The folks at AMC gave viewers a special valentine tonight: Mercifully killing off a handful of terrible characters on the midseason premiere of "The Walking Dead." Sure, you could argue that counterprogramming the traditional Valentine's Day lovefest with a blood-soaked zombiefest is a bit twisted; then again, there were plenty of pink entrails and gaping red wounds to fit the holiday theme.
Getting straight to our not-so-dearly-departed, I couldn't be happier to say goodbye to sad sack Sam, bland blonde Jessie, and major tool Ron (so terrible that I couldn't be bothered to come up with an appropriate alliteration). The remaining members of Pete's family were taken out in one gory fell swoop thanks to Sam having a complete meltdown at the worst moment: surrounded by a horde of ravenous zombies. As I predicted in my midseason premiere preview, the plan to stealthily sneak through the stream of walkers (masked by those trusty zombie gut-drenched ponchos) seemed doomed from the start, thanks to Sam's already-frayed nerves and a proven inability to keep quiet when it counts. That they made it so far past Jessie's front porch in the first place was a miracle, but the good fortune wasn't meant to last.
As Carol's words from season five rang in his head – threatening to let the walkers "tear you apart and eat you up while you're still alive" – Sam stopped in his tracks, frozen in fear as he gazed at the gruesome walkers shambling past them. As his vocal refusal to rejoin the group becomes louder and louder, he attracts a few attackers, who eagerly chomp down on his head in a sudden – but not entirely surprising – moment of horror. Jessie, naturally, loses it, screaming in anguish over her youngest son and calling attention to even more zombies, who quickly take her down, too. Rick stands staring, muttering a few pitiful "No"s, as visions of her smiling face flash through his thoughts. His dreams of continued makeout sessions with the comely hairdresser are being devoured before his eyes, but he has no time to mourn, since more zombies are rapidly approaching to investigate these fresh kills.
Soon, there's another quick sequence of carnage. As Rick, Carl, and Michonne attempt to flee, Jessie's now-rigid hand remains clamped firmly around Carl's wrist, preventing him from escaping. Naturally, this necessitates Rick chopping off Jessie's hand with the axe he just happens to be carrying (deus axe machina, anyone?), and this is when Ron has his own freakout. He grabs Carl's fallen gun and aims it straight at Rick, cursing the constable who upended his life when he waltzed into the commune. Ron tries to shoot the sheriff's deputy, but is thwarted by Michonne, who impales him with her katana. The gun goes off anyway, though, and grazes Carl's face, effectively taking out his eyeball in the process (shout-out to the gag-inducing closeup of that wound we're treated to later in the episode). Carl collapses, and a weeping Rick scoops his son into his arms, while he and Michonne bolt for the infirmary.
I should back up a bit to say that I have no idea why or how it was suddenly nightfall when all this went down; as far as I could tell, the sun hadn't even begun to set yet when the episode started. Surely watching Gabriel walk purposefully toward the church with Judith hidden under his innard poncho didn't take three hours? Then again, everything Gabriel does is tinged with failure, so perhaps he's also the slowest walker (even slower than the walkers) on Earth?
Regardless of the wonky timeline, the main action's pitch-black setting conveniently made the episode's explosive climax burn all the brighter. Proving that Abraham grabbing that grenade-launcher back in episode six wasn't purely an ego-boosting decision, Daryl makes use of the badass weapon by emptying the recently-procured fuel tank into Alexandria's central pond and then lighting it up with his new favorite toy. The blaze attracts the walkers, who flock to the light like moths to a flame, distracting them enough to make them easier targets for the Alexandrians to take down, one by one. (A few walkers also amble directly into the flames, a nice nod to the big burning barn set piece from way back in season two.)
Despite all of Rick's (and my) many doubts about their fitness for survival, the Alexandrians finally make a convincing case for their usefulness in this installment, readily (and more importantly, ably – thanks for the machete lessons, Rosita!) assisting in Rick's big stand against the invading horde. What started as a one-man operation – fueled in part by his grief over Carl's uncertain fate and the loss of his new love – quickly morphed into the entire community battling to take back their town, their ranks ballooning to include more familiar faces like Heath, Aaron, and Spencer, as well as peripheral characters like pantry proprietor Olivia and Aaron's boyfriend, Eric. Watching Olivia eagerly rush out of her house wielding a machete made me particularly happy, since the last time there was an attack on Alexandria (when the Wolves first appeared), Carol found her cowering in a closet.
But there's no more cowering now, not even for Father Gabriel, who despite his past penchant for being the worst at everything – and afraid of everything, too – decides that he must leave the church to fight, because it's what God wants the Alexandrians to do. "God will save Alexandria," he tells his frightened parishioners, "because God has given us the courage to save it ourselves." I never thought I'd say this where Gabriel was concerned, but: Amen, Father.
And save it, they do. In an exhilarating, expertly choreographed, and cleverly photographed action sequence, we see each individual take on the walkers, first in profile, and then in a quick-cut montage facing the camera, as if their targets were perched just behind the lens. (Kudos to director Greg Nicotero – who's also the makeup artist responsible for all of the show's incredibly nasty-looking zombies – for that inspired bit of staging.) They swing, stab, punch, grunt, growl, and snarl their way through making sure none of the undead will rise again, until by the time morning comes, all that's left of the infiltrating horde is a bunch of corpses scattered throughout the streets. Here's hoping Deanna had plans for a DPW crew, because cleanup is going to be a bitch.
