About a third of the way into The Walking Dead‘s sixth season premiere, there comes a moment when everyone’s favorite crossbow-wielding monster-slayer Daryl is slowly riding his motorcycle down a tree-lined highway. Behind him are what seems to be literally thousands of zombies, a huge herd of corpses lurching behind this greasy, sleeveless, post-apocalyptic Pied Piper of the undead. It’s an awesome sight — at once terrifying and beautiful. And it’s only about the fourth coolest scene in this episode.
To say that this show is coming back strong would be an understatement. “First Time Again” is not just an incredible season premiere but is arguably one of the series’ best installments to date, combining moody “What does it mean to be alive?” philosophizing with the kind of action-packed Big Mission that usually gets reserved for finales. From one of the chilling first shots — peering down into a ravine filled with armies of walkers, blockaded by freight-trucks — the episode heralds a heightened sense of urgency, rare for a drama where the characters have often been merely reactive. It manages to take stock of the ramifications from last season’s bloody end, while loudly roaring forward.
That’s a nifty bit of multitasking from screenwriter/show-runner Scott M. Gimple and director/FX guru Greg Nicotero, who distinguish the episode’s chronological back-and-forth by moving between blood-streaked color and stark black-and-white. We kick off in high gear, with Rick showing the residents of the Alexandria Safe Zone the dangers that await them in nearby Zombie Canyon — before they’re forced by an unexpected breach to start herding the hordes away from town early. From there, the narrative jumps around, following the intense scrambling of our heroes in the present while flashing back regularly to fill in the gaps between where the Season Five finale ended and where Season Six begins.
Here’s what this structure does: All the soul-searching and wound-healing that usually takes weeks to sort through is dished out in about 45 minutes, with another 20 minutes still left over for some of the grandest human-vs.-undead battles yet. The most important lingering issues from last year don’t get fully resolved: We have no idea whether Deanna will accept Rick’s demand that everyone follow his commands, or whether Daryl and Michonne will stand by their increasingly hardened old friend, or what’s up with the newly arrived Morgan. But they’re at least handled to the point where the story can keep steamrolling ahead.
The flashbacks also bundle most of the crises of leadership up into a single moment, when Rick stops a coup without killing anyone, reassuring his closest allies that he’s not completely power-mad. (Morgan and Michonne though do seem a little bothered by their leader’s reasoning for not executing the traitor-in-chief… because he figures anyone that stupid is going to get eaten soon anyway.)
The rest of the be-kind-rewind moments catch up with the rest of the main cast. Carol is still pretending to be meek (although Morgan, who just met her, sees right through the act). Glenn is taking responsibility for mentoring Nicholas, the coward who almost killed him last season. Abraham is keeping an eye on Sasha, to make sure that she’s over her suicidal depression, and is no longer “looking to go buck-wild with the breath-impaired.” And Eugene? He’s still mullet-ing along and talking like the cartoon version of a Southern dandy.
But what stands out most about this episode — beyond the introduction of a few new characters, including comics fan-favorite Heath (played by Corey Hawkins) — is how ambitious the action scenes are. “First Time Again” feels like a throwback to the original series’ premiere, in that it has a zombie-to-survivor ratio of about 100-to-1. Nicotero and Gimple (and co-writer Matthew Negrete) never let us forget just how tenuous Rick’s scheme is, as he uses noise and barriers to drive the ghouls out of town. Even with all the careful steering, the creatures stray off the road, and appear spontaneously out of the woods — and in a cliffhanger ending, some mysterious blaring horn sends the zombies back in the opposite direction, apparently ruining everything.
Still, there’s more reason for hope than usual here. Maggie offers some uplifting words to Tara, reminding her that strangers and enemies can come together, just as the two of them did. Sasha finds renewed passion for life in Rick’s plan, telling Abraham, “Doing something as big as this? That’s living.” Morgan and Michonne make idle jokes about whether she ate his last peanut butter protein bar — in a way that suggests that maybe it’s time for them to stop thinking about everything in terms of “the last one” and start making some firsts.
Even the switches from color to black-and-white serve more of a purpose than just giving viewers a quick visual cue. The episode’s first shot reprises Rick’s season-ending killing of Pete and then drains all the color from the picture, freezing that moment as something important…maybe even historical. And later, as our hero gathers the key Alexandrians around a table to lay out their mission, the image is framed so that it looks like a painting of some pivotal event for humanity. We’ll have to see in the coming weeks what kind of portrait it really is. Are we witnessing the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Or the Last Supper?