Was ‘The Walking Dead’ premiere trying to top ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Hardhome’?

Senior Television Writer
10.11.15 134 Comments

A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” season premiere coming up just as soon as I fully respect the hair game…

Well, clearly “The Walking Dead” team watched “Hardhome” during their hiatus.

“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 “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 “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.

As for Carter, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, the whole point of the episode, and this entire Alexandria story arc, is that this community has created people who are literally too stupid – and dangerous to others – to be allowed to live in this dark new world, and Rick's survival instincts are at war with his desire to seem more civilized in the eyes of both his new neighbors and his old friend Morgan. So you need a local idiot to get this particular point across, even as other area men like Nicholas are finally getting with the program(*). At the same time, Carter was such a strawman villain that his willful ignorance of the situation made him seem like an excuse to flatter our main characters, who by this point have no need of it; if the audience somehow doesn't view Rick, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Abraham, etc., as certified badasses, no amount of whiny opposition from Rusty Griswold the Fourth is going to change that.

(*) Obviously, we don't know all of the details of Rick's plan yet – and may never, now that the zombie parade has been diverted by the horns coming from Alexandria – but what was the point of Glenn, Nicholas, and Heath having to kill all the walkers inside the tractor store, rather than just leaving them locked inside?

Going black-and-white with the flashback vignettes seemed less valuable on an artistic level than a simple coherence one. It was just easier to keep track as the episode toggled back and forth between the quarry mission and what happened immediately after Rick executed Pete, and as the premiere reminded us where everyone is emotionally – Abraham drinking too much, Sasha trying to pull herself back from the edge, Glenn starting to worry about his girlfriend risking herself going all action heroine again – even as the operation was providing spectacle, tension and, occasionally, bursts of action.

And spectacle, even of the small-scale variety, has always been the thing this show has done best. For all that it's faltered at various times in characterization or pacing, it can always throw in a creepy zombie set piece to make the other parts easier to overlook. Alexandria's an interesting setting for the show for now – though we'll see how much of the place is left standing now that Rick's plan has gone FUBAR thanks to the Wolves or whatever else is happening back home – and coming back from a six-month layoff with an episode featuring more zombies than the show's ever featured before felt right, and entertaining.

Some other thoughts:

* Given how far away the herd was from Alexandria, couldn't Sasha and Daryl have tried luring the walkers back by leaning on their own horns?

* Jessie's teenage son Ron apparently appeared in three episodes last spring, but left so little impression on me that it took several scenes before I fully understood why this kid was so angry with Rick.

* Loved that Morgan was able to instantly see through Carol's mousey housewife routine. It's the first time in a very long time that Carol's seemed at all vulnerable to anything but a zombie herd.

* Was also amused by Morgan's question to Michonne about the missing protein bars, since the way the query was initially phrased suggested it was going to be something emotional about coming back from being as hardcore and isolated as she used to be.

* Eugene makes for a very poor gate guard, even if he was just filling in for somebody else. Ask the new guy to name literally anyone who lives in town before you let him inside, man!

* At what point do you figure Rick decides that Father Gabriel belongs on the list of people too dangerous to stay alive? Even if he's acting all penitent now, it seems impossible for anyone in the group to trust him.

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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