[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of AMC's The Walking Dead. Read at your own risk.]
If you like your episodes of The Walking Dead totally insane with two heaping sides of crazy, "No Way Out" was a delicious dish of death, despair, and de-eyeing (yes, that's a word now). The Season 6B premiere picked up right where the Season 6A finale left off — that is, with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his survivor pals as well as the Alexandrians in deep doo-doo following the Million Zombie March's breach of Alexandria's walls. If you thought that there was no way everyone would get out of this predicament alive, pat yourself on the back, because you were right. A bunch of times!
To be honest, "No Way Out" felt like the Season 6A finale that we deserved but never got, not the half-assed uneventful hour that aired in November. Plenty of things happened, and they happened mostly unimpeded by long conversations of morality in this crazy post-apocalyptic world or emotional breakdowns of another character who just can't handle it anymore — things that usually weigh down the series. This was all action propelled forward with the kind of intensity that The Walking Dead does best when it's at the top of the game. That doesn't necessarily make it a great episode of primo television drama, but dammit, it was awfully entertaining. You want quieter, character-building moments? You'll get those soon during The Walking Dead's predictable midseason sag. But this was a premiere, and "No Way Out" was a banshee scream of "HEY! We're back! Did you miss us?" and the answer was yes, especially when the series goes balls to the wall like this episode did.
But before we get to the thinning cast and paradise lost, we need to start at the beginning, when Daryl (Norman Reedus), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) ran into some no-gooders blocking the road back home. We saw the first half of this exchange in the prologue that aired after the Season 6A finale during an Into the Badlands commercial break, but we couldn't have predicted the ending. As we found out previously, this group of bikers posing as a poor man's chapter of Sons of Anarchy were henchmen of the heretofore unseen Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the new big bad who will appear later and a real a--hole in the Walking Dead comics. Like most bandits, these guys wanted to loot travelers and leave 'em for dead, and the unnamed charismatic leader of the bunch acted like he had too many things to do to draw this out and wanted to get it over with, comparing the process of Daryl and company giving up their goods to eating sh--. "It's best not to nibble. Bite, chew, swallow, repeat. Get it over with quick."
Now, when you say a line like that, you better hope one of your targets doesn't have an RPG, otherwise you'll be on the receiving end of one heck of a counter-zinger. But Daryl, sent back at gunpoint to help a goon search their truck, did have an RPG, and in one of the series' most badass moments, fired off a mini-missile that blew up all the bad guys in one giant fiery explosion. And Daryl acted like it was no sweat! As if he'd hunted squirrels with a bazooka before! Daryl, we bow to thee. Remember what I said about that zinger? Well, Abraham's parting words to the smoldering severed head of the bandit leader were "Nibble on that." Point: Abraham. If only the guy had been alive to hear it.
That was the rousing intro back into the world of The Walking Dead, but the episode was just getting started. Back in Alexandria, Rick continued to lead his flock through the zombie horde, masked by the scent of ponchos covered in the stinky innards of freshly killed undead. (Side note: maybe it would be a great idea to wear this stuff all the time? Just spitballing here.) After hatching a plan to leave the grounds to get some cars in order to split up the walkers and free up the town, Rick ditched Judith into the hands of Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) where the two wou--WAIT, WHAT? Rick handed Judith over to Gabriel!? The same man Rick told to shut up and the same man Rick ignored when he tried to help before and the same man who tried to sell out Rick as evil to Deanna? Yep, it didn't make that much sense to hand over Judith to Gabriel, one of the least trustworthy characters in the show, but that's what Rick did. I suppose it's easy to hand off your kid to someone despicable when it isn't actually your kid. (Let me tell you something: You do know that Judith is Shane's daughter, right? She has to be.)
Unfortunately for Rick's girlfriend Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge), Rick only got rid of one crying baby. Sam (Major Dodson) — Jessie's whiny pre-teen son — stayed with the group despite his mom's insistence that he hide with Judith and Gabriel, and he immediately blew the group's cover with some whimpering. Classic Sam. And that kicked off one of the most gratifying sequences of deaths we've ever seen in the series. See, a lot of viewers hate Sam, understandably, and the sight of three zombies chomping on his head was — in an incredibly dark way — very satisfying! We should never celebrate the death of a child (they are our future, after all), but can we make an exception for Sam? He was a liability to everyone, and like a wounded antelope calf he was taken out by predators because that's how the circle of life rolls, baby. I won't admit to jumping up and down and pumping my fist as he was eaten, but I did gleefully clap and may have paused the action to propose a toast. See ya, Sam, no one liked you.
Jessie's motherly instincts got the best of her, and a shrill shriek alerted the zombies that she wasn't one of them either. Chomp chomp! Goodbye, Jessie. Rick can't be chained to one woman anyway, he's just going to be obsessing over another ghostly vision of Lori soon. Jessie was holding onto Carl's hand tightly, though, so Rick brought down the hatchet on her wrist because Rick knew what was up. She was a goner, and her superhumanly tight grip almost got Carl killed. Off with her hand!
