This Walking Dead review does not contain spoilers.
The problem with what I'm about to say regarding The Walking Dead's season 6 midseason premiere, "No Way Out," is that I've said it plenty of times before...only to be harshly proven wrong by the end of each 8-episode run. But here goes nothing: The Walking Dead has spun its best episode in years with "No Way Out," which was directed by the very capable Greg Nicotero and written by Seth Hoffman, who also penned the pretty action-packed "JSS."
First off, some people find fault with Nicotero's directing. His offerings are usually the trippiest of the bunch and are often experimental. Who can forget last year's surreal "What's Happened and What's Going On" and this year's "First Time Again"—the one with the black-and-white flashbacks? But Nicotero, whose directing I like just fine anyway, reels himself in a bit with "No Way Out," which takes its name directly from the Kirkman comics in the kind of nod to the source material that has been showrunner Scott Gimple's prerogative since taking over in season 4. Nicotero knows how to shoot epic action scenes, as evidenced in this year's season premiere, and those skills are put to excellent use here. Fans who are more interested in awesome zombie action than the slower narrative will be very pleased.
"No Way Out" does a great job of tying up loose ends from the first half of the season, while also introducing a couple of new things into the fold that will likely play out for the next seven episodes. While "First Time Again" very much felt like an episode leftover from season 5, with more violent Rick and lots of grim storytelling, "No Way Out" feels like a thesis statement for the show moving forward. Which is important, because I can't help but feel the weight of all the doom and gloom that this show has dished out for the past year and a half. From almost being eaten by cannibals to Rick's declaration that his people are "the walking dead," it's felt like I've been watching an endless loop of awfulness unfold for these characters. But "No Way Out" feels like the characters actually win in the end, and even gain something resembling...dare I say it...hope.
Yes, what really struck me about the episode was the hopefulness tying everything together, that the characters' faith in one another and a possible future is ultimately the subject of the episode. Somehow, these characters and this story get a second wind because of this. And a way out of the year and a half of shit-eating they've suffered. A good feeling unfolds in The Walking Dead for the first time in a long time.
The episode isn't without its faults, of course. And they're the largely annoying things that I've complained about since taking over as reviewer. There's one moment in particular that made me go a little crazy, about midway through the episode, because ENOUGH ALREADY. Sometimes, or maybe a lot of the time, The Walking Dead gets lazy and goes for the shock factor that is so severely cliché at this point. What I liked so much about "Thank You"—the season six episode with the controversial Glenn scene—is that it didn't tease, it didn't pull its punches. It just did the thing it threatened to do, and then mercilessly moved on, as if accepting the cruel world it had set up all the way in the first season.
Of course, everything that made that episode great was then undone a few episodes later. Because of prudishness. No, portraying so much violence and carnage isn't a sign of bravery for a modern scripted drama. Plenty of shows feature The Walking Dead's level of brutality. It's moving characters and stories forward, no matter the fan reaction or how it might change the dynamic of your show—something that needs to happen for a series in its sixth season anyway—that takes guts. Alexandria, for better or worse, did just that, even if the characters have been stuck in their "walking dead" mentality until now. The point is that "No Way Out" falls into the trap of false threats once again, even though the episode course corrects pretty quickly.
This midseason premiere is still a triumph. And guess what, I'm even excited about what might happen next! That's not something I express often enough in these reviews, although, like I said, I tend to end up with egg on my face when I do. Can The Walking Dead keep up its newfound spirit, its sense of hope, and maybe even take its storytelling to unexplored places? You're probably more of a gambler than I am at this point.
The Walking Dead returns on Feb. 14 on AMC.
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