The journey of The Walking Dead is, inextricably, the journey of sheriff Rick Grimes.
In past seasons, Rick’s character oscillations have been fairly clear from green Rick of Season 1 and 2 to the Ricktatorship of Season 3 to Farmer Rick in Season 4. That was when current showrunner Scott Gimple took the reins and really took Rick to a much more ambiguous place analogous to AMC’s other famous antihero, Walter White. Throughout the premiere, while obviously rooting for him, I found myself simultaneously asking: why is Rick doing the things he does? Does he really have everyone’s best interests at heart? Is he still the hero?
The show opens right where the Season 5 finale left off, with Rick having just put a bullet in Dr. Pete’s head with Deanna’s permission only to find Morgan staring right at him. “Rick?” he asks, representing the audience. The color drains from the picture and we’re treated to dual storylines: the present, where Rick and the Alexandrians enact their herd-diversion plan are in color while the past, detailing the immediate aftermath of last season’s finale and lead-up to said plan, in black-and-white. It’s a fitting stylistic move calling to mind both zombie classic Night of the Living Dead and the show’s pilot which is also available in black-and-white (the comics themselves are black-and-white, as well).
The show has an excellent history of providing counterparts to his journey (usually villains like Shane, The Governor, and Gareth) and filling out a supporting cast to paint the picture. The premiere’s title “First Time Again” refers to Rick’s reunion with Morgan Jones, yet another mirror character wonderfully portrayed by British character actor Lennie James, who has been promoted to the opening titles as a series regular. Morgan was the first person Rick met when he awoke, saving him way back in the pilot episode. In Season 3, Rick repaid the favor by saving a suicidal Morgan, who was distraught at his son’s death in the Gimple-scripted classic “Clear.” And last season was sprinkled with glimpses of a rejuvenated Morgan on Rick’s trail.
The two handle each other gingerly, both perceptive men aware of their differences amid the awkward circumstances of their reunion. The bond between the two men was my favorite part of the episode and, indeed, the series. Count me among Morgan’s many fans, although I’ve loved James in apocalypse mode since his days on CBS’s Jericho.
They come upon Gabriel helping Tobin to bury Reg and Pete. Rick coldly ignores Gabriel and insists Pete be taken outside the walls. Tobin disagrees but Deanna arrives and backs Rick. A distant and despondent Deanna allows Rick to take Pete’s body outside the walls instead of buried beside her husband. “Let the trees take him,” the former Congresswoman said, still shrouded in loss.
Rick’s insistence that they don’t bury “killers” inside their walls rings hollow to me. As if proving why I love him so, Morgan is the only one to call Rick out on it. “I’m a killer, Rick. You are, too,” he reminds him.
However, Operation: Pete Burial is interrupted when Rick and Morgan find the quarry with the zombie herd. Ron, ambushed by walkers, reveals himself and is saved by the dynamic duo. After a stern talking to, the angry Ron is mollified but let’s face it: if Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes told me to jump, I’d ask how high.
Before The Walking Dead premiered, believe it or not, there was doubt whether a zombie show succeed. Nevermind the breadth and wealth of the source material; how could it be anything more than a genre show? This led to a lot of time spent reinforcing a prominent theme of zombie fiction: humans are the real monsters, the living are real “walking dead” etc. Things that would prove this was a show with gravitas, a proper drama show. The ideas weren’t original but things common to apocalyptic fiction, which the show had the advantage of being at the forefront of dramatizing successfully. As a result, the zombies became more obstacles than threats for our protagonists, kept away by AMC’s stingy wallets while they dealt with eye-patch-wearing psychopaths, roaming bandits and cannibal cults.
Not so, it seems for Season 6A. At long last, the zombies are coming back to the fore. “First Time Again” sets up a story for the first half covering a zombie herd’s attack on Alexandria following a failed attempt to divert them away from the settlement. It’s a great idea that could result in a) an excellent 8-hour zombie movie unfolding from multiple character perspectives within and without Alexandria or b) repetitive nonsense where characters we don’t know die.
(SIDENOTE: I’m interested by the fact that, in the comics, a conflict a group of antagonists called the Scavengers leads the herd to Alexandria. Given the episode’s setup and conclusion, it’s unlikely the Wolves, briefly discussed by Daryl and Rick, are a remixed version of these characters as had been presumed. Unless they emerge next episode and attack, it now seems possible, even likely, that the Wolves might be the show’s version of the Saviors, the zombie apocalypse equivalent of a criminal protection racket. Given my absolute certainty and ample evidence that Negan will arrive in the finale, it could line up right. We’ll see.)
Rick’s plan for dealing with the zombie herd is to lead the herd trapped in the quarry through a predefined car-lined roads away from the Safe-Zone. However, a collapsing truck accelerates the plan, turning a dry run into the real thing, something newbie Carter (Ethan Embry) doesn’t agree with.
Daryl leads the herd along and meets up with Abraham and Sasha, both thrill-seekers with death wishes. Meanwhile, Glenn, former enemy Nicholas and Heath (an Alexandrian recruiter played by Straight Outta Compton‘s Corey Hawkins) attempt to deal with a dozen stray walkers who risk ruining the plan. Glenn obsessively tries to make his forgiveness of Nicholas worth it by keeping him alive.
Rick, Michonne and Morgan head to a walled-off rendezvous point. They use flares to aid their trio of friends. They reunite with the gang and Rick actually shakes hands with Carter. It’s actually going to work . . . which of course means something is just about to go wrong. Carter’s dumbass, having not learned survival skills because (despite?) of Morgan’s interference, gets bit in the face. Rick ends the walker while Carter lies screaming. He urges him to be quiet before finally giving in and killing him. Given Rick’s admission, it’s hard to believe he’s not relieved by the situation. Yet a quietly disturbed Morgan continues to discover, like the audience, Rick’s growing callousness. Even Daryl rubbed up against his desire to stop recruiting new people.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Glenn-Nicholas subplot continues. It seems almost-killing each other makes best friends as Glenn forgives and covers for his actions and continues protecting him throughout the episode, as if he made an investment and he didn’t want Nicholas’s stock to drop.
Since Nicholas has gone to Glenn Rhee’s Rehab for Assholes, Carter appears early to begin questioning Rick and generally provide bumps in the road for the guy. If his obstructiveness and plotting with others to undermine and kill Rick (satisfyingly broken up by Rick himself) didn’t doom him, his conciliatory handshake when the diversion plan seemed to be working provided the hope spot that proved he wasn’t long for the world. He dies screaming with Rick, who admitted to Morgan that he although he wanted Carter dead for his interference, he knew he lacked the skills to survive anyway. “People like him are as good as dead,” Rick told a quiet Morgan. Maybe it’s because he’s right that Morgan and I find the reality of it so disturbing.
If it sounds like I’m struggling with the conflicting nature of Rick’s callousness and Glenn’s naivety, you’re right. We all like to think we’d be the heroes in any given situation (Ben Carson apparently thinks he could be that hero, despite his actions at “Popeye’s organization” indicating otherwise), but how many of us would be Ricks? How many would be Glenns? What about Carters? Worse, am I Carter or am I Rick?
These are the questions that keep The Walking Dead grounded, proving past critics and countless generations wrong: you can have your zombie cake and eat it too.