For the first time in a long time, The Walking Dead was good last year. To use an appropriate metaphor, it had become a saggy, bloated corpse, but new showrunner Angela Kang gave it new life – with more consistent characters, faster storytelling, and the ability to surprise audiences again. Last night’s season 10 premiere wasn’t quite on par with season nine, but it sure had one hell of a surprise.
Because when I say the episode was out of this world? I mean it literally.
The Walking Dead’s season openers have always been at a bit of a disadvantage, because they have to do a lot of legwork, reestablishing where its many characters are, what they’ve got going on, and where their various relationships are currently, which usually doesn’t leave a lot of time for actual plot development. “Lines We Cross” had the usual issues, but since the show began with a shot of outer space – and then a USSR-era satellite hurtling towards Earth – they weren’t nearly so galling.
When the episode came back to the survivors, the mind-boggling fun continued. It turns out the colonists have formed a (semi-legit) army since last season, and it’s training day at Oceanside. The front line has spiked, Roman legion-esque shields to keep foes at bay, archers in the back to thin out the enemy’s ranks as they approach, and sword- and spear-wielders to take out the zombies who manage to close in. Hell, the army has actual maneuvers to maximize protection while simultaneously attacking. It’s a bit goofy, but it’s wonderfully entertaining.
Besides, the army works, which we know because the training exercises involve Ezekiel and Jerry opening the holds of multiple crashed boats with an increasing number of zombies inside. When a couple dozen walkers burst out of the last boat unscheduled, the practice turns into an actual battle, and they hand the zombies their decaying asses with maximum efficiency. When it’s over, Judith (who is a very capable member of the army herself, of course) reverts from tiny badass to her child mode to play with the other kids on the beach, where she discovers a zombie face has washed up onto the shore – a Whisperer’s mask.
It turns out there’s been no conflict between the colonies with the Whisperers since the latter migrated south for the winter. If they are back, however, then the colonies are at risk, although the two groups are technically in a détente, since the Whisperers claimed that they’ll leave the others alone so long as no one crosses the infamous severed-head-lined boundary they set last season. Whether the Whisperers would have kept their word is obviously up for debate, but it’s a moot point because the colonists cross over not once but three times in the episode.
The first is when the colonists recon their own side of the line to look for signs of Whisperers. When Michonne and a very angry Aaron ride out and spy zombies on a bridge just over the boundary line, he doesn’t hesitate to cross the border to attack them, clearly hoping one of them is a Whisperer he can kill. Aaron hates that everyone is living in fear and wants to go on the offensive to wipe out the threat before the Whisperers kill more of their people. Michonne reminds him that job number one is keeping people safe, which means not foolishly provoking the Whisperers into a war.
It’s the age-old conflict at the heart of The Walking Dead, and it’s here that the episode first stumbles. The “Is offense the best defense?” question is so played-out on this show, especially since the last time it came up when Rick attacked Negan and the Saviors first, beginning a costly battle and two interminable seasons of TV. The show’s characters should be as wary of provoking conflict as the audience is of the show’s characters provoking conflict. Plus, angering the Whisperers is an even dumber idea than it was to mess with the Saviors, because, as Michonne reminds Aaron, they have the zombie equivalent of a nuclear bomb: that hoard of thousands of Walkers that they can (somehow) direct wherever they want.
When another scouting group led by New Kids leader Yumiko finds a campsite with a zombie hide in colonist territory, it’s more evidence the Whisperers are back. The still-upset Aaron wants a total lockdown of Alexandria, but Michonne worries that sending the colonies into a full panic might break them apart again, right when they need to stand together more than ever. She radios Gabriel in Alexandria to be on alert, and after notifying the town leaders, he orders the guards on the wall doubled and the gate closed at night.
But the other Alexandrians immediately know what these precautions mean, and the fear begins to set in. Negan, who’s been leading a seemingly contented life as fruit-picker and garbage man (although still under guard), voluntarily returns to his prison cell. As he tells Gabriel, new fear can stoke old fears and, as former enemy number one, he wants to make sure no one starts thinking of him as a threat again.
Meanwhile, Carol, who’s been spending most of her time since the season nine finale at sea catching fish, returns to Oceanside. A hopeful Ezekiel has been anxiously awaiting her return but Carol instantly blows him off to go on a joyride with Daryl. The two do a bit of hunting – mostly zombies, but they also kill a deer that unfortunately dies in Whisperer territory. Even though it’s only a few yards in, Daryl tells her they can’t grab it because it’s off-limits, pissing off Carol to no end. But they quickly make-up when Daryl lets it slip that Carol is his best friend, prompting her to make merciless fun of him with an elaborate, wonderful proposal that they should make each other friendship bracelets. And then they see the fire in the sky.
