Even the hardest of hardcore Walking Dead fans would probably admit that after a rip-roaring start to the sixth season last fall, the story stalled a little. The past eight episodes have covered the same few bloody days from multiple perspectives, as our scattered heroes executed a botched plan to secure their new home in northern Virginia's "Alexandria Safe Zone." Give credit to the show's writers for trying something different, making all the usual zombie attacks and violent infighting feel fresh by focusing on just a few characters per hour, and jumping around in the timeline. But the result, ultimately, was two months of only intermittently exciting post-apocalyptic action, while the plot spun around in circles.
Still, there was some advancement though last year. So as The Walking Dead prepares to resume its sixth season this Sunday night, here's a refresher on where we left everybody — and where they may be headed over the next several weeks.
1. The Alexandria Safe Zone has been overrun with walkers
Season Six jumped right into the action with a scene of scruffy lawman Rick Grimes leading a select group of Alexandrians on a mission to herd an overflowing pit of zombies out of their hole and into the hinterlands. But the scheme quickly went awry, and soon a massive wave of the undead crashed into the community's walls. In the midseason finale, a breech in the barricades allowed the monsters to started streaming in, trapping Rick and his friends in a house, with no obvious means of escape. As a last ditch effort to get to safety, the humans smeared their clothes with walker-guts, hoping to blend in quietly with the ravenous throng. And in the episode's last scene, just as it looked like everyone was going to make it through the gauntlet alive, the youngest of their party — skittish pre-teen Sam Anderson — panicked.
In a purely practical sense, the present crisis allows the show's producers to winnow the cast a bit, to make way for new characters soon to arrive. Already, the invasion has cost Alexandria its visionary founder, Deanna, who was killed at the end of the last episode. And without giving too much away, Sunday's premiere definitely doesn't let up on the carnage. What remains to be seen is whether Rick can reestablish his authority over this group of people whom he's just brought to the brink of disaster.
2. Morgan's kindness appears to be backfiring
The sixth season episode "Here's Not Here" told the alternately devastating and inspiring story of how Morgan Jones went from being a remorseless killing machine to becoming a man who doesn't believe in taking a life unless absolutely necessary. Throughout this stretch of the show, Morgan's gentle approach to survival has put him at odds with the more pragmatic Rick and the more bloodthirsty Carol — especially when a member of a nihilistic ravagers known as "The Wolves" escaped from our zen master's makeshift prison, taking Alexandria's only trained doctor as a hostage.
The Walking Dead's big thematic driver of late has been the ongoing contrast between different ways of living, and the urgent debate over whether they can reasonably co-exist. Rick and Carol have been ruthlessly Darwinian, forcing their new neighbors to get with the program or risk becoming zombie-food. The Wolves though are more viciously self-serving than any tribe our heroes have yet seen, representing a test of Morgan's faith in humanity's future. We're curious to see how this ends.
3. The not-dead Glenn is almost home
This season's most controversial moment (so far) involved an especially cruel and kind of silly fake-out, wherein it first appeared that fan-favorite Glenn had been eaten to death. Then, a few episodes later ,it turned out that he'd improbably escaped. Whether or not TWD fans are okay with that switcheroo is a moot point, because he's back to being a major player. When last we left our Mr. Rhee, he'd been stopped just outside Alexandria, within shouting distance of his wife Maggie — whom he could see stuck in a remote watch-station, surrounded by walkers. He and the morally shady teen runaway Enid now have to find a way to get inside the wall, to save Maggie and possibly the whole township.
Meanwhile, one of the big issues that the show's writers will have to deal with going forward is whether they can reintegrate Glenn into the plot in a way that still generates tension and anxiety. The Walking Dead has worked so well over the years because anyone can die at any time — which makes every life or death situation more meaningful. But at least for a little while, whenever Glenn's in danger, viewers can justifiably roll their eyes and go to the kitchen for a snack.
4. Daryl & co. have met some dangerous new enemies
Glenn's not the only potential MVP sitting on the sidelines right now. While Rick returned to Alexandria to deal with the hordes he'd failed to herd, Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha continued their cattle-drive, pushing the zombies who hadn't strayed out of the area. Then, in a teaser scene that AMC ran shortly after the end of Episode Eight, we saw that our brave stragglers had been stopped on the way home by more members of that same group, who claimed to be operating under the orders of a leader named "Negan."
Plotwise, that scene matters because it lets us know whether or not we can count on Daryl's cavalry to ride to the rescue of the zombie-infested ASZ. But the introduction of Negan's soldiers matters more in terms of the series as a whole, because as fans of writer/creator Robert Kirkman's comic books, these smirking strong-armers are going to be serious antagonists going forward. Rick and his allies will start to discover other pockets of humanity that are rebuilding society, each in their own very different ways — and not all of them are going to be friendly.
How soon the new bad guys become a regular part of the cast will have a lot to do with whether viewers look back on Season Six with fondness or frustration. Because….
5. The show is moving slooooowly right now
The Walking Dead's creative team has been successful enough to earn the right to experiment, and even to stray from Kirkman's original comics. That said, the last 16 episodes of the show — from the midseason premiere one year ago to the one about to air — have covered roughly 12 issues of its source material. And it's not like the print version of this story is so loaded with dialogue and detail that each chapter demands hours to dramatize properly. This ain't Game of Thrones.
The good news is that last summer, before the current season even started, showrunner Scott M. Gimple told Entertainment Weekly that the first eight episodes were meant as a "prequel" to the next eight, filling in some backstory and reestablishing the stakes for all of major characters before the plot gets a lot more complicated. Whether the show needed this much set-up is something fans will likely be debating for years, depending on what happens next.
But if TWD shifts into epic post-apocalyptic mode, then the first half of the sixth season may ultimately seem like a welcome breather: a halftime mini-saga, examining a few pivotal days in the lives of the survivors. If, say, two months from now we're still wondering who Negan is, then this show could make even the most lumbering zombie look like The Flash. Like the tens of millions of other Walking Dead devotees, we'll be tuning in each week to see which path Gimple and company are going to choose.