Season 6 of ‘The Walking Dead’ premiered last October with its’ most ambitious, complicated episode, a tour de force of action and herding strategy meant to showcase the team building Rick (reliable, emotive Andrew Lincoln) was able to forge with the residents of Alexandria after asserting his leadership. This came off a spectacularly crafted season 5 second half that saw a hardened group just starting to grasp the possibility of settling down and beginning something resembling a normal life of human fulfillment. Season 6 ended with its’ most bleakly terrifying, dramatic, tension-filled episode, one that threatens this carefully curated group and the possibility of maintaining the carved out civilization they are building. That both of these episodes were helmed by Greg Nicotero, make-up effects wizard and regular series director, in wildly different styles, is a testament to how far these characters and artists have come, good and bad.
Starting with the time-jumping, flashback-laden (in black and white, no less) premiere episode, the first half of the season took chances, particularly in testing a loyal audience’s patience. The entirety of these shows take place over a very short time period, a storytelling choice that was risky because some key characters got little to do besides drive around and talk. The worst offense of this period was the absurd stretch of time where the fate of fan-favorite Glenn (Steven Yeun) was left hanging and how the questioning of this impossibly unbelievable scenario (the dumpster, really?!) detracted from what was an otherwise strong character-building subsequent hour revolving around Morgan’s (Lennie James) clearing from the brink of total insanity. This first half ended strongly as the walls literally caved in on the town, overrun by the zombie horde that Rick failed to divert, but overall there was no compelling theme unifying these episodes, a trait marking the best periods this series has offered.
The second half of the season was a near perfect collection of stand alone episodes and unifying message that took the characters and audience down a morally sticky path, culminating in the aforementioned (and brilliantly shot, from the wide takes at the start of the episode to the claustrophobic oppressive close-ups towards the end) finale which sees a total reversal of power for the group of survivors. After handily defeating all threats (human and zombie) to their budding, self-sustaining civilization, Rick and co. are able to let their guard down a bit and live a little, forging true romantic connections and planting seeds of normalcy. Stand-out episode, ‘The Next World,’ sees a ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ type pairing of Rick and Darryl (Norman Reedus), that even injects some humor into an otherwise humorless show while slyly leading into the next ‘Larger World’ phase of the narrative with the introduction of the enigmatic Jesus. In order for all of this work, and civilization to get going again, this group must interact with other groups in trade (medicine, food, etc.), forging new relationships and offering services – in doing so, our fearless leader comes across a name that will come to haunt him, Negan and his Saviors.
It is unfortunate that social networking, the information age, and audience manipulation has pushed the creators of TWD to resort to gimmicks that actually detract from the driving force, strong themes, incredible make-up effects, and impeccable acting regularly on display. It is a testament to all of these factors that the show commands the ratings, following, and sometimes overbearing vitriol it receives. If the show stays true to its’ roots, organically developing characters, expanding the world-building narrative, and most importantly, keeping the audience’s collective blood pressure up, it can and will continue to succeed . . .
First Half of Season 6: * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- C+
Second Half of Season 6: * * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-