series has nowhere to go but up:
In all, this episode played like a false ending. It’s with great disappointment that I must conclude: I don’t like this season much so far. It had some fantastic moments, but “some fantastic moments” aren’t enough to keep me wanting to watch a show. The Walking Dead has a scale problem: Either it zooms out too big—muddying conversation after conversation with earnest declarations about The Way Things Are Now, or about How We Keep On Living. Or it goes extra myopic, busying itself with the most banal moments of its characters’ lives without bothering to imbue those with a new or greater purpose. And yet I’m glad this Alexandria storyline is ostensibly over, in the same way I was relieved when the prison arc wrapped for good, after weeks of being stretched out. If the short prologue from the midseason premiere is any indication, Darryl, Abraham, and Sasha won’t make it to Alexandria any time soon, at least not in time to help anyone with those RPGs. Maybe more importantly, a new ominous character will be making his long-awaited debut. However haphazardly The Walking Dead set up its next act, I’m still convinced it’ll be more interesting than its most recent one. I mean, it has to be. Right?
New episodes of The Walking Dead return February 14; recent episodes are available On Demand.