But we're not done! The Anderson clan continued to be the worst as Ron (Austin Abrams) — Jessie's teenage son — for some reason thought that now would be a good time to shoot Rick. Maybe he figured they were all doomed anyway, so he may as well get revenge for his dad (who Rick killed), or maybe the Andersons can't help being a bag of dicks. Instead, Michonne (Danai Gurira) drove her katana through Ron before he could pull the trigger, and just like that, all the Andersons — Jessie, Ron, and Sam — were dead. Three problematic characters, well at least two, depending on your opinion of Jessie, were gone in an instant. House cleaned.
But. That's. Not. All. An errant bullet made it out of Ron's gun, and square into Carl's (Chandler Riggs) eye! So, in the span of about 60 seconds, Sam got eaten, Jessie got swarmed by zombies, Ron got stabbed by Michonne, and Carl got shot in the eyehole. That's almost a season's worth of HOLY HELL moments in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn. Adding to that, after the commercial break, Wolfman Jack (the member of the Wolves who took Denise hostage) was bitten (by a zombie) then shot (by Carol).
Probability says that the deaths of these four non-main characters while the rest of the main cast stayed alive wasn't a coincidence. Instead, we're looking at an emphatic trimming of the fat as The Walking Dead didn't know what to do with these characters anymore and the Alexandria storyline, once so promising, was fizzling out. (However, it's my understanding that this story followed the comics fairly closely.) The lasting impact of Jessie, Ron, Sam, and Wolfman Jack was always negligible while they were alive, and their empty deaths re-emphasized that. They never had a real place in the story of The Walking Dead... they were just there to be eaten and provide some universal hatred while we putzed around Alexandria. Good riddance, Andersons and wolf guy that we spent way too much time with. At least the gonzo crazy scene of them all dying was sorta worth it?
What happened after Rick got Carl — don't worry, he's still alive! — to safety was something else entirely. Rick tapped into Psycho Rick and swam through the ocean of zombies using a hatchet as a paddle, and the rest of the surviving humans must have been inspired because they all followed suit. Even the wimpy redshirt Alexandrians got into the act. Like, everyone just went nuts on the zombies with melee weapons as if something clicked inside all of them. And that something was the writers' pens scribbling, "Ummm, how do we get everyone out of all this danger? Ehhh, let's just have them all run out like maniacs and kill the walkers in hand-to-hand combat." ("But we spent all of Season 6A showing how unprepared and scared they were of zombies," said the writers' intern. "They'd never do that." "Shut up, intern," said the writers.) Look, I won't deny that it was awesome that everyone went apesh-- and killed thousands of zombies just because they suddenly decided to, but in terms of putting together a master plan to get them out of this situation, it wasn't exactly elegant! Humans! When we put our heads together, we can do anything! Or something.
As the tide turned, Abraham and Sasha showed up with machine guns to save Glenn (Steven Yeun) from dying (at this point we should assume Glenn is immortal), and Daryl made a lake of fire out of a gasoline spill and another RPG blast. For some reason, zombies can't resist a barbecue on a body of water, and most of them waded to their deaths into the aquatic inferno even though fresh meals were staring them right in the face. The Walking Dead is no stranger to changing its rules on the fly to fit the story, and now hungry zombies will ignore fresh meat because OOOOOH, fire! At this point, according to these new rules, Rick could wear a zombie-gut poncho and sit around a bonfire and the entire world would be saved as every last zombie on Earth stupidly set itself on fire and vaporized.
If there was one theme permeating the episode, it was that of change. Glenn and Enid talked about changing for the better, Denise (Merritt Wever) suggested that wolf man changed into a more compassionate man just before he died, and Rick showed a bit of change towards the end. The first two I can sort of accept because we barely know Enid or the wolf guy. But Rick? I'm not that excited for him to change... again.
One of the best parts of Season 6A was watching Rick go whole hog on his idea of survival at all costs. His contempt for the Alexandrians made for sizzling drama that asked us to consider the same seemingly unthinkable thought process. Sometimes, the best chance at survival involved leaving the weak to die. It countered everything we would admit about human behavior, and The Walking Dead made it make sense. That is when The Walking Dead is its absolute best.
But "No Way Out" may be taking that back and leading us toward yet another Rick flip-flop, as he told a slumbering one-eyed Carl how impressed he was with the Alexandrians and how much they could get done if they worked together. It's a step beyond what Deanna started convincing him in the Season 6A finale, that Alexandria and these people — "his people" — could be great. But frankly, that version of Rick isn't nearly as interesting as "let God sort 'em out!" Rick. Oh, well. We'll have to wait a few more seasons for Rick to wobble back to being the aggressive, untrusting misanthrope he's best at being, because, like the series itself, any semblance of consistency isn't part of the show's plan, whether it's in terms of quality or character.
What did you think of the Season 6B premiere?
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.