Last week, I was able to watch an early screening of “No Way Out”, Sunday night’s mid-season premiere. Upon my first viewing, I was struck by a single scene that disturbed me mightily. Upon Sunday night’s viewing, I had the opportunity to be appalled by every other aspect of the episode, which was one of The Walking Dead’s worst.

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Because man, “No Way Out” was bad, from start to finish. Actually, lazy is a better word—it included some of the laziest storytelling since Herschel’s Farm, although back then the show at least had the decency to tell no story at all. This, however, is supposed to be the epic conclusion to the two-day, single storyarc of Rick’s Zombie Fun Run and the Overrunning of Alexandria, but it’s full of cheap scares, cheap drama, and an ending so unbelievable it’s practically a deus ex machina.

Let’s just begin at the beginning. “No Way Out” takes place immediately after the mid-season finale—it starts with Sunday episode’s post-credit tease, as Daryl, Sasha and Abraham run into Negan’s gang. The scene continues, and Negan’s greasy lieutenant spends the entire time switching from nauseatingly faux sympathy to aggravatingly threatening. The first real sign that “No Way Out” is going to be problematic is that Greasy literally pulls the “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna kill ya…” (whips up gun) “…except maybe I am!” (slowly lowers gun) “Nah, totally kidding…” (whips up gun again) “Except I am totally not!” At this point Daryl blessedly puts us all out of our misery by shooting Negan’s gang with a rocket launcher.

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While any TWD character could die at any time, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that the show would off a major character by playing what it essentially a homicidal game of peek-a-boo, especially in the episode’s cold open. Just as Greasy is trolling our heroes, the show is trolling its viewers, and the fact the threat is technically real doesn’t make it good or interesting. On the plus side, while the rocket launcher is an extremely video game-y solution to the problem, it is quite satisfying to watch those incredible assholes literally explode. As expected, the law of Chekhov’s rocket launcher applies; if Abraham found it, it was gonna get used.

Back in Alexandria, everyone else is in the exact same place as we left them, including Rick, Carl, Michonne, and the Anderson family, who are still wandering through Alexandria in gore-covered ponchos, hidden among the zombie hordes. Rick gives Judith to Father Gabriel to take to the church (I might not have been so quick to trust the padre after his previous shenanigans, but desperate times, I suppose). Jessie begs her youngest son Sam to go with Gabriel to, but Sam demands to stay, more out of petulance than fear. It is the afternoon.

Several hours later, it is dark, and Rick and the other are still walking through goddamned Alexandria. (Go ahead, rewatch it. They start in the middle of the day and are still trying to get somewhere well after the sun has set.) Perhaps because he’s been walking among zombies for hours, Sam finally freaks out and just stops, even though they are surrounded by hundreds of zombies. He can’t move another step. Rick and his mom beg him to come, to keep walking, but he’s paralyzed.

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This is when Sam is eaten by zombies.

This is very much what upset me upon my first viewing, and apparently I need to explain why to some people: This is the first child we’ve seen actually get murdered on screen. Yes, TWD has a long history of killing kids—Rick offs a little girl in the first episode, as well as Sofia, and of course there’s Lizzie—but most of them have been dead, and more importantly the show has always cut away so the violence is not directly witnessed. This is the first time where we saw a kid die, horribly, and I will fully admit that I did not care to see zombies rip chunks of flesh off a 10-year-old, nor did I need to watch the blood spurt from the child’s wounds as he’s eaten alive.

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But what troubles me as much as the content is that Sam’s death serves no purpose other than to be upsetting. I know TWD has never shied away from being horrific, but when prominent characters have died their deaths have always given some kind of meaning. Bob, Tyreese, Lori, the Governor, Herschel, the psychotic blonde girl—their deaths were the conclusion of their individual stories. When they died, we knew that the characters would have a major impact on the survivors, that their deaths would actually mean something—even if just from a purely narrative perspective.

This is not what happens here. The first half of season six forced little Sam to see some horrible things, including his mother murder a home intruder. He’s been thoroughly traumatized, with Carol inadvertently managing to do even more damage. Thus Sam’s storyarc, if one exists, is as follows: his life is horrible and then he’s murdered. If this is the meaning I thought TWD truly meant to ascribe to the scene, then the show would have truly earned the title of “misery porn.” But I think it’s more likely they just wanted to kill a few characters in the premiere, and thought killing a kid would up the “OMG” factor. This is equally nihilistic in its way, but is also crass and desperate.

