The first sign that there's something a little off about The Walking Dead's midseason premiere comes early, when the episode effectively botches last year's cliffhanger. Remember how that last chapter ended, way back at the end of November in 2015? Rick, Michonne, and Carl were leading Jessie Anderson and her two sons, Ron and Sam, through a throng of zombies, camouflaged by the guts of the undead. The idea was for all of them to sneak quietly to safety, hand-in-hand and masked by the stench. But then the perpetually nervous Sam started whining for his mother, right in the middle of about two dozen walkers. The episode cut to the credits, and we all drummed our fingers for two and a half months, waiting to see if that dopey kid was going to get everybody killed.
But guess what? When we return to the Alexandria Safe Zone this week in the midseason premiere — ominously titled "No Way Out" — Sam's anxious, "Moooom?" is entirely forgotten. Instead, the Andersons make it out of their house and through the densest concentration of zombies without a hitch. Then everybody stands around and talks for a while, not more than 10 feet from where they would've been ripped to shreds if they'd said even one word a few minutes earlier. (Again, a little odd.)
To be fair, last year's "the kid's a liability" subplot isn't dropped altogether. Not much later, in one of this episode's most horrifying moments, the boy freezes during another trip through the infested streets — and this time he does get chomped. Then Jessie gets eaten too, because she won't let go of her son's hand. And when Rick hacks off her arm to free Carl, Ron pulls a gun on him, and gets gutted by Michonne in return. The Andersons do pay the ultimate price for their weakness. Still … why fade out last year with everyone on the brink of being detected, and then wait until nearly halfway through the show's return to pay that threat off?
The rest of "No Way Out" follows the same pattern: sometimes shocking, sometimes strained, occasionally awesome, then unexpectedly awful. Throughout, it feels like the writers are desperately trying to wrap up some storylines and reboot others — or like they're hastily trying to bury the most recent run of episodes.
And let's be clear: Although what we've seen of Season Six has proven to be fairly divisive among fans, it was no show-killer. The first few episodes were among the series' best, combining relentless action, shocking twists, and meaningful reminders of all the accumulated history that still haunts these characters. Even when the writers repeated themselves and reversed seemingly irreversible plot-developments (welcome back, Glenn!), they still reliably delivered horror and pathos, all while setting up the next big arc from creator Robert Kirkman's comic books.
Still, skeptics aren't likely to be persuaded by the start of the second half, which squanders many of its most significant moments. For example: During the slaughter of the Andersons, a stray bullet costs Carl his eye. This is a major incident in the comics; here it's mainly treated as an inciter. The near-death of his son causes Rick to fly into a rage and mow down walkers single-handedly, which in turn inspires his friends and fellow Alexandrians to help him clean out their town. Undoubtedly, the show will spend more time in future episodes on Carl's lost eye and what it means. Right now, the injury matters only for how it rapidly gets Rick to recommit to the security and ideals of the Zone.
Elsewhere this week, Glenn finally reunites with Maggie, saving her with the help of the wannabe runaway Enid (but only after he gives the moody teen a little pep talk, which in the process makes her less mysterious — and less interesting). Also, Dr. Denise survives being kidnapped by a ruthless member of the Wolves, because she shows compassion to him when he gets injured. There's lot of "i"-dotting and "t"-crossing in this episode, as the show closes out 2015's old business.
It's the promise of what's to come that's far more exciting. The midseason premiere opens with one honey of a scene, with Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha getting stopped on the road back home by a pack of motorcycle-riding rangers, who demand that they surrender all their goods to "Negan." Before the new rogues can say much more about their boss and his plans, Daryl blasts them all to hell with his rocket launcher. The whole five-minute sequence is just terrific, from the heroes' defiance to the way that a smug bad guy tells Abraham that, "If you have to eat shit, best not to nibble. Bite, chew, swallow, repeat. Goes quicker." (If these are the sort of antagonists we can look forward to this year, 2016 should be a fun one for Dead fans.)
Our heavily armed trio's escape means they arrive in Alexandria in time to get their friends out of a jam, with a little deus ex machine-gunning. For all the rushed conclusions and forced revelations, "No Way Out" is bookended by some thrilling large-scale combat — including the long-awaited debut of a braver Eugene, who doesn't shrink away from the fray for once because "no one gets to clock out today."
It's just that it's taken nine episodes of Season Six to scatter our heroes and then bring them all back to a stronger (if less-populated) Alexandria, and all the time and effort seems somewhat wasted. Eugene says of the community's last stand against the walkers that, "This is a story people are going to tell." But it's a skimpy kind of saga, opening with great promise and closing in a muddle.
Previously: Safe No More