The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live Episode 1 Review – Years

The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live debuts strongly as Rick meets the woman of his dreams in the midst of a waking nightmare.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Lesley-Ann Brandt as Thorne - The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live _ Season 1, Episode 1
Photo: Gene Page | AMC

This The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live review contains spoilers.

The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live Episode 1

The The Walking Dead saga was designed by Robert Kirkman and company to be like a zombie movie that never ends. No gaggle of rednecks wandering through the Pennsylvania woods drinking beer and taking potshots. No helicopter speeding off towards a Caribbean island. No nuclear weapons detonated over Louisville, Kentucky. The Walking Dead was supposed to live forever; to the credit of the show’s creative teams, it came pretty close. Eleven seasons of The Walking Dead, eight seasons of Fear The Walking Dead, two seasons of World Beyond, a season of Tales of the Walking Dead (with another coming), Dead City, Daryl Dixon, and probably more things in the tank for the future.

As for the now, The Ones Who Live is an attempt by Scott Gimple and stars Danai Gurira and Andrew Lincoln to put a big pretty bow on the whole main franchise by getting the apocalypse’s two favorite love-birds back together again. Of course, it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead if something like that were easy. In fact, from the title of the first episode, “Years,” it’s an easy guess that a Richonne reunion takes quite a bit of time and ropes in quite a bit of Walking Dead history in the process.

Good luck with keeping up with where things are happening in the greater chronology.

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The show opens and mostly closes with Rick (Andrew Lincoln, as grizzled as ever) watching television, a sure sign that the people of the CRM’s hidden city have things much easier than The Commonwealth or anyone else struggling for survival out in the wilderness. Rick is watching news footage of the destruction of Omaha, one of the three rings on the CRM flag along with Secret City (presumably somewhere in Pennsylvania as revealed by conversations later) and Portland. The walls were breached, zombies stormed the place, people holed themselves up in a building but ended up turning and going delta (the CRM word for zombies). It’s an effective big of propaganda to remind the people of Secret City to stay within their walls and keep their mouths shut; viewers of World Beyond know the real story of what happened to Omaha and the CRM’s tendency to liquidate communities, and no doubt Rick has his own suspicions given the world he’s joined.

It’s a world he’s desperately tried to get away from. After his third escape attempt, where he tried to throw the message in a bottle into the river as seen in The Walking Dead series finale, he’s running out of rope, literally. Rick is kept on a leash like a rambunctious three-year-old. It’s been five years since the bridge collapse, and five years since he’s seen his family. But, it’s Rick, and Rick always has a plan. A wrist strap will only keep you secured if you still have a wrist, and Rick’s willing to turn that into a stump to try and get away from the CRM. His escape attempt fails, but he proves something to his handler Okafor (Craig Tate). Rick’s got what it takes to lead.

But, it’s Rick, so he has to be convinced. Rick, down one hand, takes his place on the kill line, bashing zombies with a poking stick day after day after day. When he falls down, Okafor is there to protect him. He’s taken a special interest in Rick and fellow consignee Thorne (Lesley-Ann Brandt), because Okafor is one of those pesky “make the system better from inside” revolutionaries, putting him at philosophical odds with Major General Beale (Terry O’Quinn) and the rest of the army.

To no one’s surprise, the CRM and the city they protect run completely separately; the city doesn’t know what the CRM does, and they don’t want to know. The city rules the inside; the army rules the outside. It’s all a familiar set-up and no doubt Rick knows how it’s going to end. But, he can’t quite seem to get away from Okafor, who won’t give up on Rick because he needs him on the inside to pull off his relatively bloodless revolution.

Okafor has plans, and knows things that even the rank-and-file of the CRM don’t; he’s one of the troops with the blood stripe on their pants, and he seems to be willing to let Rick and Thorne in on the game if they’re willing to make the right actions when the time comes. Thorne has given up trying to get home to South Africa, and Rick? Well, after one last aborted escape attempt and one last lesson in keeping things secret (don’t keep pictures, maps, and write letters to your family if you don’t want people to know you have a family), Rick seems to finally give in, sparked in no small way by the footage of Omaha burning and Okafor’s briefings about just what the military is doing without supervision in the great wide world. Including, suspiciously, setting up a forward-operating base in the Cascades, conveniently close to Portland.

