While The Walking Dead has played with challenging storytelling before, most notably in the love ‘em or hate ‘em bottle episodes, tonight’s foray into nonlinear storytelling was a bold narrative move that potentially resets the show. Not only does it play with the audience’s perception of what we think we know about these characters, but it also sets up the potential for our hero to become our villain. Instead of turning into a tour de force of pyrotechnics and fighting prowess like last season’s opener, “First Time Again” was actually a very quiet character piece in which every survivor was given a moment to shine.
This was not an episode designed to inspire shock and awe (my bet is that is coming next week) but was the proverbial calm before the storm. For as much as the promos promised a showdown between the ideologies of Rick and Morgan, “First Time Again” was less about grandiose philosophies coming head-to-head and more about the ways in which seemingly unremarkable encounters can alter how we see the characters we think we know. From Abe’s (Michael Cudlitz) dangerous search to feel alive to Sasha’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) shockingly Zen state, the episode took great pains to highlight how these characters and their worldviews are shifting.
Mo’ Zombies, Mo’ Problems
Showcasing an astounding volume of walkers in the opening seconds was a smart move aesthetically because it created a sense of imminent danger that never actually came to fruition. This prolonged sense of danger creates an emotional investment for the audience that then allowed the show to make some risky creative decisions. Chief among these was the episode’s non-linear structure. Trusting the audience to stay with two concurrent storylines is always a perilous undertaking, and yet the overriding threat of the zombies provided enough unification between the two timelines that the approach never came across as a gambit.
From a storyline perspective, the fact that Rick’s plan didn’t work came as little surprise because, really, when do Rick’s plans ever work? But it did set the stage for some potentially interesting showdowns between characters. Daryl (Normal Reedus) pushed back against Rick’s edict that he stop looking for other survivors, while Morgan (Lennie James) openly questioned Rick’s decision making. Rick doesn’t appear to be responding too well these days to people who cross him and his failure to secure Alexandria’s borders could finally prove that this particular emperor has no clothes.
Black and White Scenes
Complaints that the black and white scenes were too bland are not without merit, and yet I’m unsure how else the two timelines could have been set apart visually. Yes, Rick with a face full of bandages is clearly differentiated from Rick with a blemish free face but to have had all the characters display such obvious outward markers would have come across as too gimmicky.
Because the black and white scenes ultimately merge into the colorized scenes, the approach also works to emphasize the threat this particular zombie herd poses to the survivors. When we first see the hordes in black and white, the volume is staggering and yet, it is only once they become colorized and their grotesqueness magnified that we truly appreciate their potential for destruction. Knowing that they are headed toward Alexandria sets up the action that is sure to come in next week’s episode.
As a fan of the comics, I’ve been awaiting the arrival of Heath (Corey Hawkin) and his introduction did not disappoint. Having Eugene (Josh McDermitt) be the first person Heath encounters was inspired because not only did it bring about some much needed levity (respect the hair game!) but it also emphasized that the Alexandrians and Rick’s group are not yet unified. They are still feeling one another out and I get the sense that this will be an important dynamic in the coming season.
The standout performance of the episode has to go to Lennie James. His Morgan is the reluctant hero that the show has been lacking. Unlike Glenn who is the closest thing to the show’s moral compass and who has consistently been on the side of right, Morgan has been to the dark side and has found a way to return. This gives him a unique perspective, which was clearly showcased when he called out Carol (Melissa McBride) on her suburban mom façade. It also puts him squarely into the path of Rick, a character who arguably has been on a downward spiral into villainy since the third season.
The Problem with Jessie…and Rick
Despite these strengths, there were a couple of significant missteps. The most notable of which concerns Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge). Ostensibly, Jessie is a character with whom the audience should sympathize. Not only is she an abuse survivor, but also she has caught the eye of Rick. Last year’s flirtation with Rick coupled with her watching the man shoot her husband at point blank range means that, at the very least, Jessie is dealing with some emotional fallout. And yet, we didn’t really get a sense of that internal conflict.
While we do get a short scene of Jessie comforting her two children, Sam (Major Dodson) and Ron (Austin Abrams), it doesn’t go nearly far enough in showing us where Jessie is emotionally. Is she happy that her abusive husband is dead? Does she blame Rick? Is it a little bit of both?
Her scene at the end with Rick in which she essentially dismisses him from her life lacked any real emotional punch because the show skipped over so many story beats that could have, and should have, emphasized the character’s turmoil.
Rick’s decision not to bury Pete (Corey Brill) in Alexandria was especially problematic given that Pete’s family still resides in the town. Even if Pete had intended to kill Reg (Steve Coulter), which he didn’t, Pete’s status as a murderer is one shared by most of the survivors, a point Morgan makes and Rick instantly dismisses. Rick’s decision to cast out Pete’s body showed little consideration for Pete’s two young sons and was shockingly devoid of empathy. That Rick lacked the foresight to understand how that decision could have dire consequences suggests that Rick isn’t really seeing the big picture. And for a leader, that could prove deadly.
Still, these two criticisms could turn out to be strengths if the show is willing to really go for broke and vilify Rick. Having the hero of the story become the villain would radically upend audience expectations and would explain last night’s very awkward handling of the Jessie and Rick dynamic.