When we last saw Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), he was standing over the body of man he’d gunned down all too easily. The image recalled a handful of key moments throughout The Walking Dead’s run, in which the once reluctant leader was forced to take extreme actions to protect his team of survivors. Setting this latest killing apart from the others, however, was the resolve in his eyes and the absent weight from his decision to pull the trigger.
At the start of the show’s sixth season, Rick is more than a seasoned killer: He’s an enforcer. He regularly struts the streets of the Alexandria safe-zone and gives speeches about why living in an insane world requires insane action. Since most members of the community are ill-equipped to face the realities of the zombie-ridden world outside the town’s walls, Rick doesn’t just want to prepare them for it, but mold them into troops as skilled at neutralizing outside threats as him.
In the season premiere, Rick leads a tactical effort to guide thousands of walkers away from the town with an elaborately planned cattle-chute scenario requiring utmost precision. The episode contrasts the plan’s real-time execution with black-and-white sequences detailing the events leading up to it. Rick remains the focus through both timelines, but the flashback sequences place a stronger emphasis on the stark contrasts between Rick’s scheming and the softer interactions of other members of his close-knit group—especially Daryl (Norman Reedus), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz).
These scenes masterfully set up conflicts later in the season, as the seeds of resistance to Rick’s iron-fist leadership begin to grow. Thus, despite its unprecedented magnitude of zombies, the real battles in The Walking Dead’s sixth season will likely take place without force or violence.
At the center of this season’s budding conflict is the return of Morgan (Lennie James), whose appearance in only a smattering of previous episodes doesn’t encapsulate his enormous impact on Rick’s transformation since the start of the zombie apocalypse. In the many scenes the two characters share in this season’s early interludes, Morgan seems to understand the extent to which Rick has disconnected himself from his past and from the people around him.
Morgan has also changed since their key first-season encounter, but he doesn’t perceive fear or the unwillingness to kill as weakness as Rick does. Whereas some of Rick’s closest confidants are more direct, if also delicate, in their criticism of his decisions, Morgan engages Rick in a subtler way. Their ongoing dialogue is full of references to their history, implicitly forcing Rick to grapple with who he was and who he’s become. Carol (Melissa McBride), on the other hand, remains in lockstep with Rick’s isolationism, though she favors a style of more subdued manipulation.
Beyond the interpolation of new elements into its survivalist underpinnings, The Walking Dead moves here with the kind of confidence and ease the series has only sporadically achieved in the past. With established characters gliding in and out of the narrative foreground rather than feeling as if they’ve been dutifully granted their obliged screen time, the gears of the show’s narrative mechanizations are much less apparent and the rhythms more comfortable. In fact, one senses that much of the material over the previous two seasons was mere throat-clearing in advance of an eventual step forward and pivot into new territory here.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Rick’s evolution parallels the trajectory of The Walking Dead in its full scope. Whereas once the series was uncertain and lacked a sense of its own identity, it’s gradually morphed into a more assertive and focused reflection on the cold nature of survival. And, as with Rick, only upon looking back on its history can one appreciate how far the series has come. By casting Rick’s protagonist status into question, showrunner Scott Gimple has opened The Walking Dead to new possibilities—both in its narrative and philosophical foundations—and is successfully crafting a rare series of rising caliber and still-widening potential deep into its run.