Much like Game of Thrones’ Red Comet, all these various story threads have ended with the characters seeing a bright ball of fire hurtling overhead, but only Eugene realizes the disaster that’s about to occur, and radios Michonne immediately. The object, of course, is the satellite entering the atmosphere, and it causes a forest fire when it crashes. The forest, of course, is in the Whisperers’ territory, but the fire that will spread over to Oceanside unless it’s stopped. The colonists have no choice but cross the boundary and try to stop the massive conflagration in a world without a fire truck.
To put it succinctly, it ain’t easy – especially when the fire attracts dozens of zombies, giving everyone two deadly threats to face. Still, the scene provides the utter delight of seeing Daryl throw an axe to knock a flaming tree onto a group of zombies, and an even more entertainingly ridiculous moment where Carol slits a zombie’s throat and uses its spurting blood to put out part of the fire.
When it’s over, all they can hope is that the Whisperers appreciate the Colonists taking care of the fire and not retaliate, since it would have destroyed a great deal of their area as well. Aaron, in a very awkward U-turn from his position at the beginning of the episode, hopes that their work actually “buy them some goodwill.” Maybe it would have, except there’s one final (and vastly unnecessary) trip to Whisperer-Land left to go. After they had discussed the idea of actually leaving the colonies behind to travel to New Mexico, a land in which they assume they wouldn’t constantly be fighting people, Daryl takes Carol to the edge of the giant valley where Alpha showed them her immense zombie horde. The horde is gone, which I guess isn’t bad intel to have, but it can’t possibly be worth it the cost. Because as she’s walking away, Carol looks down and sees Alpha, just as the leader of the Whisperers sees her – standing smack-dab in Whisperer territory. So now it’s war for sure.
That’s a dumb way to restart the conflict between the two groups. Because it requires two of the savviest characters on the show to make a dumb, inexplicable decision (they could have had the conversation anywhere), and the inconsistency in Aaron’s character over the course of the episode isn’t great either. Both of these problems run deeper than the traditional season premiere clunkiness because it’s the same sort of plotting and writing issues that have dogged The Walking Dead since the beginning. For instance, it would have been so, so easy for Alpha – an established psychopath – to have seen the charred remains of the forest, realized the colonists had crossed over, and decided to punish them for breaking her rule, regardless of the good they did.
On the other hand, the high quality of the show’s previous season has built up more than enough goodwill with me to keep me excited for the next episode, which is not a sentence I have typed in regards to The Walking Dead in years. More importantly, even with the character issues, this episode included: 1) a trained zombie-fighting army, 2) blood-based firefighting techniques, and 3) an orbiting Russian satellite falling to Earth. That’s amazing.
After all, the show has often been a story driven by dumb-dumbs. But it has rarely been this entertaining. After nine long years of watching his show, I know which one is more important to me.
- Each of the show’s segments (between the commercial breaks) get their own title card, examples being “Bird Wisdom” (Negan’s talk with Gabriel) and “New Mexico” (Daryl and Carol’s daydream about leaving). It’s weird, as was Kang’s decision to bring in modern music for key scenes last year, but both are fine. Again, after nine years I’ll always appreciate when TWD shakes things up a bit.
- Judith telling her little brother about Rick’s sacrifice in the form of a fairy tale was a crass and utterly manipulative emotional moment, but it still kinda got me. Well, until little bro flat-out told Michonne his problem with the story’s ending: “I didn’t like the brave man went to heaven.”
- I 100 percent did not need a scene of Eugene trying to peep at Rosita’s breast-feeding her baby.
- Speaking of creeps, Siddiq’s assistant Dante is a new character from the comics. I very lightly researched him, because I don’t want the comic story to color my thoughts on the show, so about all I saw is that he has/had a thing for Maggie. I got a real big creep vibe from him in the episode, though. Anyone else?
- Kelly’s hearing is beginning to go and soon she’ll be completely hearing impaired like her sister Connie. Kelly is terrified, and rightly, but Connie’s positivity and support for her sister was genuinely moving.
- And speaking of Connie, she’s straight-up flirting with Daryl, and Daryl seems into it. I mean, he’s learning to sign to communicate with her, and he’s not exactly one for reaching out to others, or communication in general. At the very least, Dog approves.
- Carol grumbled that the deer they shot “could’ve fed 200 people.” I’m no hunter, but that deer didn’t look that large to me. Also, 200 people is a lot. Is Carol right? Or would the deer need to have been the size of an SUV to have that much meat on it?
- When Gabriel orders the wall guards doubled up and the gate closed at night…does that mean the Alexandrians had been leaving it open?! That is bananas. Guys, I lock my door every night and I live in an apartment complex that is itself locked. You morons live in a zombie apocalypse where people cosplay as the dead and put heads on spikes. Season five Rick would have murdered you all.