The season six premiere of The Walking Dead marks a shift in the show, both for the characters’ internal lives and how they deal with their external surroundings. There’s been a lot of escapism and running on this show – and escapism was the cornerstone of the second half of last season. If “First Time Again” is any indication, Rick Grimes is completely done with that.
The show doesn’t let us come to that realization in a straightforward way. It unfolds through a series of black and white flashbacks intercut with the present time, which takes place only a short while after last season’s finale. Although we aren’t far into the future, the episode’s opening is a bit jarring. The events are something we’ve never seen before, we see Rick preparing an army to go to war with the zombies.
Yes, we’ve seen these characters fight before. We’ve seen them develop haphazard plans to invade or to defend, but the clear divide between the past and the present is in the first lines of the episode:
“I know this sounds insane but this is an insane world. We have to come for them before they come for us.”
There are two differences here:
*When it comes to zombies, our characters would rather take flight than fight. They’ll engage them if necessary, but otherwise, they’d rather build a wall, a fence, etc… That doesn’t solve anything. All that does is delay the inevitable. They’ve learned this now.
*There have been episodes that focus on loneliness and the idea of isolation and that you’re always along in the zombie apocalypse. That’s not so in this episode and possibly not in this season. This episode is about working together as a team – correction – working together as soldiers.
Both of these lessons come together in opening of the episode. Our survivors aren’t in the middle of battle just yet. It’s a dry run to test the plan, but zombies don’t abide by the rules of engagement and our soldiers are forced to go into battle ahead of schedule.
This battle is more strategy than outright fighting, which itself shows an immense amount of growth on the part of our characters. They are being proactive in their world, not simply reacting to it.
The idea is to lure the zombies out of the quarry and direct them away from Alexandria. There are a lot of components to this. There is some on the ground fighting, but Rick and the crew brilliantly utilize more ingenious weapons to their advantage. They use loud noises and flashing lights to herd the zombies. They also use one of the coolest weapons they have in their arsenal: Daryl.
Daryl takes the lead in herding the zombies via his motorcycle. We don’t see too much of him in this episode, but he certainly retains his “I’m cool as fuck” persona in the few scenes we do get.
Sasha and Abe back up Daryl’s herding efforts in a car. Sasha has gone through a complete turnaround from last season. She was broken, suicidal and living life as a metaphorical zombie. That’s no so now. She’s alert and vibrant. She tells Abe:
“Doing something as big as this, that’s living.”
Merely surviving is akin to death, but fighting, that’s life.
The flashback scenes in this episode don’t shed much light on Sasha’s transformation, but they do fill us in on who survived the season five finale. Both Glenn and Nicholas returned home and Tara finally wakes up.
We also meet three new characters. Heath, Annie and Scott are veteran Alexandrians who’ve been out on a run since before Rick and his family arrived.
Most of the flashback scenes have a bittersweet tone that’s underscored with the simple notes of a piano as background noise. There’s almost something hopeful about it, as if everything is going to be alright now that the events of last season are over. How terrible it is to know that these characters are experiencing small moments of calm that will be torn away from them so soon…
Then again, this is The Walking Dead. What else would we expect to happen?
Overall, the flashbacks exist to give us a glimpse into Rick’s mind by showing us his relationship with Morgan. It’s no secret that Morgan was shocked to find the Rick he met last season was so drastically different from the Rick he once knew. He was not happy with Rick’s viewpoint of “Either you do it my way or I kill you.”
In this episode, Morgan shows Rick that, not only is that not the way to do things, it’s also not who Rick is as a person. Of course, Rick argues that Morgan no longer knows him, but something Morgan says earlier in the episode counters that, he says:
“I’m a killer Rick. I am and you are too.”
Being capable of killing someone doesn’t mean that you are a lost cause. Much of Rick’s evolution has been a good thing for him and for the show, but he still needs someone to keep him from becoming total steel. He needs someone to ground him in who he used to be.
Much of this conversation happens while the pair travel outside of the safe zone to bury Pete’s body, but their trek into the woods doesn’t end in soul searching, it ends in the discovery of what we saw at the start of the episode, a quarry of the dead.
It’s obvious that the zombies will soon escape the quarry and head straight for Alexandria. When Rick returns to town with this news, he doesn’t jump in and order everyone around. He presents his plan and then they all work together to improve it. This is another shift from the many forms of Ricktatorship we’ve had in the past.
Most people are on board with Rick’s plan to herd the walkers elsewhere, but a man named Carter is outspoken in his dissent. He wants to find any alternative other than fighting. He is not so different from the Rick we met many seasons ago.
After speaking out in the town meeting, Carter attempts to organize a group of people to kill Rick and remove him from power. Eugene, quickly followed by Rick and Daryl, walk in on the group. Instead of immediately killing Carter, Rick shoots him down in another way. He points out why Carter is an inferior leader. Unlike Carter, Rick would have set up lookouts to prevent someone from discovering a secret meeting.
Then it appears that Rick is going to kill Carter and you think “well, maybe there’s not much growth here after all…” but Rick puts away his gun and says:
“You can try to work with us. You can try to survive. WIll you do that?”
Indeed, in the present time, we do see Carter and Rick working together.
Later, Morgan says that he believes Rick showed his true nature by showing Carter mercy. Rick’s motives may have not been as compassionate as Morgan wants to believe.
“I wanted to kill him so that it would be easier so that I didn’t have to worry about how he would screw it up. But I realized I didn’t have to do it. He doesn’t get it. Somebody like that, he’s gonna die no matter what.”
Maybe this isn’t compassion, but it’s still showing growth on Rick’s part. Life isn’t kill or be killed, even in the zombie apocalypse. You don’t have to murder everyone who disagrees with you and you don’t have to let everyone get in your way. You also don’t have to save everyone who denies your help. Carter made his decision. Rick is going to let him live with that.
And he doesn’t live with it long.
During the battle, a zombie bites off his face and Carter falls to the ground screaming. Rick is left with only one option: To end Carter’s suffering. Yet, he hesitates before kills Carter. Morgan’s words are ringing in his mind… He thinks for a moment about the man that he has become and how easy it is for him to kill people. But this isn’t murder. This time, it is mercy.
Despite the loss of Carter, and undoubtedly others, the plan is working and the zombies are moving away from Alexandria – that is until a loud horn starts blaring. At first, no one knows where it’s coming from, but then it becomes clear that it’s emanating from the Safe Zone – place that is currently without its top warriors. Drawn to the noise, the horde of zombies changes direction and marches toward the town.
The episode ends with everyone running back to Alexandria and no one having any idea who sounded the alarm that will likely destroy their homes. Was it the elusive Wolves or was it someone from within the Safe Zone?
Who knows when we’ll find out that answer, but here’s what we can expect next week when The Walking Dead returns at 9pm on AMC: