‘The Walking Dead’ Brings Its A+ Hair Game To A Spectacular Season Premiere

“Hardhome” meets Ocean’s Eleven in the most intense, epic The Walking Dead premiere yet.

The title of the sixth season premiere of The Walking Dead, “First Time Again,” refers to Morgan and Rick meeting each other again, for the first time as the people they have become over the last three seasons. Rick and Morgan began the series together in the pilot episode. At the time, Morgan was the cautious and suspicious one, ready to reflexively kill anyone who posed a threat to his son.

Morgan, however, eventually welcomed Rick into his home. The second time they met, Morgan had lost his son, who had been bitten by his walker-wife. Morgan had also lost his grip on sanity. In the third-season episode, “Clear,” Rick had to talk Morgan out of giving up on his life. “This can’t be it. It can’t be. You’ve gotta be able to come back from this!”

The two are reunited again in the season premiere — directed by Greg Nicotero and written by showrunner Scott Gimple and Matthew Negrete — and it’s not what we had been led to believe by the trailers and other promotional materials for the sixth season. The pilot episode did not feature a showdown between an increasingly unhinged Rick and a now serene, zen-like Morgan. In fact, as they came to realize over the course of the episode, deep down they are still the same people they were the first time they met. Rick may have no patience for the weak, but he still has enough humanity left to keep himself from putting Carter (Ethan Embry) down, after the the lunatic threatens to kill both Rick and Eugene.

Morgan, in fact, seems to bring out the best in Rick, tempering the Ricktatorship. Rick treats Morgan as an equal. With Morgan around, it’s Rick who seems more “clear.” He’s taken charge of Alexandria, but he’s still willing to defer to Deanna on final decisions (or at least give that illusion), and he remains focused on the task at hand.

That task in the opening episode is to save Alexandria from a horde of thousands of walkers who have accumulated in a ravine to the west of Alexandria. Somehow, a mass of zombies got stuck behind some 18-wheelers that were blocking them in. Rick and Morgan discover them while burying the body of Pete, whom Rick had killed in last season’s finale. The episode cuts back and forth between the planning of his scheme to direct all the walkers away from Alexandria and the execution of it. There are maps and teams and obstacles and careful planning; it often feels like something out of a David Mamet screenplay, right down to the last-minute twist.

In the execution that we see the most ambitious special-effects of the series. The zombie horde is like something out of World War Z, slipping and falling into the ravine. We also see that the decomposition rate of the zombies continues apace. The skin is barely hanging on to the bones of many of the zombies, and they’ve rotted to such an extent that they can be killed by other zombies merely stepping on their heads.

With a few minor exceptions, including the death of Carter (Ethan Embry, Can’t Hardly Wait) — the man who threatens to kill both Eugene and Rick — the plan goes off without much difficulty until the end. A horn blares in the distance. It’s coming from Alexandria, drawing all the zombies toward their home.

Where the episode is most successful, however, is in those smaller, character moments. In the wake of the death of Deanna’s husband and Pete, Alexandria must come together and mend fences by building fences. In putting the plan into effect, we see Morgan and Rick bond again, while even Michonne — who has only known him as insane — also grows closer to Morgan. We also see Glenn offering a chance at redemption to a humbled Nicholas, while Maggie and Tara bond over their shared secret (both know that Nicholas was responsible for Noah’s death and lured Glenn into the woods and tried to kill him). Maggie is taking on the role of mentor to Tara, and possibly a comforting shoulder for Deanna down the line.

Carol, meanwhile, continues playing the naive den mother, as she collects information on the others in Alexandria, including the newcomers led by Heath (Corey Hawkins), who was apparently on a supply run for the entirety of the back half of the fifth season (the real-life husband of Sasha plays another of the new Alexandrians). Morgan, of course, is quick to sniff out the real Carol. Abraham and Sasha also bond in the episode, and we find out that Sasha is not actually suicidal. Elsewhere, Rick still seems smitten with Jesse, but Jesse is wary, for obvious reasons having to do with the fact that Rick killed the father of her children, who will probably never take to Rick.

What the episode seems intent on doing is bonding Rick and the rest of his camp with the residents of Alexandria via the zombie heist. Next week, they’ll be called upon to unify in order to save Alexandria from a zombie horde. Can they work together to save their home? Can they rally behind Rick, and will he become the leader the community needs as they continue to face threats from outside the wall?

Random Notes

— Best line of the night: Morgan dryly asking Michonne, “Did you take one of my protein bars? I could’ve sworn there was one more peanut butter left.”

— In fact, the episode sprinkles in several moments of humor to break the tension, most of it having to do with Eugene’s mullet, which has become the series’ comic relief. “I fully respect the hair game.”

— Rick’s “Do you have any idea who you’re talking to!” line is the closest he’s come to, “I’m the one who knocks!”

— Gabriel is on the outs again. “You were wrong,” Deanna told him, which is all that really needed to be said. Gabriel’s place within the community is up in the air at the moment. He may be relegated to gravedigger for the foreseeable future. The second funniest line of the episode came when Gabriel said to Rick, “I’d like to help.” “No!” Rick responded, quickly moving on.

— “That’s not the only reason,” Maggie said to Glenn, asking why she didn’t want her to join them in executing the zombie plan. “Yeah, it isn’t,” Glenn said. What is that other reason? I’m not sure, but the last time that Glenn asked Maggie to stay back, it was in season four, and it was because he thought she was pregnant (she was disappointed to learn that she was not). Not to get too deep into predictions, but the show is not going to be able to withstand another pregnancy. Could Maggie be grooming Tara to essentially fill her role within the series? Could Maggie be the next — and last — of the Greene family to die?

— Daryl continued his lone-wolf ways in the premiere, picking up where he left off last season. The only substantial contribution he made was in telling Rick that he is interested in continuing to search for people outside the wall, potentially setting up conflict between Rick and Daryl.

— It’ll be interesting to find out next week if the Wolves are responsible for the horn we heard at the end of the episode. I suspect — as most do — that they are. Recall in the fifth season finale that Morgan let two Wolves live, dumping them into a car and blowing the horn (callback!) to ensure no zombies were around. Will Morgan’s refusal to kill come back to haunt him again, as it did when he refused to put down his zombified wife, who would later kill his son?

— Where the hell was Carl during this episode? Just hanging out with his new girlfriend, I guess? Likewise, Aaron was MIA.