Because there’s absolutely no chance that Sam’s death has any future meaning. When he gets eaten his mom Jessie is so sad she can’t move and is eaten by zombies, and then Rick is so sad he can’t move and is nearly eaten, and then Ron, the sole surviving member of the Anderson family is like, “hell with it” and decides he’d rather shoot Rick and/or Carl than live, so Michonne stabs him but Ron manages to shoot Carl in the eye anyways. The entire Anderson family is dead, and I will be shocked if Rick or anyone else on The Walking Dead ever gives them a second thought.

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One more thing about this, and then I’m done: Sam’s death is stupid. I’d actually buy that Sam is suddenly so freaked out he stops cold in the middle of a horde of zombies. He’s been through some very rough stuff, so suddenly having a nervous breakdown while surrounded by zombies is legit. What baffles me is why no one thought to pull the 10-year-old boy along. He can’t weigh more than 80 lbs. If he stopped in his tracks, literally every single person in their conga line could drag him against his will and continue onto safety. An even better solution: Pick the goddamned kid up. The other characters have to turn into dunces for this scene to happen as it does.

It’s bad, bad writing, and I don’t remember the last time TWD pulled something this crappy. Sam died not because the character dictated it, not because the story dictated it, but because the writers knew they needed to off a few characters and thought this one would have the most shock value. When I said The Walking Dead crossed a line, I did mean that they finally showed the on-screen death of a kid, which, bleh—but I also meant until tonight I’ve always felt that the show puts the story ahead of cheap shocks and gore. And given Andrew Lincoln’s even more visceral disgust at the script of the season 6 finale, I’m deeply concerned that this is a line the show won’t be returning to anytime soon.

Rick and Michonne rush Carl to the infirmary, where Nurse Denise awaits. But Rick, like virtually every angry man in this show, decides to use his surplus of emotion by killing zombies. He runs outside into the zombie horde with a hatchet and just starts hacking ‘em down. Men, am I right? The others who are holed up in the infirmary quickly realize that Rick’s going to get himself killed, so they run outside too—not to save him from himself, though, but to start killing zombies too.

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Somehow Rick’s practically suicidal attack on the million or so zombies currently loitering in Alexandria becomes a bizarre rallying cry for the townsfolk. They see Rick furiously hacking through the undead instead of dealing with his emotions, and decide that the best thing to do is join in. Carol and Morgan, Aaron and Rosita, everybody goes outside and starts killing what is suppsoedly to be an unbeatable horde of zombies. Even Eugene, because like everyone else he sees Rick trying to take on 1,000 zombies as a valid plan.

Rick essentially grabs the Invincibility Star from Super Mario Bros. and builds up a ridiculous hit combo. And just like that, The Walking Dead turns into a video game. These people literally kill hundreds of zombies. Sure, Abraham and Sasha return with assault rifles, and yes Daryl makes a big pool of gas and sets it ablaze for the zombies to wander into, but essentially about a dozen or so people go on a Killtacular Killing Spree against the most zombies the show has ever portrayed. Not only is not a single person hurt during this ridiculous battle, they win. This is, and I use the term with caution, unrealistic, even for The Walking Dead.

There are about 40 or so people right now furious that I am angry at a TV show about zombies for being unrealistic, but guess what? That wasn’t my call. It was The Walking Dead’s decision to make the zombies a credible threat for the first 5.5 seasons, that even a single zombie could be deadly if you weren’t paying attention, and that a horde of even 20 them couldn’t be fought, only escaped from. Hey, remember when Tyreese went on his own killing spree with his hammer, and he fought like six zombies at once, and he seemed like he was certainly dead and it was an awesome miracle when he managed to beat them? Back them it was improbable, but still possible.

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Now, apparently, our heroes can take out hundreds of zombies each, as long as they Believe in Each Other or some shit. If this gigantic zombie horde can be defeated by brute force and hand-held weapons, why should anyone ever worry about zombies again? How many zombies will be required to be an actual threat? Who will ever be dumb enough to be murdered by a zombie again, unless they 1) are asleep, 2) have a weapons malfunction, or 3) are a dumb little kid the writers want to graphically mutilate on-screen in hopes that gore will keep people interested?

