So many season and midseason premieres of "The Walking Dead" have been anchored by the death or severe injury of a major character, from Carl getting shot at the start of Season 2 to last year's grueling, yet ultimately calm, demise of Tyreese. When considering that consistent emphasis on doom and gloom — not to mention Robert Kirkman's recent promise of Season 6 being the most intense yet — I went into last night's episode already in suspense. Were things immediately going to go crazy in Alexandria? Was the community's tension-fraught embrace of Rick as sheriff going to fall apart completely?
The answer ended up being no ... sort of. Until the final few moments, "First Time Again" is much more about the bomb ticking under the table than the full-on explosion.
That bomb, of course, is the relationship between Rick and the citizens of Alexandria. It's not that he's a bad leader; in fact, he's a great leader, or at least a logical one. After he and new-to-town Morgan bury the abusive (and dead by Rick's hand) Pete outside the safe zone, they discover an entire army of walkers bottle-necked by a wedge of derelict semi-trailer trucks. The only reason the undead haven't made their way to Alexandria's gates is because they've been blocked from doing so. It's only a matter of time before they break through, and when they do, there's more than enough of them to topple the perimeter walls. Luckily, Rick has a plan to lure them away from the development, which sets up the episode's structure: Half of it takes place during black-and-white flashbacks of Rick prepping everybody, while the other half depicts the scheme's present-day execution.
Although the sudden use of black and white to represent the past is a bit jarring — the device has never been used on the show before — the constant time-jumping effectively shows the slow-boil disapproval of Rick's actions. Some of the tension, such as Pete's family left confused in the fallout of his murder (terrible as he was to them) is immediate and expected, while some of it is more gradual and surprising. In the past, for instance, Morgan insists that Rick is still the same man he met in King County, regardless of how many people he's had to kill to survive. But when Rick has to execute Carter (Ethan Embry), a potentially dangerous dissenter who warms up to Rick's ideas, Morgan looks at his friend with a lot more apprehension than before.
In many ways, Carter has to die. On top of being bitten in the cheek by a walker (a death sentence if there ever was one), he can't keep himself from screaming, thus distracting the zombies from their path away from town. So it's not the murder in itself that disturbs Morgan, but the way Rick goes about it, the cold detachment he displays when jamming his knife into the back of a wounded man's skull. Granted, his survival instincts have resulted in a razor-sharp rationale, but they've also taken their toll on Rick's humanity. Even more unsettling is his comment that the only reason he didn't kill Carter when he tried to usurp him was because he knew he'd probably die by his own volition at some point. That Rick ends up being right doesn't smooth things over; it's clear this season is positioning he and Morgan as two morally opposing forces.
But Morgan isn't the only ally of Rick's who expresses skepticism toward his slowly calcifying demeanor. Abraham, whose relationship with the sheriff hasn't always been sunny, shows concern that he was so quick to kill Pete, both when grieving over the man's corpse in the past and when riding with Sasha during the great walker parade. He doesn't come right out and say it, but his description of Pete's brains getting all over him after Rick's fatal shot to the face points to Abraham being disturbed by the ordeal. Also worth pointing out: he seems to be chasing his own death more than ever (or as he puts it, "grabbing the bull by the nutsack"), gleefully exiting the car at one point to pick off a few walkers with good ol' hand-to-hand combat. Elsewhere, we get some other moments of levity through Glenn forgiving Nicholas in earnest for costing Noah (and nearly himself) his life last season, plus Eugene bonding with Heath, a new character that fans will recognize from the comics for his pragmatism and equally extravagant hairdo. In the zombie apocalypse, it's important for ponytails and mullets to stick together.
All of these characters fulfill their duties efficiently during Rick's plan, proving that his scheme is indeed a good one. Everything goes off mostly without a hitch, even with the dead's brief divergence to the screaming Carter. Then, out of nowhere, a car horn starts blaring from Alexandria, leading the rear half of the herd directly in the direction of the town. That's as explosive as the 90-minute episode gets, but it almost certainly spells catastrophe for everyone's little slice of suburban heaven next week. Regardless of who's behind the horn (my money's on The Wolves), Alexandria may have just as dangerous a threat lurking within itself. That's not exactly new territory for the show — human vs. human has been just as dangerous as human vs. zombie from the very beginning — but the fact that there's still so much unspoken dread surrounding the coldness of Rick makes for a truly menacing premiere, even if that bomb hasn't gone off yet.