Way back in the second week of season six, I praised the way The Walking Dead was increasingly using its cold opens — the short bits of the episode that happen before the opening credits and are meant to entice us to keep watching — to tell stories in a more artful and intriguing fashion.
By and large, this has been true, but this half-season of the show has put that to the test all the same, reaching its nadir in "Start to Finish," an unusually listless and muddled midseason finale. At the end of the cold open — meant to make us shout, "Oh, my God!" and want desperately to keep watching, I'll remind you — we learned that a young boy had only eaten half of his cookie. Ants were eating the other half.
It was meant as foreshadowing. (That young boy, Sam, would later factor into the episode's cliffhanger, which I'll discuss in a bit.) But in the moment, it played as showrunner Scott M. Gimple's love for breaking apart stories and telling them piecemeal taken to almost ridiculous lengths. Before we could see the horde invade Alexandria from every perspective, we needed to spend some time with this little kid? Really? The Walking Dead has told stories about growing up in the zombie apocalypse — sometimes with great success, as in season four's tremendous "The Grove" — but this one felt like a retread.
And, really, that's the problem the show as a whole is facing. It knows where it wants to go, but it's stuck in the old patterns that have defined it, forced to tell smaller and smaller stories, because it can't blow itself up on a weekly basis anymore. In its middle age, The Walking Dead has begun to settle down, but it's not sure how to do that just yet.
Check out some of the ways it's held back by its past, even as it looks toward a new future.
1) By episode's end, the status quo is almost completely reasserted
Remember how season five ended with Rick looking like he'd completely lost it, while Morgan strode into Alexandria, cool as a cucumber? I'm not saying I wanted to see Rick completely lose his mind and Morgan take over the group — though the latter might have made for an interesting arc — but it seemed as if the show forgot about this entirely.
What I'm saying is that when season six began, Rick was just commandingly making plans to rid the quarry of its zombie horde, Morgan was a bit of an outsider with unorthodox ideas on life and death, and it was only a matter of time before Rick took over Alexandria, too. By the middle of the half-season, Deanna was all but handing him the job, and by the end of this episode, she's presumed dead (more on this in a moment), while he's leading a bunch of people to the armory.
I'm not just talking about anything so simple as Rick being back in charge of the group, either. That, sadly, is something the show seems to think is necessary to its very core being. No, I mean that any time there seems to be a potentially interesting development or conflict — like, say, Morgan and Carol fighting over the value of the lone Wolf's life — it's resolved in a fashion that directly leads back to the show returning to its status quo. (In this case, Carol is proved correct. The world is still a cruel and random place, and Morgan is wrong — or at least naive — to want to change it.)
2) Nobody seems likely to die any more
When The Walking Dead was at the height of its "can you believe that?!" power, it was killing off characters left and right. Dale and Shane (remember those guys?) died an episode apart. Lori took a little longer but died in deeply sad fashion in the fourth episode of season three, when no one was expecting it.
Even in seasons four and five, the show could find a character or two to kill or write out in a way that would underline the stakes of the series. When Carol seemed to leave the show for a while in season four, her absence still felt like it might be permanent, and when, say, Beth died as recently as season five, it was both surprising and inevitable — the very best kind of TV death.
But with Glenn's improbable survival, the show has thrown a lot of that out the window. Tell me honestly: Were you at all scared that Maggie was going to die when she dangled above that pit of zombies? How about when Rick and the crew wandered out into the horde of zombies to make it to the armory? No? Me neither. The tease of Negan in the post-episode scene suggests that actual stakes may return to the show at some point — but that raises the idea that only the characters who've been hurt in the comics can be hurt on the show, something the series has never abided by in the past.
This has so hurt the The Walking Dead that I find myself wondering if Deanna survived, even as she appeared to have been bitten by zombies and then faced down a hallway of them who were charging toward her. Could the show hand-wave this away? Sure! (It won't, of course, but my point is that the Glenn non-death robs even this potentially dramatic moment of much of its power.)
The problem The Walking Dead faces right now is that a lot of the next characters who will perish are logically going to be Alexandrians — and the show hasn't done nearly enough to set up any of them who aren't named Enid or maybe Denise (who's mostly interesting because she's played by Merritt Wever). Are you really interested in the further adventures of Ron and Sam? I didn't imagine so.
3) Alexandria remains more of a symbol than a storytelling focus
The idea of these characters settling down and trying to rebuild society is terrific in theory. I think I've said this every single week since season six began. But the show's actual follow-through has mostly involved a lot of sitting around and talking about what society means. Alexandria is full of characters who tell us what they're all about, rather than demonstrating it, because The Walking Dead has always struggled to dramatize philosophical conflicts unless they can be best expressed via action sequence.
The series has always worked best with a smaller, tighter ensemble of characters, one where it feels like danger could lurk around any corner. And that's antithetical to the small-town show (which is what the Alexandria episodes are trying to be), where part of the fun is in the presumed safety and security of "home base." Even if the wilderness is filled with monsters, the town at the center is relatively peaceful and serene.
In short, becoming a show about the meaning of society requires The Walking Dead to completely pivot away from what it has been and become something different. And I'm not sure it's capable of doing so this late in the game. I love watching it try — and I very much hope it succeeds — but it's probably not a good sign that when the zombies were rambling around Alexandria, I found myself thinking that everybody should just get the hell out of there and go somewhere else.
4) Rick is always right. Rick is always right. Rick is always right. Repeat forever.
At times, The Walking Dead has considered punching a hole in the impermeable shell of righteousness that surrounds its hero. Then, at every turn, it's backed away and said, "Nah. Let's not do that."
As mentioned above, this season was a prime time for The Walking Dead to knock Rick down a few pegs. He had been diminished in the eyes of others at the end of season five, and then season six opened with a self-evidently stupid plan of his backfiring big time. It would have made a lot of sense for essentially everybody around Rick to tell him that he was out of control and needed to step back for the good of the group. Even if he had eventually made his way back into power — which, let's face it, he would have — he would have had to work for it, which would've been more interesting.
Instead, we're stuck with a scenario in which Rick's plans continue to be praised as utter genius, even though the audience can see right through them. The show's insistence on making sure he is never truly at fault has always been its Achilles heel, and it's too bad to see that Gimple, who's generally been good about shaking off some of the other major problems with the show, has never quite lost this one.
5) The series has resurrected the idea of zombie guts masking one's scent from other zombies
This has always been one of The Walking's dumber ideas — to the degree that it's seemed to occasionally pretend as if this had never happened back in season one.
Yes, Rick and the gang once escaped a horde by covering themselves in zombie guts so they smelled like the other zombies, but it was so early in the show that it was surely just trying things, right?
Well, the idea comes back in tonight's cliffhanger, as Rick, Michonne, Carl, Father Gabriel, Jessie, and her sons head out into the horde, guts strewn all over their bodies. Young Sam starts calling for his mother as they enter the zombie block party, which should presumably alert the monsters to the presence of living flesh — which won't be good for anybody, except for the main characters, who will survive without a scratch on them.
The major problem with the zombie guts scenario is that it makes you wonder why the characters aren't always covered in zombie guts when they go out into the wilderness or just, y'know, hang out at home. If that's how they're going to be safest, wouldn't they go out of their way to do just that? It's always been a dumb plot point that the show was right to pretend didn't exist.
But its use here underlines the show's central dilemma in even more pressing detail. Just when The Walking Dead wants to take flight and become something else, it's held back by its own history. It's trying to be a show about building society, but it's always going to have to keep giving us zombies — and those two goals may, ultimately, not be compatible.