For years now I’ve been writing analysis, not reviews per se, of episodes of the Walking Dead. I’ve always marveled at their subtle use of symbolism, surprising utilization of foreshadowing, and slow development of theme and characterizations. They take chances with story structure, experimenting with nonlinear progression of the plot, flashbacks and cold openings, and “bottle episodes” meant to highlight the conflicts of just one character or small group of characters. Each individual episode would stand alone as an independent piece of storytelling, yet also provided a link to a greater arc that usually climaxed in the midseason finale, careened full speed into the second half of the season, and came together in a finale episode. However, this season I found such analysis difficult to do on one signal episode at a time. Although the episodes in season 6 did continue the use of unconventional story structure and progressed the development of certain characters, they seemed more to be leading up to the penultimate midseason destruction of the walls of the safe zone (and as the 2 minute extra scene showed, the first utterance of the name “Negan”). The themes that I loved to see explored in past seasons were boiled down to one oft asked question, “Is any place truly safe?” – a theme that answers itself as soon as the tower falls and the Walkers flood in. This season more than any is a season in which the viewer has to see the big picture and where each episode is leading rather than to watch each individual episode for the quality of the story told within it.
This is in no way to say the season was “bad” – or as some would argue, “jumped the shark” – it’s just to say it is different, and showrunner Scott Gimple has never shied away from unique before. Some of his best episodes utilized his trademarks of nonlinear storytelling (“Save the Last One”), irony and foreshadowing (“Pretty Much Dead Already”), characterization and symbolism (“Clear”) and symbolism. Ironically, some of his iconic episodes were in season 2, a season most criticized as being “too slow” yet had one of the biggest midseason reveals of the series. Season 2 showed the “slow build” of carefully stacked and crafted episode, and many of those episodes contained the elements of effective storytelling that I have come to expect from the show since Gimple took the reins as showrunner. So, when season 6 opened with a brilliant nonlinear structure, a trademark of Gimple’s, I expected another such season. “First Time Again’s” cold open was actually a midpoint event in the episode, with flashbacks leading up to the moment portrayed in a Hitchcock-esque black and white. The scenes jumped back and forth through time from past to present, leading us to the “plan” of Rick’s to draw the Walkers away from their inevitable parade to Alexandria’s door step by use of a slow motorcade led by Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha (a ride they would spend most of the season on). Flashback showed the citizens of Alexandria dealing with the fact that their safe community is, well, not safe, and that Pete’s son Ron is severely pissed off. There are some minor moments of conflict revealed between Morgan and Rick and Daryl and Rick, but the real battle of conflicting beliefs doesn’t occur until the next episode between “Kill or be killed” Carol and “Life is Precious” Ninja Morgan. Episode 1 set the scene that danger was afoot and the Alexandrians better toughen up or their community was as good as gone.
The second episode utilized flashback to examine the story of a minor character, Enid. Once again, a cold open was used to set the rest of the episode up, and Enid’s story is heartbreaking as the viewer sees why she is so distrustful. “JSS” also sets up a major character conflict in the season, Carol v Morgan. We see the unsuspecting and far too trusting Alexandrians be brutally murdered not by Walkers but by humans, a Manson-like cult of butchers who literally bathe in blood. The action was intense, and the fact that the Wolves attack took exactly 45 minutes and was “timed” by Carol’s kitchen timer was a fascinating use of real time story structure. Other than that, the episode did not have much “meat” to it. A battle of survival philosophies began (a debate that has been argued before between Rick and Shane in seasons 1 and 2), a flashback to show the harshness of survival was shown (another issue we have seen before), and a sanctuary was breached (the prison? the farm?) – all high points in the episode, but all done before throughout the series. “JSS” was a thrilling ride and you knew it was leading to something even bigger, but it wasn’t the kind of episode I could really “analyze.”