So bully for the survivors, because zombies no longer pose a threat to them. There’s other good news: Carl does not die, although he will be sporting a wicked cool eyepatch in the near future (as he does in the comic). This comes at the end of the episode’s best scene, where Rick talks to Carl about the fight, and not because it was absurd, but because he saw their group and the Alexandrians work together for the joint cause of saving Alexandria. It not only has finally forced Rick to consider himself and the Alexandrians part of the same group, it’s made him hopeful for the future in a way that he hasn’t been since he woke up from his coma. It’s genuinely moving to hear Rick beg for Carl to be all right, because now he can finally envision a future for his child.

This is The Walking Dead at its most triumphantly optimistic, a scene that would have had so much more impact had the final battle felt like it had any stakes, or if it weren’t coming 30 minutes after a child is eaten alive for cheap thrills (Rick has literally already forgotten about the Andersons). An actual feeling of hope is rare on this show, but it’s integral to the characters—they need to have a reason to continue putting up with the nightmare they’re living in—as well as the viewers, who need to a reason to continue watching the characters suffer through the nightmare they’re living in.

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But here I am, worried that the show is already going to far, and yet Negan—arguably The Walking Dead’s most horrible villain—hasn’t even appeared yet.

I am not feeling optimistic.

Assorted Musings:

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• Not that people who are as infuriated that I didn’t like an episode of one of the most popular dramas on TV (inexplicably taking it as personally as if I’d spat on their mother) have read this far, but just in case: let me try (and inevitably fail) to head off the first waves of commenters at the proverbial pass: 1) I watch TWD it because I am paid to watch it, as I am employed as a writer and reviewer, This is how jobs work. 2) check my other TWD recaps, I’ve enjoyed it almost constantly since season four. I have no agenda here other than offering my honest opinion; 3) if you want to read a straight recap without critical assessment, just watch the goddamn show again. I am not here to transcribe the closed-captioning for you.

• A large part of the episode’s problem is that it absolutely should have been the mid-season finale. It’s the conclusion of the storyarc that took place over two in-show days, so airing it three months after the eight episodes that lead directly into it does it no favors. A lot of the character arcs depend on the development the first half of the season did, and unfortunately, a lot of that work was kind of meager in the first place. I imagine at least some of the episode’s issues would seem less problematic during a season 6 binge-watch.

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• Case in point: last year, Eugene has gotten a little grief for being a coward. Sunday night, he suddenly has the courage to fight back, a decision that only kind of works if you remember, “Oh, yeah, that was an issue that was at least being discussed a little.” Basically, Eugene has spent his entire time on the show terrified of facing even a single zombie, but now that there are literally hundreds to face, somehow Eugene is ready to become Rambo. Sigh.

• I should mention that in Sam’s death does occur in The Walking Dead comic, and is pretty close to what happens on-screen. However, in the comic Sam starts freaking out and crying for his mother, which is what attracts the zombies to him and the others. There is zero doubt in my mind that the show felt that having Sam get eaten while having a panic attack and crying for his mother would be too horrific for TV. Their solution was to keep the child murder, but omit the plaintive wailing for his mother that preceded it.

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• However, Sam freaking out is a much more sensible reason for the zombies to get him before Rick or Jessie could address the problem. Again, the show writers really wanted to get that child murder in there, and didn’t care if it made no sense. The fact Sam dies in the comic doesn’t mitigate any of this crap in the slightest.

• I lied; there is one person who is nearly killed during Stage 8-4 or whatever you want to call the final fight, and it of course is Glenn. Glenn attracts the zombies surrounding Maggie’s little tower so that Enid can rescue her, and of course Glenn gets surrounded, and of course it looks like he’s a second away from dying. It’s condescendingly terrible to put Glenna t death’s door again, and that’s before Abraham and Sasha show up out of nowhere and manage to shoot 30 or so zombies standing mere feet away from Glenn using their assault rifles. One hit kills. Glenn of course is completely unscathed.

• Daryl. I know you found a rocket launcher, so now every problem looks like it requires a rocket launcher-shaped solution. But you know how else you could have lit that pool of oil on fire? A goddamned lighter. Settle the hell down.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.