With the town safe for now, Rick holds vigil at Carl's bedside, clutching his unconscious son's hand as he marvels at the Alexandrians' fortitude, telling Carl he was wrong about them, and that he believes a future is possible there after all. "There'll be more," he says, echoing Deanna's words from earlier this season. "There's gotta be more." Rick has struggled the most with his place in Alexandria, determined to lead while questioning if it was really worth it with these particular people by his side. But after their big rally against the zombies, he said, he finally feels the sense of home he's been missing since before he woke up from his coma in the series premiere – and he wants Carl to be there to share this brave new world with him.
Fortunately for the constable, Carl (who'll soon sport a badass eyepatch, if those accidentally leaked international promos are correct) chooses that convenient moment to squeeze his hand in return, assuring Rick that he'll survive. Unfortunately, Rick's change of heart – and willingness to become comfortable and complacent – comes just as his community's biggest threat, Negan, looms nearby.
"The Walking Dead"'s biggest baddie is present in name only for now, popping up in the episode's first few minutes (some of which audiences saw in the sneak peek prologue that was released after the midseason finale back in November). The action begins with Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham confronted by a greasy-looking biker and his gang, who are armed to the teeth and demand the trio turn over their weapons, truck, and all its contents. "Your property now belongs to Negan," Gross Guy sneers, adding that his mysterious boss would definitely want to meet the type of industrious people who can get their hands on a tanker. (Honestly, I found his attempts at being menacing more comical than chill-inducing, especially his sing-songy "ding-dong, hell's bells" refrain while wielding dueling guns. That cringeworthy attempt at a sinister power move was completely unconvincing, and unintentionally hilarious.)
He sends one of his henchmen to search the truck with Daryl while he holds Sasha and Abraham at gunpoint, continually threatening to shoot them -- then pulling back at the last second – because they dared to ask questions about Negan and the rest of his community. Just as Gross Guy decides, shucks, he's totally going to kill them anyway, Daryl responds by blowing them the hell up, thanks to that trusty grenade-launcher. (Did I call that Chekhov's gun thing, or what?) "Nibble on that," Abraham taunts the charred severed head of Gross Guy as they hop into the truck and make a break for Alexandria.
We know it's only a matter of when, not if, Negan and his surviving henchmen will get their revenge, and I'm bracing for the horror ahead. But at least we got twin RPG fireballs to bookend this episode. In the world of "The Walking Dead," we'll take whatever small victories we can get.
- I was really hoping that Daryl would wield his crossbow in this episode, making it easier for me to make a Valentine's Day joke comparing him to Cupid. Alas, his newfound love for that grenade launcher thwarted my
- Maggie and Glenn were kinda-sorta reunited tonight, though much like I expected, it wasn't much of an emotional highlight. They were right in the midst of trying to save each other from the encroaching horde (he while drawing the zombies away from her wobbling platform; she while trying to call them back to prevent them from overwhelming and consuming him) when Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham pulled up, mowing down the walkers with machine guns and allowing Glenn to break free. Maggie then joined the fight on the ground, while Glenn assisted Daryl in dumping the fuel, then also took on the undead. No time to kiss the wife when you're engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a bunch of walking corpses.
- Poor Glenn once again spent the bulk of his screen time bantering with wet blanket Enid, encouraging her to give a damn about surviving to honor her deceased loved ones. Glenn listed the people he's remembering through his continued will to exist, calling back to those lost long ago, including Dale, Herschel, Andrea, and Tyreese. (Hilariously missing from his list are Lori and Shane, who were the worst, and T-Dog, who everyone seemed to forget existed even when he was still alive. Poor T-Dog.)
- Father Gabriel really did improve a lot this episode, though I found it amusing that he promised Rick he would protect Judith, and then promptly handed her off to a stranger while he ran to join the zombie fight. (Also, perhaps a miniature wooden crucifix isn't the safest toy to give a teething toddler, Father?)
- Jessie asked Gabriel to take Sam with him, too, but Sam insisted on remaining with the group, promising his mother, "I can keep going." That worked out well for everyone. (And for the second episode in a row, Judith showed up Sam in the staying quiet department. This kid is definitely a Grimes.)
- When Carl tries to grab Ron's hand, Ron looks at it as if Carl has cooties, before gingerly grabbing it, barely concealing his disgust. To be fair, I wouldn't really want to hold hands with Carl, either. Then again, the very thought of doing so doesn't make me want to shoot him in the face, so I suppose that's where Ron and I differ.
- It looks like I was wrong about the Wolves returning, since the lone remainder who took Denise hostage ended up dead by episode's end. He tried to make a break for the watchtower, Denise in tow, but the doctor got caught up by some errant walkers, and the Wolf doubled back to free her, getting bitten in the process. Denise tells him he can survive if they rush to the infirmary – presumably to amputate his arm – and also makes the point that the Wolf didn't need to save her, and maybe he has changed his ways after all (circling back to their talk in the midseason finale). Then, Carol shoots him. So much for that. (Though honestly, good riddance to this tiresome storyline. Carol needs something better to do than have the same circuitous conversion with Morgan about morality over and over again, and I was really sick of looking at that Wolf's grimy mug.)
- Speaking of Carol, her hair has been growing out, and it kind of looks like she has a mini-mullet. Too bad the town's only hairdresser is dead now.
- When Heath and Aaron decide to help Rick, Spencer can't hide his skepticism about joining this particular fight. His hesitance here is telling: Everyone else is willing to accept that Rick's in charge now, and work together to protect Alexandria. Though Spencer does eventually pitch in with the zombie battle, I'm not convinced that he's completely on Rick's side just yet.
- Welcome back to our weekly TWD recaps! This episode was easily one of the best midseason premieres the show has aired in years, making me cautiously optimistic about the back half of this season. Naturally, by next week, something terrible will happen and make me angry again. See you then, everyone.
Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC