Recurring Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Stephen Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Lennie James, Melissa McBride, Danai Gurira, Michael Cudlitz, Josh McDermitt, Sonequa Martin-Green, Chandler Riggs
I have figured out the Walking Dead’s game plan. Every half season opens with an almighty display of television. Last season it was the herd trapped in the quarry that needed to be dragged away from Alexandria, Season Five started with the gang breaking out of Terminus in a murderous version of the Great Escape. However, as soon as that episode has died down and we are back to calling Walking Dead television at its very best, the writers settle back down into their usual quiet, contemplative structure. Its more focused on the potential shock in tomorrow’s episode than the action of today’s, the dripping dread other the outright terror… The best Walking Dead episodes are always the first ones and this half season proves no different.
What an opening! Seeing as the midway break last time around was the very definition of frustrating, the writers make up for it with a bloody spectacle of a show. Every angle screams brilliance. It resolves the sticky stand-off between our first look at the Saviours and three beloved members of the group (this is a big moment in the comics and the writers play with that notion wickedly). Then we are on to a brutal scene in the middle of the Walker herd where character after character bites the bullet. Its not particularly the ‘who’ dies that shocks, but Rick’s reaction as they do. He is a man so used to loss that he cannot bring himself to emote properly. Each reveal in that small three minute scene hits you in the gut, finishing with a spectacular punch-line, ripped straight from the comics, but no less surprising, when it finally makes its way onto the screen. At this moment, we are exhausted. We have had big moment after big moment continuously paraded on screen and we are just about ready to call it a day with the episode. However, we are only halfway through and the episode evolves into what we have been wanting to see for seasons now. I won’t go into detail, but I can assure you that it is the Walking Dead at its very best. And then we settle back onto business as usual. The action fast forwards (a little jarringly if I am honest), to a few months ahead. The season almost reboots, as if the season has opened an episode late, restarting plotlines and renewing character arcs. Two characters strike up a surprising romance angle. A new character wanders into the group, revealing how many other communities there are out there, willing to trade. And a new enemy enters Rick’s peripheries. A man who has been bullying supplies out of other camps. A man called Negan.
And this is where this season of Walking Dead places its chips. If you have been hiding under a rock, even those not familiar with the comics knows that Negan is bad news. He is the villain to all villains, a man so needlessly cruel, famous for introducing himself to other groups by senselessly killing one of their own without reason. He is responsible for several deaths in the comics, for being Rick’s greatest challenge to date. He is all anyone in the Walking Dead world has been talking about. His reveal this season is made brilliant, because of his absence. He is introduced through those small pocket of men seen in the post-credits sequence last half-season and brought up again through the whispered murmurs of new characters. We watch through half-closed fingers as Rick confidently agrees to take Negan on, no idea who he is talking about (albeit using my new favourite quote from the show: “we’ve never had a problem with confrontation before!”). The following episodes are an impatient wait for the man of the season to appear, Rick getting small victories and taking small losses (with all this talk of Negan, a few poignant moments sadly might be lost in the hype), building up to the showdown of 2016. And that showdown, when Negan finally shows up, is incredible. The rumours were clear: someone, maybe someones, will be meeting an end at the end of Negan’s infamous bat, Lucille. The episode in itself is set up with false starts, ominious foreshadowing and genuinely dripping as much tension out of the moment, as possible, Rick wandering closer and closer to his fate. And when the Saviours show up, it is a pulse-pounding, terrifying experience, far creepier than anything the Walkers have ever come out with. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan is spectacular, allowed to be introduced to the audience with a powerfully chilling monologue. And that ending… Beautifully horrible. We will be remembering this one for some time to come.
Final Verdict: A great opening gambit is followed by a slow, suspenseful crawl to the reveal of Negan. That reveal is worth the wait.