The Walking Dead: "First Time Again" (Season 6, Episode 1)

Flabbergasted

The real Walking Dead is back. Just in time to make to demonstrate why "Fear the Walking Dead" pales in comparison. Things like scope, pacing, tension, deftly drawn characters with economy of scene. etc. You know,  writing that allows spectacle to achieve its full effect.

This episode knocks the doors off. Not only is it exciting almost the entire time, but unlike its hack spinoff "The Walking Dead" continues to aim for real drama while dabbling in art. The framing of this episode is highly stylized, perhaps excessively so at times, yet it works. The framing device is chromatic: present day events in color, all that happened between last season's cliffhanger and the present day in black-and-white. Got that? Action in color, character development in black-and-white. My only complaint is this experimental presentation becomes choppy in a couple of places. Overall, though, it is creatively ambitious and holds together.

Last season ended with Deanna, the leader of the Alexandria Safe Zone, surrendering to the Ricktatorship. Her husband had just been killed, albeit accidentally, by resident wife beater Pete. "Do it, Rick," she said. Translation: you were right, I was wrong. Alexandria needs a strong man to survive.

Rick doesn't need to be told that twice. He shot Pete in the face.

Old friend Morgan showed up at that exact moment. He was somewhat appalled.

Tonight opens in the present at the quarry from hell. Its exits are blocked by trucks. Walkers have been stumbling into it for untold months until there are now thousands. Ground is giving way since no one tends the workplace anymore, and once a critical mass of deterioration is reached, the resulting rupture will funnel this massive herd dead east toward Alexandria.

Rick has a whole team in place. They're conducting a dry run on a plan to free the Walkers while leading them west. Of course the ground picks today to give way.

The dry run is now for real. It's a great setup for an action-packed episode.

The black-and-white portions of the story primarily depicts two things. First, Rick is walking a tightrope between protector and butcher. He's prepared to be hard, maybe harder than he needs to be, even as traces of the old Rick still surface. He and Morgan bury Pete the asshole after being told to dump him in the woods. He also doesn't kill Carter, a panicked Alexandrian plotting to kill him. He gives the man a second chance. Basically, Morgan is trying to draw out the old Rick.

The second through line in black and white is the discovery of this quarry and the development of Rick's plan. The idea is to attract the Walkers with flares and a slow convoy up front. The intersection of Redding and Marshal Roads is walled off with metal plates supported by stakes and a wall of cars behind. That should force the herd west. The planned sequence of events is marked by different colored balloons to help us watch it unfold in color.       

Things are tense as all get out in color. The advancing wave of zombies following Darryl on his motorcycle and Sasha and Abraham in a car present a stunning visual. The camera repeatedly drills in on individual Walker faces as they mindlessly stumble forward. Both the special effects and the makeup folks earned their money this week.

Rick and the rest of his team shoot flares to guide the herd on its edges. Then they follow at a safe distance to catch stragglers. Poor Carter. He gets caught by a Walker and bit in the face. As he lies there screaming, Walkers begin to diverge from the road toward the sound of his cries. Rick, who spared Carter in the past, has no choice but to kill him in the present. Morgan looks dismayed, but come on. That's cheap drama. Carter is already dead from the moment he's bitten. It's just a question of now or twelve hours from now.

The plan is working. They're almost at the green balloons, which signal success. Everyone on the ground will fall back while the drivers lure the horde another twenty miles on before bugging out.

That's when a horn sounds in the distance. To the east.

From Alexandria.

The noise doesn't stop. Slowly the horde turns. The camera pulls back to yield a horrific aerial shot of the whole plan going to hell in the disorganized shape of a Walker army shambling east. Holy ****!

Now that's a cliffhanger.  

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