Let's make one thing clear: "No Way Out," the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead's sixth season, is a pretty good episode of The Walking Dead.
It's not great, but it leans into one of the few things the show has always done well: massive zombie attacks. And it sheds some blood, chewing through a number of minor characters and badly injuring a fairly major one.
But it's still hard to deny that Alexandria increasingly feels like a narrative dead end, where the characters are trapped and nothing bad can happen to anybody who appears in The Walking Dead's opening credits. Indeed, "No Way Out" takes this to ridiculous extremes. Here's how.
1) Carl is shot through the eye — and survives
Look, can you survive being shot through the eye? If the bullet goes in just the right direction, sure. And something similar happened to Carl in the source comics (though the timing was quite a bit different), so it's not as if the show is just making stuff up.
But at the same time, c'mon. In a season where the most persistent criticism of The Walking Dead has been that the main characters survive tremendous ordeals that would claim the lives of most, sapping the show of whatever tension it still possesses, Carl's survival feels a little like rubbing salt in a wound.
Fortunately for the show, it only feels like that when you reflect on the episode after the fact. In the moment itself, Carl getting shot is the pinnacle of a long, gory sequence during which a fair number of recurring characters die (more on this in item number three, below). It also brings to a head the conflict between Ron and the Grimes guys, as Ron fires the bullet that goes through Carl's eye, after aiming his gun at Rick. (Michonne stabs Ron before he can shoot Rick, but not before he can pull the trigger.)
That's all well and good, because it adds to the chaos of the zombie attack on Alexandria, and it ups the stakes for what happens later in the episode, when Rick attempts to take on the entire horde by himself. In some ways, the problem with Alexandria has always been that it doesn't particularly feel like a place worth fighting for. The events of this episode don't exactly fix that, but with the amount of effort Rick expends to save it, you find yourself sort of hoping things will work out anyway.
It's still pretty dumb to have Carl's near-death experience come so soon after Glenn's, though. Especially because "No Way Out" does the same thing with Glenn all over again.
2) Glenn and Maggie both almost die, then don't
At this point, the show's attempts to put Glenn in danger come off like sick jokes, as if it's trying to taunt us with how little danger any of these characters can be in.
Indeed, there's almost a bit of self-awareness to how the story proceeds, with Glenn telling Enid that so long as he's alive, he functions as a sort of living tribute to a whole bunch of characters who've died in prior seasons. That's kind of a neat notion — it casts the five characters who've been with The Walking Dead for all six seasons (Rick, Carl, Glenn, Carol, and Daryl) as a throughline that holds everything together.
But it's also a good reminder of why the show's zombies need to have some, er, teeth to them if The Walking Dead wants to be as compelling as it can be. The long segment of "No Way Out" when Glenn is trying to save Maggie's tower from collapsing under the weight of the zombies pressed around it by firing his gun indiscriminately into the horde simply lack tension, because we're pretty sure neither character is in danger. So everything that happens is essentially just a way to kill time. Plus, the characters are saved by a deus ex machina (more on this in item number five, below).
3) The Anderson family is wiped out in a matter of minutes
I alluded to this above, but it's worth discussing again, because it illustrates how well The Walking Dead can still produce moments of absolute panic and despair. It also illustrates how those moments of absolute panic and despair increasingly only apply to minor characters.
First, young Sam, petrified of the monsters around him, starts to whimper about how he doesn't want to press on. (Remember: The characters are walking amid a huge group of zombies, hidden by the scent of fresh zombie guts on their clothes.) As it slowly becomes more and more clear that he's not a zombie, the horde descends upon him, devouring him.
Jessie, his mother, begins to cry, as you'd expect she would, which marks her as the zombies' next target. Then Ron, with his entire family killed either at Rick's hands (his dad) or by Rick's messed-up planning skills (his brother and mom), turns his gun toward Rick and is stabbed by Michonne.
The sequence is rather notable for how brutal it is. Greg Nicotero, The Walking Dead's zombie makeup designer, directed "No Way Out," and he's at his best when he conveys just how hopeless everything seems to the characters.
Nicotero later flips this idea into a pretty nifty montage of the characters (including several previously nondescript Alexandrians) fighting back against the horde, until it's finally subdued. The scenes feel less like The Walking Dead show and more like something out of Lord of the Rings — but maybe that's what the series needed to do to justify the amount of effort it has put into keeping Alexandria around as a setting, and to prove that effort wasn't empty.
4) The Wolf whom Morgan kept alive also dies
I'll be honest: This death hit me harder than any of the Andersons' deaths. Most of that has to do with how weakly the Andersons were depicted. A bit of it has to do with how The Walking Dead presented the Wolf's final act of self-sacrifice as a tiny morality play.
But the biggest reason this moment succeeds has to do with how it dovetails with Morgan's storyline, which is the best thing season six has going for it. Since he became convinced that human beings were capable of reform and redemption, Morgan has become a necessary counterpoint to many of The Walking Dead's other characters, and the scenes that focus on him and give us a glimpse of his viewpoint are the best the show currently has to offer.
The Wolf's eventual death is particularly notable for the way that the spirit of trying to save others filters out first to the Wolf (who turns back to help Denise when she's almost certainly dead) and then to Denise (who offers to save his life). Ultimately, Carol shoots the Wolf, and he falls prey to the horde. But when Morgan comes upon his zombified corpse, gnashing its teeth, there's a surprising amount of feeling there.
5) Daryl and company come across some foreshadowing
But let's get back to the main characters surviving seemingly horrible situations through improbable fashion...
"No Way Out" opens with Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha encountering a small crew of motorcyclists blocking their path forward. After disarming the trio, the head motorcycle dude says that everything they have now belongs to a man named Negan — and maybe the motorcycle gang should head back to wherever Daryl and his pals call home to scope that out, too.
For a few seasons now, The Walking Dead has sort of awkwardly been shifting its focus from "the zombies are the threat" to "the real issue is other people," with greater success in some storylines than in others. Negan is a familiar name to anyone who's read the comics (and if you're one of those people, some of the complaints I detailed above might seem silly). But to viewers at home he is a new, creepy mystery.
So far, so good. But then Daryl goes around the back of the military vehicle that he, Abraham, and Sasha have been traveling in, because the motorcyclists want to search it. There, Daryl apparently grabs the rocket launcher (off-camera) and uses it to blow up the motorcycles. It's a classic situation where salvation arrives somewhat improbably, partially through the characters' ingenuity but mostly through dumb luck. The same type of scenario plays out later in the episode, when Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha save Glenn from the horde around Maggie's tower by showing up just in time for their extra guns to make the difference.
Maybe The Walking Dead is playing some tricks with karma. Maybe its characters are escaping a lot of close shaves and benefiting from some dumb luck because death and disaster are going to come down heavily upon them in the weeks to come. And if that's the case, it will probably play well in a binge somewhere down the line. But on a week-to-week basis, this constant series of near misses is getting exhausting.
Tell me what you think in comments. I'll be by to chat for 90 minutes at noon Eastern.
And while you're down there, answer my question as well: What's the best fictional love story? It can be from film, TV, music, books, video games, you name it. What's your favorite tale of romance?