Hey, remember all that talk about how TWD would be putting more zombies on screen than ever before? They weren’t kidding.

“First Time Again” is not at all what I was expecting for the hit zombie show’s sixth season premiere. It’s half a reintroduction to the series and characters, especially as we left them at the end of the fifth season, shown as flashbacks during the days after Rick’s execution of Pete (who, in case you need a refresher, not only beat his wife Jessie but also managed to drunkenly kill Deanna’s husband Reg with a samurai sword minutes before Rick shot him). They’re filmed in black and white, they’re brief—just enough time to check in with everybody and how they feel in general, or about whatever storyline they were on last season.

Advertisement

The other half of the episode is the show’s biggest zombie setpiece ever. In the present, Rick and the Alexandrians have engineered a massive project after discovering a quarry full of thousands of zombies. So the enlarged group have a huge, crazy plan to lead all these zombies away from Alexandria and (maybe?) destroy them. It involves Daryl and Sasha leading the zombies down a proscribed path, funneled by hundreds of cars on the side of the road, a generous helping of flares, and then Rick and others killing any zombie that manages to get off the road or who could potentially lead the mass of zombies away (as zombies on TWD have a herd mentality, as we all know).

It sounds insane as I’m typing it, but the group slowly leading a giant zombie parade is exciting as hell to watch, mainly because thanks to the flashback structure, we don’t really have any idea what’s going on (I still don’t know if they were merely leading the zombies away from Alexandria, or if they had some plan to destroy them) But from the opening shot of thousand of zombies stuck in a quarry, and the truck that has luckily penned them all in falling off its cliff, the episode is genuinely exciting. But it’s not just because we don’t now what’s going on: the fact that The Walking Dead made a scene where the group gets the zombies to take a right at a road intersection both tense and fascinating is pretty damn impressive, my friends.

And that’s mainly why “First Time Again” works so well. The insanity and excitement of whatever the hell Rick and crew are trying to pull off—again, with thousands of zombies—propels the entire episode forward, so that the premiere’s 90-minute runtime doesn’t feel bloated. The mystery of what exactly the group is doing and why keeps the flashbacks interesting, even as we check in with all the characters. There are no real surprises here although many of them have regained a semblance of sanity. Father Gabriel is properly ashamed for freaking out and leaving the gate open. Sasha appears to have gotten over Tyreese’s death to the point where she wants to live. Nicholas is a changed man after Glenn spares him. Carol is still pretending to be normal, basically as a secret agent for Rick (by pretending to be normal, she can help sway the others to Rick’s side).

Advertisement

As always, the main issue is Rick. Now, another confession: I was not really looking forward to a new season of TWD. It’s not that the show hasn’t been good, recently, it’s that I’ve had a hard time imagining what more the show can actually say. This may be a weird complaint when, as I’ve frequently noted the show is about a zombie movie that doesn’t end, but still, there’s only so many times we can watch Rick slide back-and-forth between humanity and brutal pragmatism before it becomes repetitive (if not annoying). I was also worried that Morgan would simply be Herschel 2.0, the kindly man who tries to help Rick regain his humanity, until the next horrible crisis turns him into a killer again.

But that doesn’t seem to be what happened in “First Time Again.” Despite the fact that Rick is very often correct about certain things—everyone agrees that his plan to take out the quarry full of walkers rather than wait for them to escape and overrun the town is necessary—I don’t think the show gives Rick a blanket approval for his actions and decisions.

Because this is a show that ended season 5 with Morgan’s arrival at Alexandria and his stunned disbelief at seeing Rick execute someone. It’s also a show that juxtaposed Rick killing Pete with Glenn’s decision to spare Nicholas; a decision which the season six premiere seems to be indicating was a good thing, as Nicholas is now following Glenn’s lead and helps save the day when the clearing of the convenience store goes awry. Throughout the flashbacks, Rick explains (and overexplains) why he had to kill Pete, and everyone just sort of politely agrees. But no one is clapping him on the back and saying “Good job murdering that dude!” The morality on this show is messy, maybe even sloppy, and I think it’s deliberately so. It’s easy to call Rick and the others the good guys when the bad guys are cannibals or psychopaths or whatever; it’s much tougher when the most murder-happy person in town is Rick. I honestly think the show wants us to be uncomfortable with Rick’s decisions, and wants us to question whether his brutal pragmatism is worth it.

