A review of tonight's The Walking Dead mid-season premiere coming up just as soon as I'm wearing my dress blues…
When last we left our heroes, most of them were trapped in the middle of the dullest zombie invasion ever filmed, while a few had been taken captive by a biker gang because they somehow forgot about the rocket launcher in their truck(*). It was one of The Walking Dead's lower creative moments, capping off a problematic half-season overall, and it gave “No Way Out” only one way to go: up. If nothing else, the fact that Daryl very quickly freed himself long enough to blow up all of Negan's goons with the rocket launcher (even if the blast shouldn't have effectively disintegrated all the bad guys) was a welcome reminder that the good guys on this show won't always do the stupidest thing possible.
(*) When the opening scene began skipping through their first encounter with Negan's man, I thought it made sense, since the original scene had aired immediately after “Start to Finish” had aired, and why repeat every line of dialogue for fans who had seen it? Then I remembered that AMC actually held that scene for the first commercial break of the Into the Badlands episode that followed it – which, based on the difference in ratings between the two shows, suggests a good portion of the TWD audience might have been a bit puzzled by how this episode started off.
But too much of what was happening back in Alexandria seemed the same kind of hastily plotted, hero-flattering goofiness that plagued so many of the fall episodes.
The show's been playing fast and loose with the zombie rules for a while (see also Glenn's continued alive-ness), but it was particularly distracting throughout Rick's attempt to get past the horde outside Jessie's house. It's not just that the magical ponchos seemed more half-hearted in their construction than the ones Rick and Glenn used way back when the show introduced the concept, but that there seems to be no consistency about when and how the zombies respond to sound, or to the smell of a poncho-less human. Sometimes, speaking barely above a whisper is all you need to get killed, while at other times, you can fire off a damn gunshot and the zombies may not turn towards you right away. I'm usually not a person obsessed with the rules of a fictional universe, particularly if deviating from them leads to a better story, but the whole escape sequence – and the resulting deaths of Jessie and her sons – depended entirely on the show clarifying and sticking to whatever the rules are, and… I have no idea what the rules are anymore.
Meanwhile, the show's insistence on celebrating Rick's fabulous leadership, despite ample evidence to the contrary, continued with him rushing out of the infirmary to take on the entire horde himself. It's the kind of stunt that, if any of the Alexandrians had done it (say, Spencer, who's tried something like it before), it would be treated as the height of idiocy and something that endangered Rick and the core members of the group. But because Rick's the one doing it, he not only survives, but inspires both Rick loyalists and lazy Alexandrians alike to have their “I am Spartacus!” moment and join him in fighting back the horde long enough for Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha to return with some automatic weapons and enough gasoline to turn the lake into a kind of zombie bug zapper.
And Glenn's return to the group was assembled in very sloppy fashion. After “Heads Up” aired in the fall, a writer for another series (who's generally been a Walking Dead fan) suggested to me that the show had been planning to withhold the truth of Glenn's survival until after the mid-season hiatus, but pushed it up due to the fan outcry, and this was why so many of the Glenn/Enid scenes seemed edited differently from the rest of those episodes. That didn't make sense to me – among other reasons, the release of the balloons at the end of that episode tied in directly to the moment when the wall collapsed – but this was yet another episode where the pacing and editing of any scene with Glenn felt wildly out of sync with the other action. And Glenn and Maggie's reunion was so hastily done – we never even see their physical reunion, just get the moment when she realizes he's still alive, before the action takes him elsewhere and then we jump forward in time to the next morning – that I can almost picture it being a last-minute insert into an otherwise busy episode. Then again, given the sloppiness of the rest of the episode, I'm inclined to believe that this was the plan all along, and the problem just came with the execution.
“No Way Out” had its moments, particularly whenever Denise was on screen. Though the series overall has had nothing but contempt for most of the Alexandrians, the writers and Meritt Wever have turned Denise into an actual character, and the moment when she stopped being scared and accepted that she had to be the doctor was both properly set up by all that had happened before, and executed well in the present.
The episode as a whole, though, felt too much of a piece with all that seemed to go wrong at different points in the fall, and especially at the end of that half-season. TWD has often treated its hiatuses as an opportunity to take a clean break from what was happening a few months ago, and maybe now that the cliffhanger has been resolved – and the threat of Negan postponed for a bit – we can get some of that. Alexandria is damaged but not destroyed, Rick has finally come to accept that these people are now all part of his group, and Carl's going to live, even if it's with only one eye. (Hey, does anybody remember where the Governor left his eyepatch?) Maybe next week's show will offer more of a creative shift, but while this one was definitely livelier and more action-packed than “Start to Finish,” it also wasn't nearly enough to inspire the latest round of “The Walking Dead is back!” thinkpieces from the show's usual quality roller coaster.
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 anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.
2. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org