Review

Tensions are high but stakes are low on the midseason premiere of 'The Walking Dead'

When all is said and done at the midseason premiere of the sixth season of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” only a single question remains: What happens in the zombie apocalypse when the imminent threat of zombies is contained?

For nearly six full seasons, the scrappy band of survivors led by Rick (Andrew Lincoln) have battled against the plague of walkers that threatened their safety at each turn, before finally holing up in Alexandria, a seemingly safe haven. But in November’s midseason finale, the walls of Alexandria were breached, leaving Rick’s crew vulnerable yet again.

Yet despite all odds, “No Way Out” ends with the zombie threat contained, thanks to a timely save by Daryl (Norman Reedus), and all of “The Walking Dead” primary players still (relatively) unscathed. If Alexandria can be transformed into the refuge it was always thought to be, then what will serve as the story engine as the series heads into the back half of the season?

The answer was likely provided in the first four minutes of the episode.

“No Way Out” begins where the post-credits sequence of “Start to Finish” leaves off, with Daryl, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) cornered by a gang who works under the control of a mysterious figure named Negan. The scene is four minutes of tension, deftly directed by Greg Nicotero, that ends with Daryl blowing up his enemies, as he so often does. But the specter of Negan looms.

With Daryl’s gang returning to Alexandria to save the day by episode’s end, it seems clear that the main purpose of the opening scene, outside of picking up where the cliffhanger left off, is to lay the groundwork for the enemy to come.

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Fans of “The Walking Dead” series of graphic novels know exactly who Negan is as well as what makes him an equivalent threat to a never-ending horde of zombies. Yet presumably, there are millions of people within “The Walking Dead” audience who have no idea that they should view the opening scene as an indication of things to come.

At least in theory.

One issue with modern television, even more than alternate modes of distribution or peak TV is that it exists in the world of Wikipedia. Being based on a graphic novel series means that there exists multiple compendiums that an unitiated viewer could search for if they wanted to know just who Negan is and why it’s such a big deal he’s entering the story at this juncture.

It makes for a difficult balance for the show to strike, managing the expectations of the uninitiated against those of superfans and it makes it difficult to discern whether the material is still engaging for individuals who may not know what the future holds or that, worse yet, only know because they Googled it.

As ridiculous as it may sound, another issue that “The Walking Dead” struggles with in “No Way Out” believability. Sure, this is a group of individuals struggling to survive a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but often, even given the circumstances, the characters make choices that just don’t make sense.

When, amid a passel of walkers, young Sam Anderson (Major Dodson) freezes in terror, unable to proceed and ultimately being torn apart by zombies, natural-born leader Rick stands dumbly and watches it happen. The same goes for when Sam’s mother, Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge), Rick’s girlfriend, gets taken down moments later. It’s only after Ron Anderson (Austin Abrams) gets run through by Michonne (Danai Gurira) amid shooting Carl (Chandler Riggs) in the face that Rick truly springs into action, picking up Carl and racing with him to the hospital.

The problem is that if Rick had taken that same action when Sam was stupefied, the whole of his gang would have escaped to relative safely. Conversely, if Jessie had the good sense to send PTSD-stricken Sam along with Gabriel when he secreted Judith to safety, she and her sons would also be alive.

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There was no end of bloodshed in the episode, with the entire Anderson clan dying, Wolf (Benedict Samuel) getting shot by Carol (Melissa McBride) and eventually taken down by walkers, and Carl getting his eye shot out, yet all of “The Walking Dead” main players remain unscathed.

After the disaster that was the “Is Glenn (Steven Yeun) Dead” falderal in the first half of season six, the stakes on the series have been dramatically lowered, because it hasn’t killed off a main players since season three. Even Beth’s (Emily Kinney) death in season five lost much of its sting as she was only part of the main cast for a single season.

Even with stakes lowered, having the whole of the cast reunited by episode’s end is a seductive setup for season six’s final seven episodes. The question is only whether “The Walking Dead” can find a way to raise the stakes even as the zombie threat is kept at bay.

libby.hill@latimes.com

Follow me @midwestspitfire

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