The Walking Dead’s new season starts just as a carefully-laid plan starts falling apart: There’s a valley full of trapped zombies, and while Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his cohorts are talking about how to dispose of them, a tanker trailer topples from a cliff, releasing the horde ahead of schedule. And just like that, the team is off to the races, struggling against nearly impossible odds for their very survival (again).
It’s a thrilling opening, perfectly suited for a show that’s coming back after a season of record-setting ratings. Since taking over several years ago, showrunner Scott Gimple has made Dead more popular than ever by giving it a refined sense of thematic focus, honing in on Rick’s moral journey as he’s moved from reluctant leader, to feral madman, to violent would-be dictator. Now, with this new in-your-face zombie threat, there’s never been more urgency to a season opener — but it’s hard to get that worked up when things seem so utterly familiar.
The season premiere, "First Time Again," steadily intercuts the zombie-herding storyline with a series of black-and-white flashbacks depicting the fallout from the violence that erupted last season. As a quick refresher: Rick was nearly exiled from the safe zone of Alexandria due to his insistence that the townsfolk step up and learn to deal with the grim, violent reality that is the zombie apocalypse. Things ended with him point-blank executing Pete, a drunk that was beating his wife and kids, at the request of Alexandria’s matriarch Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh). While the scene played as a vindication for Rick — and for those fans wishing the naive Alexandrians would just get out of his way in the first place — it actually spoke more to the fragile grip we have on civilization and our better selves. All it took was Pete killing Deanna’s husband and all pretense fell away, with her instantly jumping to the side of quick brutality and merciless justice.
But it’s a reversal we’ve seen from numerous characters on the show before, Rick included, so it doesn’t come as a big surprise when it’s brushed over relatively quickly in the season premiere. Instead, the flashbacks focus primarily on the distrust several members of the town still feel towards Rick, particularly Pete’s wife (American Horror Story’s Alexandra Breckenridge) and a suspicious, blue-collar worker named Carter (Ethan Embry, in a wonderfully desperate performance). Several characters from Robert Kirkman’s comic also make their debut in the episode, including a supply runner named Heath, played by Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre from Straight Outta Compton). But it all feels fairly perfunctory, like Gimple and his staff are simply winding the show’s watch.
What the episode really seems to be laying the groundwork for is Rick’s larger struggle for his own humanity — a schism that’s seen most clearly by Morgan (Lennie James, bringing a new sense of inner peace to the role). From the very first episode of the series, Morgan has been the narrative ticking time bomb of The Walking Dead, and now that he’s been reunited with Rick (and gone through his own struggles), he’s nearly the only member of the motley crew of survivors that is able to see a clear separation between the man Rick Grimes used to be, and the man he’s now become.
The point is hammered home again and again, and while it’s a resonant amplification of the show’s central premise, it’s also just that: something we’ve seen and heard numerous times before. That’s not to say it shouldn’t continue to be explored, or that there’s not new depth that can be mined out of the The Walking Dead; in the last two years, Gimple has been able to do just that by introducing new characters, new dynamics, and new levels of frustration as potential saviors (remember Terminus?) have proven themselves to be false hopes again and again.
Entertaining, but it's not really going anywhere... yet
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the show is starting to tread around in a bit of a circle; that it just needs something more. A jarring death; an unexpected twist; a miscalculation with brutal consequences — anything that can put the characters on a surprising new trajectory. To be fair, I’ve made a point of avoiding Kirkman’s comics since the show began, so there could be such a surprise waiting just around the corner (having watched the show thus far, there almost certainly is). But the problem of hinging the entire series on the ping pong between Good Rick and Bad Rick is that with each successive flip the show has to go a little further to keep from treading water. Judging by "First Time Again," it’s not clear that’s going to happen. That’s not to say the journey isn’t entertaining — it most certainly is — but it’s awfully easy to feel like you’re not really going anywhere.
The new season of The Walking Dead debuts Sunday, October 11th on AMC.