THIS FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR S06E01 OF AMC's "THE WALKING DEAD."
I made a video review which you can find at the bottom of this page. But, in case you are more of a reading type, here are 5 of the major talking points from this week's THE WALKING DEAD episode "First Time Again."
1. The beginning
There are two shows currently on television that, in this reviewers opinion, are currently tied for the title of ‘best show on TV.’ One of them is FX’s ‘Louie,’ the other is AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.’
When I am watching Louie - with its whip-smart dialogue, its noble goal of projecting on to screen truths of the human experience, and its uniqueness - I forget The Walking Dead. How could a show with such a mass audience, and such a basic premise possibly compete?
And then The Walking Dead starts its new season and I am reminded - this isn’t just another genre show, this is film-making. This is narrative mastery. Speculative fiction at its very very best; using a fantastical concept to explore deep, personal, humanistic themes in a way that is often visually and aurally breathtaking.
We cut from the close-up of Rick, which is lit to absolute perfection, with deep, blacked out eyes that are completely haunting - and from that dark, intimate, frightening moment we move to the enormity of the situation - huge, sweeping wide-angles, and Rick back where he belongs, as leader.
The story alone that unfolds in the space between these two contrasting shots I could right a full essay on; suffice to say that, as is often the case, the immediate presence of a threat trumps any emotional turmoil. A plan that was only supposed to be a dry run gets thrust into focus, Rick barks his orders, our heroes move into position, and the opening credits role.
And we’re back.
2. The Pit
How is it possible that such a large community has been afforded so much peace for so long? Is a question that the cynical among us may have asked… Well, The Walking Dead answers that by introducing us to the concept of ‘the pit.’ A huge hole in the earth that has been swallowing up walkers due its unusual structure. The one exit point is blocked my two trucks, one of which is hanging precariously close to the edge of a cliff. Should it fall, as looks likely, the walkers will be released, and set upon the community.
This is such a prefect way to open the series, not least of all because it sets up what is almost a heist movie that serves as the episode's main plot point. More importantly though, it echoes what was a worry for Rick and Co at the end of last season, and what it looks like will be the main thematic drive for the season ahead; action vs inaction, reaction vs pre-action. In other words; should we wait for a problem to arise and then make plans to solve it, or should we make plans so that no problems will ever arise in the first place?
The plan that the team come up with is risky, but sensible, and the way the show explains it, in fragments, works to build tension and create suspense. The hiccups along the way are all dealt with logically, and the show does a wonderful job of letting us know both where we are in the plan, and what it is that we need to accomplish in order to progress.
3. Meanwhile... Back at the ranch...
The way this episode tells its story is once again something I could write a whole piece on. It is similar to the way a lot of american cowboy movies work; you have two threads of narrative, you ratchet up the tension in one, and then you cut back to the other, which is subsequently informed by the former. It is a simple technique that The Walking Dead takes, and puts on steroids.
The ‘Ranch,’ in this case, is the past, post Ricks execution of Pete, and both the journey to the discovery of the pit problem, and the erecting of a plan to solve it. There are so many clever ways that the two timelines interact that the story-nerd in me cannot quite contain itself. However, I will reel back and talk about one such instance:
When Eugene overhears I-forget-his-name talking about killing Rick before Rick kills them, and I-forget-his-name is shortly afterwards caught pointing a gun at Eugene, and is then disarmed and humiliated by Rick in the best way possible, the story that is happening in the present blows wide open. Is he going to betray Rick, and try and kill him in the field? Is Rick going to try and take out I-forget-his-name in the field? Hell, even when the Zombie ends up taking out I-forget-his-name, Rick’s proximity has to make you wonder whether he had something to do with it.
This is just one of the more obvious ways in which this sort of story-telling works, but the episode is full of these sorts of dramatic techniques, some of them more subtle than others.
Furthermore, the past being shot in black and white is not only an extremely effective way of separating the two timelines, it is also incredibly beautiful.
There is so much goddamn subtext in this show. If you were to take a pen, write down a characters name, and draw a line from that character to a different character with whom they experienced some kind of dramatic tension in this episode alone, and then in turn you did the same for the character with whom they had the dramatic tension, you would ruin a perfectly good piece of paper.
This show is incredibly complex, and the drama between each character and the relationships that result from that drama are exiting, fresh, honest, and informative.
This episode contained more of these relationships than most - Rick/Dianna Rick/Morgan Rick/Daryl Rick/I-forget-his-name Rick/woman-whose-husband-he-killed Carol/Morgan Glen/Maggie Glen/Coward-guy Abraham/Sasha Dianna/I-forget-his-name Eugene\guy-whose-hair-is-like-his - just to name a few.
And it would have been so easy for the episode to feel bogged down, and heavy-handed. But in having the simple, precise, pit plan execution plot line as the episode's driving force, these relationships were allowed to unfold naturally, and were carried along by the pacing of the main arc. It really was masterful story-telling.
5. That ending though...
I hate to compare this to Arrow, because they are very far away from being the same show; but I am going to anyway because a) I forgot to talk about Arrow’s ending when I reviewed it, and b) they both end on cliffhangers that are after similar things but are executed in very different ways.
In Arrow’s ending - SPOILER if you have not yet scene the latest episode of Arrow - Oliver is shown staring at an unknown grave. The implication being that someone has died, and you will have to keep watching to find out who. On the one hand, I like this scene because the payoff is long term, and has the potential to keep the audience guessing throughout the season in a fun and interesting way; on the hand, and the reason I probably forgot to mention it in my review, the scene bares no dramatic relevance to anything that happened in the hour preceding it. It is just tacked on at the end, it’s not connected to anything. The same effect could have been had if the writers had just released a blog post online saying that someone was going to die. Dramatically, it would have been no different.
Compare that to the ending of The Walking Dead. Where every single thing that happened - all of the character interactions, and all of the disparate threads of plot - bore tremendous weight on the episodes final moments. The tension that the ‘will they/won’t they succeed’ storyline had built up throughout the hour, was suddenly released from under it, and in one loud and piercing horn, everything changed.
And as the screen fades to black, we as viewers are left to fill in and wonder about all of the many terrifying implications.
Next week cannot come soon enough.
Click bellow for the video version of this review. And subscribe to my channel for more reviews/recaps, and analysis in the future.