7:20pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Walking Dead' Return Raises the Body Count Without Raising Stakes
[This article contains spoilers for the Sunday, Feb. 14 midseason return of The Walking Dead.]
For fans of non-stop zombie hacking, Sunday night marked a powerful return for The Walking Dead.
The last 20 minutes represented a bloodbath of slashing, axing, smashing, chopping and liberally distributed gore, as our core characters finally reunited after a frustratingly diasporic first half of the season. Fueled by Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) rage, Daryl's (Norman Reedus) RPG and a sea of literal fuel, our unified crew pulverized somewhere between dozens and thousands of walkers in a courageous stand for the town of Alexandria. Even cowardly priest Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and temporarily pacified Morgan (Lennie James) got in on the carnage, that stretched from late into the night into the early morning. There was even a fantastic little montage that was nothing but close-ups of characters slicing and dicing. Talk about giving the fans what they want.
In this last act of the midseason premiere, nobody we knew or cared about got more than a scratch either because God was on the side of the Alexandrians or because The Walking Dead has become a show that's rather profligate with death when it comes to unimportant characters, but awfully sparing when it comes to people whose names you remember.
And don't pretend that before the start of this episode you could have named Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) and both of Jessie's sons. I'm simply not going to believe you. So how sad are you that Jessie and Ron (Austin Abrams) and Sam (Major Dodson) are dead? How shocked are you? How much does this prove to you that anybody can die at any time?
Although Walking Dead has killed a bunch of kids, it's still at least somewhat powerful, short-term, when a kid gets munched on by a wayward walker. Killing kids isn't taboo at all for The Walking Dead, but we all have a residual sense that killing kids probably ought to be taboo. But let's be real: Sam was already dead meat from the time his mother used his name in telling him he'd be better off with Gabriel and Judith (Tinsley Price), because we all know that nobody would actually be better off with Gabriel and the only reason she'd use his name was so that 15 minutes later we could yell, "Sam, you idiot!" when he stopped soon-to-be-dead-in-his-tracks surrounded by walkers. At that point, Jessie essentially giving up, shrieking and allowing herself to be devoured was a more organic character reaction than anything else she could have done. And at that point, Ron was pointless, so he waved a gun ineffectively, got a machete to the chest courtesy of Michonne (Danai Gurira) and, as he went down, shot Carl (Chandler Riggs) in the eye.
Now you'd think we'd be terrified that Carl might die, except that Carl gets shot by things. It's what he does. And that's leaving aside that any fans of the comic knew that eventually he was going to have to undergo the ol' half-Oedipus. Even though the big emotional swell of the episode was Carl squeezing Rick's hand before the credits, we knew he was going to survive, because you can't keep a good Carl down. It's a shock scare, but I'm assuming most fans aren't really worried.
At this point, after the fall's Glenn (Steven Yeun) fake-out, an act of storytelling cowardice that 99 percent of the audience predicted even as the producers were telling anybody who would listen that they weren't bringing Glenn back, I'm going to have to see a character's severed head on fire to believe a character is dead. But having fooled us once with Glenn's death, Sunday's episode tried it again, this time with Glenn's pregnant wife wailing and watching the zombie tsunami approach, only to see Glenn get spared by the arrival of the proverbial cavalry, in the form of Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Daryl's RPG.
Remember that hypothetical severed head on fire? The premiere gave us that as well. The still unseen Negan's gang was about to kill either Abraham or Sasha or both when Daryl took out an abductor and invoked Chekhov's RPG, painting the road with bikers, organs and limbs like a blacktop Jackson Pollock painting. I didn't count the number of bikers who were vaporized, but it was the most instantaneous decimation yet for a group of people we didn't care about, other than their proximity to a nefarious character long awaited by fans of the comics.
The episode's other casualty was Wolf (Benedict Samuel), who was holding Dr. Denise (Merritt Wever) hostage and even if we felt like there was the off chance that he was trying to change and that the mercy shown to him might make him a better person, his life was of no value to the ongoing narrative of the show.
So if you were keeping score at home, Sunday's Walking Dead return killed off three semi-regular characters casual fans could barely name, one recurring character who didn't have a name and a flock of unnamed characters notable for their connection to a name we have yet to connect to a character.
That's annoying business as usual for The Walking Dead, but it was still a return that offered hope for optimism. Even if the first half of the season had a couple scattered decent episodes, it suffered for me because in spreading out the characters at undetermined distances, you lost the actual ties that bind. Characters vanished for two or three weeks at a stretch and we had to remember what they were doing. Characters were at a variety of locations, but we didn't know where they were. The opening also played with time in a way that shot the chronology to hell. Oh and most of the Alexandrians sucked and were never developed as characters and were just there to eventually die. The first half of the season was a mess. But the episode ended with Rick telling Carl that he believed again in the potential of Alexandria, that he was ready to become the community's Donald Trump and rebuild the wall and usher in hope.
"I want to show you the new world, Carl. I want to make it a reality for you," Rick says, either ready to launch a new Ricktatorship or not.
Good luck with the rebuilding, guys. I'm guessing that Negan guy, whoever he is, won't be happy when he hears what happened to his version of SAMCRO.