More so than other television series, “The Walking Dead” has often used its midseason premieres to clean house, trimming down its bloated cast size and deciding what to focus on narratively and thematically for the rest of the year.
That remains true in this Sunday’s episode, “No Way Out,” the return of the ultra-popular AMC show’s sixth season. But while there’s certainly a shift in mortality (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that people do die), the story’s a departure from past midseason premieres in that its characters manage to find solidarity amid a community-destroying crisis. That might come as surprise, given where Rick and his not-so-merry band of survivors were at during the closing moments of “Start to Finish.” Smeared in camouflaging guts and trying to make their way through the walker horde that had invaded Alexandria, the group’s survival was threatened by Sam (Major Dodson), who looked poise to freak out at the horrific scene around him.
Needless to say, “No Way Out” begins by capitalizing on the little boy’s fear, which leads to unexpected events that force Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and company to reroute their approach. But, despite some of the grisliest story points to ever face the cast, the episode isn’t about the characters packing up and fleeing to the next checkpoint, as they’ve done so many times in the past. It’s about self-discovery and making the sometimes tough decision of standing their ground. This doesn’t just apply to the series’ heroes either, but some of its darker, more villainous roles, too.
The only downside to such progress is that it involves hatcheting off some of the show’s least-favored story threads. In a way, I get it. If we’re speaking in “Walking Dead” terms, severing an infected limb is the only way to successfully treat it. But the series’ writers have developed a tiring pattern of focusing on one arc or character for a season, realizing the audience isn’t into it, then abruptly ending the story element without even trying to massage it into something good. And by that point, it’s hard to take satisfaction in such a swift ending because you’ve seen the show make the same mistake so many times before.
Still, it’s more fun for the audience when “The Walking Dead” keeps its attention on people we care about, and that’s enough reason to have hope for the back half of the sixth season. Best of all, “No Way Out” — sharing a title with the 14th volume of the “Walking Dead” comic book by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard — shows that these people have the potential to change their behavior, even if it’s by staying in the same place.
“The Walking Dead” returns 9 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14 on AMC.
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