By the time “Thank You” aired, it was obvious the Gimple once again was employing “varying perspectives” in his episodes. The first half of the season takes place over the span of just 24 hours and each episodes show a different perspective of the same events and epoch of time. Episode 1 was outside the walls with the large group, episode 2 was inside the walls, episode 3 was “Glenn’s group” with some of Daryl and Rick’s point of view, and so on…..The big moment of course was the apparent “death” of Glenn, an event that once again manipulated point of view to make the viewer think he was dead, and showed a different point of view (Glenn’s this time) to inform us of his survival. Here I think is one of the best episodes in the 6a season. The journey of David trying to get home to his beloved Betsy before he dies and turns parallels Glenn’s journey to make it home to Maggie. Like David, Glenn appears to be unable to make it home to his wife and is taken by Walkers with no “closure” or goodbyes. Also, Heath learns a lesson about survival and how vicious the Walker world is as he is covered in blood, which he cannot distinguish if it is his friend’s or walker’s (as Michonne told him would happen). But the beauty of the episode is the journey home, what is learned, and what is left unfinished.
Next up is a series of episodes, all from within that 24 hour window, whose job it can only be to sustain our anticipation – and at times frustration – over learning Glenn’s ultimate fate. An entire 90 minutes is devoted to the back story of – Daryl? no – Deanna? no way – Father Gabriel? uhuh – Sasha? nope – MOGAN. I love Morgan, although I can’t stand his new found Zen-ness, but an entire extended episode devoted to him? That can only mean one thing – this demise. His master died because of his philosophy, and death seems to be the result of Morgan’s life sparing beliefs. Given who is coming in the season finale, I think we can guess Morgan’s fate and at whose hands. “Now” was, I believe, an attempt to get the viewer to care about Alexandrians before they get massacred yet again. I call it the “Woodbury Lesson,” a major flaw of season 3 in which the show didn’t let the viewer learn about the people who lived in Woodbury before executing them or saving them. “Now” suffered from the “Woodbury Mistake” but may have taken it over the line. Infuriating still is the episode “Always Accountable,” the only episode in which Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha get off their slow ride and have any lines or significant actions. Daryl gets kidnapped by Hewy, Lewy, and Dewy, while Abraham clears his past and comes on to Sasha. Other than that, this episode served only as the vehicle to introduce the Saviors and Dwight (whose name is never mentioned).
The pity of the season, despite it’s good moments and rising action, is that in order to tell the story of some lesser characters (Deanna, Jesse, and Morgan to an extent), most of our core group was sacrificed. Rosita, Tara (Tara who?), and Father Gabriel had little more than a walk on role. Maggie and Glenn were separated yet again, which seems to be the only way they develop, and characters like Sasha, Abraham, and Daryl are underused. Abraham, by the way, continues to impress. He’s got the best dialogue of anyone on the show, and the delivery of the lines is perfect. Abe’s PTSD feels very real to me and I love his bravado yet inner demons. He’s a character I’d like to get to know better, but he was regulated to one episode with fan favorite Daryl.
I do believe the series has gotten better at handling character development, and, for the record, I think season 4b, the season where the group was splintered after the prison fell, was the best of the series, not because the group was split up, but because they were together – paired up – and allowed to interact. The show is at it’s best when the characters interact WITH EACHOTHER and unfortunately we’ve seen very little of that this season. Rick has had few lines with Maggie all season, and he had only one small scene with Glenn, Daryl, or even Tara. I don’t think he’s spoken a word to Abraham all season, and I don’t recall Michonne speaking to anyone from our main group outside the walls. Abraham and Sasha reminded me how good the group interactions can be. This group works because they have chemistry, and it draws all of us into the story.
The reason the group wasn’t allowed to interact with each other was in fact the 24 hour time window of the season and the varying perceptions. I get that. The concept was brilliant and well done, but it did deprive us of seeing our heroes all together. That is why the episode by episode analysis doesn’t work. We are analyzing one day here, replayed through different lenses. Therefore to analyze it we must look not at each perspective, but how the different views come together as a whole, big story – the story of the day the walls fell in Alexandria. The story of the day Glenn almost died. The story of the day Alexandrians learned how to survive. The story of the day…..fill in the blank. After all, the day isn’t done yet, and neither is the story….
But for that, we must wait until February.
For now, we look at The Story of The Day as one whole complete package. Then, the season can make sense.