Usually when an episode of TWD ends I feel like Comic Book Guy — worst episode ever — but come around to a more balanced view the next morning after a night’s reflection on the bits and pieces that I liked. (Imagine how grumbly the grumble thread would be if written on Sunday night instead of Monday afternoon.) With this episode, it was the opposite. Probably that’s because I missed the show during its hiatus and was happy to have it back, and possibly it’s because last night’s show seemed more professional somehow than “Fear the Walking Dead” did. The acting was obviously better (nothing adds a shine to the character of Rick Grimes like having to endure Travis Whatsisname for six hours) and the set piece with hundreds of zombies delivered something that FTWD seemed to promise but only achieved once, namely, a scene capturing the full horrifying extent of how many zombies are out there. You would have thought FTWD would have specialized in that since it purported to show a major city being overwhelmed by the outbreak, but apart from the scene in the season finale where the military base was overrun, there weren’t a lot of zombies about. TWD countered that last night almost from the opening scene with a gigantic CGI-enhanced army of them. I assume that’s a function of the show’s budgets: TWD is bankable and FTWD isn’t (yet), so TWD gets to go a little crazier with the zombie Cheez Whiz.
The best part of the episode, I thought, was Rick’s plan to get rid of the zombie army. At first I thought they were herding them towards some sort of fire pit or explosives, but no. In the end, this wasn’t a plan to dispatch the zombies, just to distract them and lead them miles and miles away in the opposite direction of the town. That’s a rare example on this show of smart, understated strategy for coping in the zombie apocalypse. Rarely in any zombie film do you see the characters practicing diversion, for an obvious reason — it’s the most boring possible way to neutralize the threat. You watch a show like this to see heads cut off and throats ripped out, not a herd of undead human cattle shambling down a road. But after five seasons of head-chopping and throat-ripping, they’ve scratched that itch. They’re entitled to something less sensational, especially when it makes obvious good sense as a way for a small group of survivors to beat back a much larger number of zombies. It’s also a clever way to show how accustomed the survivors have gotten to living with gigantic numbers of the walking dead all around them. Daryl looking bored half to tears doing 5 mph on his bike while a few thousand hungry undead cannibals shuffle along him was a great little snapshot of the ennui underlying all the dread in that world. It was like a zombie parade — and again, it had the virtue of being a shrewd, if low key, way of dealing with the threat. I think the fans would give the writers plenty of leeway for introducing more of that sort of thing into the plots, so long as the head-chopping doesn’t disappear altogether. These characters should have developed some ingenuity in dealing with zombies by now after many months of coping with them. Let’s see it. Right off the top of my head, wouldn’t large, trench-like ditches be a pretty strong form of defense around an encampment of survivors? The zombies are mindless; they’ll fall into the holes en route to the camp every time. Steal some backhoes and start diggin’.
So why didn’t I like the episode? Simple: All the yadda yadda about the group didn’t tell us a thing we didn’t already know or couldn’t have predicted. Morgan shows up in Alexandria, makes peace with Rick, and is accepted into the group — as expected. The natives of Alexandria don’t have survival skills yet and are slow to acquire them — as expected. (What value would Rick’s group have if all the Alexandrians were suddenly kicking ass on their own?) Glenn, after sparing Nicholas in last season’s finale, continues to grudgingly accept him as an ally — as expected. (Nicholas will almost certainly end up dying by saving Glenn’s life, thus completing his redemption.) There’s a bunch of “how ruthless should Rick be?” BS in Rick’s tensions with Carter — as expected, because this is after all “The Walking Dead” and the theme of every episode is “how ruthless should Rick be?” It’d be fun to go back and score every episode, in fact, on a “Rick ruthlessness” scale just to see how many times the writers have gone from “good man struggling to stay good in a world gone bad” to “Rick’s turning into Shane!” and back again. Remember when he executed those Terminus cannibals in the church? That was pretty Shane-y. But then he spared Carter last night after discovering the plot against him! Not so Shane-y. But then he stabbed Carter in the medulla oblongata after Carter had been bitten! Was that Shane-y (seizing the opportunity to dispatch his enemy) or not so Shane-y (Carter, having been bitten, was a goner anyway)? Incidentally, don’t any of the other characters ever struggle with whether to go renegade or not? If so, how come we never see it? Michonne, Glenn, and Daryl all seem to be remarkably stable people under the circumstances, with few enemies and no lust for power, yet somehow the group decided that they’d rather stick with a guy as leader who’s perpetually on the brink of turning into Colonel Kurtz. I don’t get it. And I don’t get why we need to explore this theme for the 50th time in the series.
So here’s your exit question: What purpose was served by the black-and-white exposition scenes last night? What important information about group dynamics did we learn that required a Very Special 90-Minute Season Premiere instead of an hour-long episode with 35 minutes devoted to the plan to steer the zombies away and 10-15 spent on how the group’s coping with each other? While you ponder that, enjoy this video treat. No one told them life was going to be this way.