Interspersed throughout the episode are Rick’s dream sequences, which involve him sitting at a park in New Jersey, looking across the river at what appears to be the pre-apocalypse New York City skyline, and eating lunch with a well-dressed version of Michonne (Danai Gurira). The initial meet cute ends up becoming part fantasy, part therapy session for Rick, as Dream Michonne counsels him obliquely through every step of his journey towards accepting Okafor’s offers; first, he accepts the offer to join the military because of Dream Michonne, then he accepts a spot in the conspiracy after Dream Michonne tells him that the whole world can be ours if we want it. “We might not be where we want to be, but we’re not stuck,” she reminds him.

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Like most of Rick’s dreams, this one turns very quickly into a nightmare. When the helicopter he’s riding in gets fired on and Okafor gets exploded next to him, Rick is forced to make a hard landing and bail out with his remaining squad mates. One by one, the others are taken out, by long distance explosive or by close-in stabbing, until Rick, scrambling for his life, rolls over with his gun and finds himself face to face with the literal woman of his dreams, Michonne.

It’s a well-constructed return to the Walking Dead universe for Rick and Michonne, and there are enough reminders of things from the past to show that great care was taken in crafting the episode from Scott Gimple (with story credits for both Danai Gurira and Andrew Lincoln, who were clearly heavily involved with their characters’ return). The little nods to Rick’s past via the phones and the show’s spin-offs with the destruction of Omaha at the hands of the CRM and the shots of Dead City-era New York help to bring the universe together a little more cohesively.

Obviously, it’s a Rick-heavy episode, given we only see Michonne in dream sequences, and it’s very heavy on narration, but it kind of has to be as it’s synthesizing five years plus of Rick being separated from everyone else. The letter conceit works to explain why Rick is telling us this story as we see little bits and pieces of it on screen; there’s no way they could cover so much time in six episodes, let alone advance the story, but Andrew Lincoln remains a magnetic presence, and he’s surrounded by great performers in Lesley-Ann Brandt, Craig Tate, Frankie Quinones (as Rick’s very likable buddy Esteban), and Terry O’Quinn (a great authority figure that brings menace from the first moment he shows up on screen and sits next to Rick to grill him on Okafor’s activities).

Given their director credits, it’s not a surprise that Bert and Bertie do as well with the action sequences as they do with the plot elements. However, what surprised the most was the deft way with which the directors and the actors handled the romantic comedy elements of Rick and Michonne’s dream meet cute. A thing that shouldn’t work does, and that’s a testament to the amount of care put into both script and performance.

Both actors are obviously skilled, and capable of more than what is typically asked of them on The Walking Dead, but the scenes in which they sit on the bench and flirt with one another have no right working as well as they do. The characters are connected with one another; a meet-cute between two cleaned up versions of the two shouldn’t work as well as it does, and yet it’s some of better elements of the episode and a lovely little counterpoint to all of the grimdark military marauding throughout. The break from the formula only makes Rick’s reality feel that much heavier, even if it’s a bit on the nose at times.

If Rick and Michonne end up getting a happy ending with five pizzas and a wedding ring, it’s because Lincoln and Gurira do a great job of selling it in Rick’s dream-scape. Reconnecting them immediately at the end of the first episode is also a great move; fans don’t necessarily want to see how the two get back together, just that they do get back together and kick Terry O’Quinn’s ass. The little dream-drips were nice; getting the two back together, face to face, is enough to remind the world why the characters remain vital after a decade-plus.

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There’s still life in The Walking Dead franchise after all these years. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Simply bringing back characters people want to see in interesting, relatively fresh situations should be enough. It’s certainly enough to power six episodes (and probably more) of a really good spin-off show.

New episodes of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.


4 out of 5