Take, for example, the new character portrayed by Ethan Embry named —actually, you don’t really need to know his name—who is completely freaked out by Rick’s violence and semi-takeover of the town, and second-guesses Rick pretty constantly. E.E. starts out rather reasonably doubting whether putting this blood-covered lunatic in charge is truly a good thing. Eventually, however, he starts second-guessing everything Rick says and does.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who want Ethan Embry’s character to die, solely because he’s in opposition to our protagonist, even doubting Rick’s plan to take out the pit o’ zombies. In fact, E.E. talks to a group of Alexandrians about killing Rick for their own safety (although let’s point out that this cold-blooded, pre-emptive murder isn’t really any different from what Rick has done, it’s just that Rick no longer agonizes about these sorts of decisions). When E.E. discovers Eugene has overheard them talking, he gets ready to shoot our favorite mullet-bearer; Rick arrives, and pretty much instantly hands E.E. his ass—but Rick does not summarily executive E.E. like he did Pete.

Advertisement

What are we to make of this? As Rick tells Morgan early in the episode, “I don’t take chances any more.” But by letting E.E. live, isn’t Rick taking a chance? Isn’t he risking E.E. doing something so dumb that it will not only kill him, but endangering others? Instead, E.E. proves invaluable as he helps build the walls that help funnel the zombies out of the quarry to… uh, wherever Rick and the group are leading them. There is a definite benefit to Rick showing mercy here, just like Glenn showing mercy to Nicholas pays off, when Nicholas helps at the convenience store.

That said, Rick is also right when he speaks some of the most chilling dialogue the show have ever uttered (and I’m paraphrasing): “I don’t need to kill [Ethan]. The way he is, the world’s going to kill him eventually.” Poor Ethan Embry wanders too close to a walker in a tree and gets his cheek eaten off. His screams start drawing the walkers off the road, and Rick is forced to kill Ethan in order to keep the zombies on track. This is obviously for the greater good of Alexandria, and, being bitten, Ethan was absolutely doomed to die anyways. However, it’s not an accident that two of the show’s biggest badasses, Michonne and Morgan, watch Rick do what technically needs to be done with disturbed looks on their faces.

Look, I don’t know how long The Walking Dead can continue to make Rick’s battle between humanity and survival interesting. I also still worry that Morgan will become Herschel 2.0, someone who reminds Rick there’s more to life than just surviving, and we’re going to watch Rick come back from the brink yet again… until some new big bad comes along, undoubtedly the Wolves, the people carving W’s in people’s foreheads, that have been ominously teased for seasons now. But I do like that even as the show sometimes appears to let Rick off the hook for his actions, Morgan, Michonne, Daryl and many of the others seem to be getting more and more disturbed.

Advertisement

Of course, all of this could be moot because Rick’s elaborate, incredible Great Virginian Zombie Drive is utterly destroyed by a single car horn. Just as it seems that Rick’s plan has worked, a blaring horn sound begins, coming from Alexandria itself—and every single zombie turns its rotting head and starts shambling that direction.

While it’s kind of cheap that the episode ends with a horn noise, and not an actual reveal, I have to admit I have absolutely zero idea how Rick and the others—or the entirety of Alexandria—can possibly stand against the largest zombie horde the show has ever depicted. But I’m definitely interested to find out.

Assorted Musings:

• I was kind of wondering how Ethan Embry was going to star in The Walking Dead when he’s already a regular on Grace & Frankie. Not that Grace & Frankie takes up a ton of time, but I imagine TWD does, and Grace & Frankie grabbed him first. Anyways, asked and answered! (I originally wrote Transparent instead of Grace & Frankie. Whoops!)

Advertisement

• The new Alexandrian character introduced who doesn’t die is Heath. He seems like an all right dude.

• I really liked the reveal of the zombie-filled quarry in the flashbacks, especially that it makes sense in terms of the show. The reason Alexandria hasn’t been overrun is because it’s been bordered by the quarry, that has basically taken every zombie that wandered in from that direction. Good writing there, I think.

• Morgan sees through Carol’s Suburban Mom routine immediately.

• Abraham gets zombie brains in his ears. I don’t think he’s recovered from learning Eugene was lying yet. He certainly doesn’t seem that interested in living.

• Line of the night, Tara to Eugene: “Thank god nothing happened to your hair.”


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.