Prepare for an unsettling blend of frantic Walker-slaying and cerebral, black-and-white glances into a not too distant past of–well, not peace. But quiet. The Walking Dead season 6 premieres with a healthy dose of the series’ haphazardly-paced, artsy-conversational aesthetic, juxtaposed against the gruesome, monstrous zombie hoards. The “humans are the real monsters” diatribe continues as Rick and the gang comes to terms with the choices they have had to make, and the lives that have been lost along the way. Perhaps that’s why scenes are intermittently filmed sans colour: the greyness is a sense of the overwhelming loss of humanity. I’m sure this theme comes as no surprise. As far as the series is concerned, it is all just more of the same.
The first episode was an ebb and flow of potential. Rick’s plan to mislead an impossible amount of Walkers goes astray almost immediately, starting the episode in delicious chaos. My hope for the episode peaked, craving not just some action but some sort of progress. The delayed gratification shtick is getting old. The black-and-white scenes of the past, though stylistically interesting, felt disruptive. These “flashbacks” aren’t even from a distant past, just segments of however long it took Rick to come up with his “Walker herding” plan. The storyline feels jumbled rather than suspenseful and the black-and-white interloping scenes slow an already-slow-moving plan down. As usual, there is a lot of slow plot development, slowly driving vehicles, slow Walkers, and slow dialogue.
Looking beyond this characteristic “slowness,” there are some profound moments in the episode. Rick tries to train his growing community to fight the Walkers by holding back when the newbies are surrounded. There is an eerie scene when Rick tells the new crew “You can do this. You need to,” holding back Daryl, Morgan, and Michonne from intervening until the situation gets desperate. Even then, Rick tries to dissuade the rescue, while Morgan initiates a protective counterattack against his wishes. It is a fascinating scene. On one hand, Rick is as callous as ever; on the other hand, he is trying to force the unseasoned fighters to accept the realities of killing to survive. It is a moment of cold, calculating compassion. A parallel to the chaotic hoard and passive flashbacks; hot and cold moments in uncomfortable proximity to one another.
The remnants of the original crew–Rick Grimes, Carl Grimes, Daryl Dixon, Glen Rhee, and Carol Peletier–consistently deliver eloquent performances. Much of the draw of the series is watching them change and harden in the bleak reality they have been forced to inhabit. Carol and Glen are the most obvious evidence of this progression, as both started out rather meek but have now come into their own. The rollercoaster dynamics of this self-made “family” continue to provide the strong psychological undercurrents that give the show it’s addictive nature. Unfortunately, the strength of these characters does tend to have the side-effect of making many of the secondary characters feel bland and forgettable. The exception, of course, being the katana-wielding Michonne, who continues to be a strong presence.
Sasha Williams, however, a character introduced in season 3 whom has now become one of the main cast, was able to steal some screen time in a meaningful way. There is a moment where Sasha, driving alongside Daryl in an attempt to herd and draw away a sea of Walkers, says of their dangerous plan: “Doing something as big as this [plan]…that’s living.” It’s a subtle recognition of what it means to be afraid in the context of this infected, post-apocalyptic world. To live is to stand at the brink of death, hold your breath, and hope to see another day–or at least die quickly. There is a poeticism behind these clips of peripheral conversation. But don’t blink, you might miss it.
It may not seem like much, but the show does thrive on these small, often quick, but powerful moments. It’s what gives a series entering its 6th season its heart. It may be difficult to praise all 60-odd minutes of the episode, and a quick overview can be discouraging. A lot of patience is required to wait out the dawdling scenes of mild bickering and bleak hope. But that waiting, too, is symbolic of the state of the Walking Dead world, where long silences are filled with just as much fear and anger and dread as moments of explosive action.
To disturb these silences, The Walking Dead continues to mercilessly kill off its characters in order to maintain the unfairness of this bloody, nightmare world. The show is cannibalistic of itself, as we know. It also continues to excel as a hybrid of frantic energy and quiet, haunting suspense. The kind of suspense that comes in the form of a long, low horn calling out the dissolution of the group’s plan by the end of the episode. Yet again, the show reminds us why we keep watching, even through the pauses and stutters. There is always an end to the silence, and it will send shivers down your spine.