It’s Valentine’s Day, and The Walking Dead’s mid-season premiere aptly kicks off with a gesture that makes clear that audiences are never too far from the minds of the show’s creators. If you missed the coda that would presumably serve as the setup for the second half of the show’s sixth season, either because you tuned out after the mid-season finale’s credits or your cable provider (cough, Cablevision, cough) forced you to, “No Way Out” replays the tense scenario before following it to its logical—given Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) typically slick standards—conclusion.
Across five pulse-pounding minutes, Daryl, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) are held captive—in the middle of a road leading back to Alexandria—by a “bunch of assholes” whose spokesperson loonily dances around the ways and means of their ostensible leader, Negan, before aiming the very guns he confiscated from the trio at Sasha and Abraham. And before he can shoot them dead, Daryl rocket-launches the biker gang to oblivion. Crisis averted…for now at least.
The use of sound throughout this episode serves as a nervy aesthetic through line, a guiding force not unlike the interlocked hands of Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group as it walks slowly away from Jessie’s (Alexandra Breckenridge) home. The presence of only the episode’s hushed score on the soundtrack effectively keys itself to the becalmed headspace this daisy chain of survivors must maintain in order to ostensibly make it out of Alexandria alive. And after it neatly hopscotches to other places in and around Alexandria, where other characters have been isolated as a result of the breach in the safe-zone’s walls, “No Way Out” finally returns to focus on the disquiet that subsumes Jessie’s son, Sam (Major Dodson).
By the end of “Start to Finish,” and as Sam rallies here to stay by his mother’s side after Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) waltzes off with baby Judith, the boy seems to have summoned the strength to weather the zombie apocalypse. But the maddening logic of the very act meant to ensure his survival is clearly too much for someone so young to have to sanely process, and his subsequent panic leads to his entire family falling like dominos, though not before Carl (Chandler Riggs) is shot in the face by Ron (Austin Abrams). That the bullet was meant for Rick, and that it was sent off course by Michonne (Danai Gurira) driving her sword into Ron, is an unfortunate series of events one imagines the characters will be processing for episodes to come.
The series has played so loosely with its source material that it’s almost jarring to see it follow so closely in the comic book’s narrative footsteps.
Save for the corny flashes Rick has of the Jessie he met and fell for upon arriving at Alexandria, the entire sequence is notable for the tautness of its aesthetic construction. And for readers of the comic, there’s also the perverse sense of satisfaction in seeing something happen on screen almost exactly as it did on the page. Indeed, the series has played so loosely with its source material, and often wisely given Robert Kirkman’s problematic portrayal of race issues and gender roles, that it’s almost jarring to see it follow so closely in the comic book’s narrative footsteps. This scene is a significant turning point in the comic, and the show treats it as such by gravely homing in, sometimes wordlessly, on the paranoia, among other fears, that can so quickly and irrevocably change the direction of people’s lives in times of war.
Less effective is how too many words are used to assert, sometimes reassert, everyone’s moral views regarding community and, yes, war in other sequences. The Wolf (Benedict Samuel) drags Denise (Merritt Wever) through a hostage scenario that exists for no reason other than to indicate how they’re both going at this whole zombie apocalypse thing the wrong way: She’s as afraid of this world as he’s numb to its horrors, and just as they look to meet somewhere in the middle, with Denise bravely struggling to address the increasingly humanizing Wolf’s zombie-bitten arm, Carol (Melissa McBride) puts him out of his ostensible misery from a nearby building. (The implication here is, and per Carol’s usual m.o., that there’s no time in the age of the zombie for a potential lose cannon—even if he only has one arm.)
Elsewhere, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) finally lock glances, but whatever relief this reunion stokes in audiences is secondary to Enid’s (Katelyn Nacon) more pained trajectory toward a place of hope. Her parents are gone, but why not, according to Glenn, fight for Alexandria as if it were home and its citizens her family? The depths of Enid’s conflictions are given such poignant dimensions by Nacon’s performance that the heavy-handedness of the Bible quote (“Faith without works is dead”) painted on the wall of the church where she and Glenn stand is cast into sharper relief.
In a bookend to the audaciousness with which Daryl saves Sasha and Abraham at the start of “No Way Out,” the trio arrives at Alexandria just in time to gun down the zombies that Glenn lured toward him and away from the watchtower atop which Maggie precariously stands. There’s a comic punchiness to these scenes that discordantly rubs up against the episode’s more spectacularly grave and artful articulations of individuals fighting for their future. The scene of Alexandria’s survivors roused to action by Rick’s torment over Carl being shot leads to what may be The Walking Dead’s finest aesthetic triumph to date: an increasingly quick-fire collage of pain and violence, of the safe-zone’s survivors slicing and dicing the zombie horde within the city’s walls toward some kind of oblivion. This practically avant-garde moment so breathlessly and succinctly, and as such unexpectedly, articulates the rebirth of Alexandria that one comes to almost appreciate the episode’s Looney Tunes-esque moments of levity as a necessary breather.
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