We're now eight episodes into The Walking Dead's sixth season, with a few months off before we get to chapter nine. And thanks to a controversial plot twist — or un-twist — AMC's cash cow re-entered the dreaded "cultural conversation" in a major way this fall, generating think-pieces aplenty about whether pretending to kill off characters constitutes bad faith or good business. Meanwhile, amid all that external hubbub, showrunner Scott M. Gimple has continued to move ahead slowly (perhaps too slowly) with the story from writer Robert Kirkman's original comics, putting pieces in place for a grand conflict that could be unlike anything TV's TWD has attempted before.
As we take our leave from zombieville until next February, what's the state of the show? And what do we know now that we didn't when Season Six premiered back in early October?
1. Rick may not be that great of a leader
In the second half of Season Five, Rick Grimes and his battle-scarred bunch were recruited to live in "Alexandria," a walled community near the ruins of Washington, D.C. that was led by an idealistic former congresswoman named Deanna Monroe. Sensing an opportunity to seize control of an already-fortified location, our heroes plotted to take over the location; but in last March's finale, after schemes were exposed and many shots were fired, Rick instead convinced his hosts that they needed to follow his program and toughen up.
How has that worked out so far? Well, this fall's arc started with the Alexandrians following their new leader on a mission to herd hundreds of walkers away from their home — a plan that went awry when a loud noise drew a frighteningly large number of those zombies right back. While that was happening, the largely unguarded safe zone was overrun by marauders; and in the day or two that followed, more of the scattered townsfolk were either killed or frightened into making life-threatening decisions. And then in the midseason finale, the undead broke through a wall and swarmed the streets. So … not great, Mr. Grimes.
If The Walking Dead were a sports movie, the last eight episodes would be that first game of the season where the good guys get their butts kicked. For the sake of humanity, Rick had better hope this is just a minor setback on his road to a championship.
2. There are Wolves in the woods… and something far more dangerous lurking nearby
At the end of last season, it seemed the main antagonists waiting in wings would be the roaming nihilistic ravagers who call themselves "Wolves" (and who helpfully mark their foreheads with carved "W"s, making them easier to spot). But while those feral bastards have definitely made their presence known by invading Alexandria and spreading their ideology of mayhem, there appears to be a more potentially destructive adversary encamped not so far away. In the episode "Always Accountable," Daryl met a trio of refugees from a cruel, dictatorial community, and got a glimpse at some of their foot-soldiers. Then in a teaser that aired after last night's episode "Start to Finish," our biker heartthrob friend, along with Abraham and Sasha, were pulled over by more of those thugs, all operating under the orders of someone named "Negan."
Readers of the comics already know something about these folks, and know they're unlikely to leave the Alexandrians alone. But even those who get all their Walking Dead info just from the show itself should be able to recognize that Rick's side is dangerously underprepared for the multiple waves of human enemies waiting outside their crumbling walls. And that's not even taking into account y'know, those hordes of flesh-craving zombies, which have been frighteningly plentiful and extra-disgusting this fall, thanks to some reported behind-the-scenes improvements in make-up effects.
3. Philosophical differences between Morgan and Carol are providing the show's best non-zombie drama
It didn't take long into this season before Carol dropped her cookie-baking, violence-averse happy homemaker act and revealed that she's kind of a psychopath — convinced that the only way to survive in this post-apocalyptic world is to cull the weak, remorselessly and relentlessly. But the cold certainty of her Darwinian approach may have met its match with the arrival of Morgan. One of this season's best episodes, "Here's Not Here," explained how Rick's first savior went from suicidal to Zen — and how he learned the art of doing serious damage with a wooden staff.
Neither Carol nor Rick are all that enthusiastic about their companion's inclination to give enemies a chance. But the man does make a strong case that in this new reality, every human is a potential resource, not to be squandered. As much as his skeptical allies insist that it's impossible to stay alive without constantly killing, Morgan's sense of calm and his undeniable capability suggests that there may actually be another way. In the midseason finale, those contrasting philosophies came to a head in an actual fight, right in front of one of the deadly Wolves. But while the creep escaped, he did leave his captors alive. So for now, call this contest of wills a draw, with more rounds surely to come.
4. The producers are taking some bold chances — and not all of them are working
Not counting the gap-filling scenes in episodes one and four, this season has covered just a few days in the lives of the survivors, beginning with Rick's botched zombie "cattle drive" and ending with the desperate scramble to protect Alexandria. And as a narrative experiment, Gimple and his writers have essentially retold the story of this 48-to-72-hour period from multiple perspectives, following characters who've been separated in the general melee, and who have no idea whether their friends are dead or alive. This is really nothing that new for The Walking Dead. One of the show's best stretches (the second half of Season Four) jumped around between the smaller traveling parties who'd scattered in the wake of the prison being compromised. But those journeys played out over a longer period of time, with everyone at more of a distance. These episodes have been a string of interrelated mini-crises, set in the same general vicinity, bookended by big opening and closing action sequences.
The problem is that these smaller dramas have been largely inconsequential. Daryl, Abraham, Sasha, Rick, Morgan, Carol, Aaron, Maggie, Enid, and — most notably — Glenn have all been in life-or-death danger, and all have emerged relatively unscathed. They've seen casual acquaintances die, and they've learned some valuable lessons about … Hardening? Softening? Honestly, it's hard to tell sometimes. The writers apparently felt these episodes were necessary to reinforce the series' themes before heading into one of the most complicated parts of Kirkman's epic. But in purely narrative terms, not that much has been accomplished.
And that's especially nettlesome in regards to the the big Glenn fake-out. Don't misunderstand: Steven Yuen's resourceful survivor is a great character, and it's better to have him alive than dead (or undead). But due to the circular approach of these episodes, it took way too long for us to learn that he was actually hunky-dory, after we'd been made to believe he'd been disemboweled. And given that not much had changed between the "death" and the "resurrection," the long delay before revealing his fate didn't just seem like a cruel tease; it felt pointless.
5. Some cliffhangers are better than others
Last night's dramatic ending would've probably played a lot better if this season hadn't stalled out so much. On its own terms, the midseason finale ends strongly, with Rick and the gang masking themselves in zombie-guts and sneaking through the horde — only to be potentially exposed by one nervous little boy. Meanwhile, Glenn's on the other side of the wall, helplessly watching his pregnant wife Maggie get surrounded by walkers; and Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha are out of the picture entirely, still miles from Alexandria and, as seen in that aforementioned teaser, cornered by rangers from Negan's kingdom.
Here's hoping that Gimple and company ditch the bait-and-switch drama of so much of the past few episodes and pick up right where the mid-season finale left off, with white-knuckle action and high stakes. If so, there'll be a lot to look forward to when The Walking Dead comes back on February 14th.