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“The Walking Dead” returned this past Valentine’s Day with a mid-season premiere that leaped back into the siege of Alexandria, culminating in its liberation as well as the convergence of our favorite group of survivors. The episode held the hefty ambition of tying together every conflict and character arc left loose in the last half-season’s cliffhanger. The narrative continuously jumps between four to five perspectives in a matter of minutes, resulting in a busy, muddled, and whiplash-inducing experience. Yet with an estimated death toll of 800 zombies and four semi-important characters, the episode is a genuine blast to view, delivering gleefully wicked and sadistic deaths to rival those in “Game of Thrones.” “No Way Out” seems to have been a field day for the show’s writers, granting them a full hour to clumsily kill off any character they felt tired of writing about and to nix several character arcs out of necessity and/or fatigue.
The opening moments slingshot Daryl (Norman Reedus), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) into the hands of Negan’s goons, who force their way into an already busy episode. Even so, the sequence established Negan as a promising villain who could rival “The Governor” in his cruelty and psychopathy. The writers cleverly subverted the show’s tense Mexican standoff routine by replacing Daryl’s signature crossbow with a bazooka. Daryl and his deus-ex-bazooka later become an preposterously efficient device for disposing of Alexandria’s zombie infestation. Harnessing the powers of redneck science, Daryl sets fire to the town’s pond, which lures them all to a crispy death.
We then return to the very last moments of the episode’s cliffhanger, wherein Crazy Rick and company adopted a sheep-in-wolf’s clothing tactic from Season 1’s “Guts” episode. Traveling through a mob of zombies with only a layer of zombie guts for protection is hard enough without bringing obtuse characters along. Unfortunately, they bring Rick’s short-lived girlfriend, Jessie, and her son Sam, who are still not aware of zombies as a life-threatening presence. The result is a gloriously self-indulgent chain reaction of death reminiscent of SNL’s “Dear Sister.” Sam first goes into shock after realizing that zombies exist and starts to cry; he is, of course, subsequently torn to pieces, after which Jessie loses all sense of her surroundings and virtually throws herself into the hands of these flesh-eating creatures. The domino effect strikes Ron, who attempts to remedy the situation by pointing a gun at Rick. Thankfully, Michonne impales Ron with her katana—but Ron then shoots Carl in the eye. The surrounding zombies merely stand around as if this slaughter were all one bloody party foul. The comical, near-slapstick sequence reminds viewers that “The Walking Dead” is fundamentally aware that its best moments are sometimes its most unapologetically twisted and sickening.
Other survivors, such as ex-pacifists Gabriel and Eugene, undergo exercises in rediscovering their willpower. Through the magic of motivational speeches concerning loved ones and perseverance, all of Alexandria eventually join Crazy Rick in his zombie killing spree to avenge Carl’s right eye. The last act evokes the Greek carnage from Zack Snyder’s “300” and even features a fast-cutting close-up montage of our bloodied characters indulging in chops and stabs that stylistically inflect their triumph with a ironic, biting tinge of ruthlessness. The true tragedy of the once-pristine, isolated Alexandria is that its invasion by external forces and beliefs drove it to embrace bloodshed and violence. Even amidst the episode’s overwrought melodrama, plot absurdities, and unabashed ultraviolence, the writers preserve the show’s serious questions about corruption and morality in this “New World.”
“No Way Out” constantly shifts between dark soap opera and self-indulgent violence. Extraneous characters are killed for the sake of it, even though Alexandria seems to be stocked with an indiscriminate supply of miscellaneous town members, and conflict resolution is as nonsensical as an ’80s action movie. At this point, however, invested fans need not be reminded that “The Walking Dead” has always been as bad as it has been good. Here, the writers have somehow been able to turn the show’s conventionally weak qualities into a fun hour of entertainment that clears the way for Negan, who looks to be another villain born from tragedy.
—Staff writer Richard Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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