Be warned! This review will cover all aspects of the episode. SPOILERS lurk like groaning walkers.
Welcome the zombie apocalypse! Except we don't really use the Zed word. Drawn from the pages of Robert Kirkman's hugely successful comic book comes the even more successful TV series that just keeps growing in the ratings. For those just joining us (that'll be three or four of you, then), the world was struck by a terrible outbreak, the dead have been coming back to life and that came as a nasty wake-up call to Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) when he woke up from a medical coma after being shot in the line of duty. Since then, he's discovered other survivors, lost his wife but gained an infant daughter (in roughly that order) and is busy trying to keep himself and his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) alive. Oh, and it appears that every place he and his fellow living humans roll up at turns out to be full of liars, cannibals, psychopaths or worse.
Given the high death rate on this series, a vast number of characters have come and gone, but when we last left him, Rick and his current group, including Carol (Melissa McBride), Daryl (Norman Reedus AKA the Fan Favourite) Glenn (Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and the sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira) thought they might have found somewhere relatively safe to life in the Alexandria community in Virginia. Despite Rick's worries that the protected citizens of the town, who shelter behind walls but live a much more luxurious life than his travelling band of fighters, they tried to settle in despite big disagreements and some betrayals. But now, thanks to internal tension, a mind-bogglingly ill-conceived Rick plan to lead the local undead walkers away and the actions of a nasty group from outside known as the Wolves, Alexandria's defenses have been breached. Rick and some of the others are trying a desperate plan to cover themselves in rotting flesh and walk through the swarms of walkers, Daryl, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Abraham are trying to make their way back to the community in a tanker truck after being waylaid by other problems, but run into an unknown group of bikers. Glenn has managed to somehow survive a mass of walkers and is racing to try to save Maggie, who is trapped on a guard tower in Alexandria. Carol, Morgan (Lennie James), Denise (Merritt Weaver) and some of the others have had their own trouble with one of the main Wolves who they took pity on, but now has Denise as his hostage and is looking to make good his escape from the town. Rosita (Christian Serratos) and Tara rescue the innately cowardly Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and take shelter in a garage as the flood of walkers continues...
We pick up right where we left off with Abraham, Sasha and Daryl, who confront the bikers. Their property, according to the leader of the group, now belongs to someone called Negan (a name that will be very familiar to readers of the comic, but one that shall remain a mystery for an episode or two on the show). Naturally, the big D and his friends aren't so thrilled to hand over their weapons, but when you're held at gunpoint, it's sort of hard to say no. Though the unnamed leader claims he and his compatriots will drive the trio back to their own home, our heroes are not all that eager. Still, Daryl is marched to the back of the truck so the bikers can loot it, while Abraham tempts trouble by asking who this Negan fellow is. After some back-and-forth from the biker boss, he decides he's just going to shoot them. Until, that is, he and his pals explode in a massive fireball. Yes, it's Daryl Gets His Moment time, folks. Turns out he killed the one biker who was assigned to take him around the back of the truck, grabbed a bazooka and blown the bikers to smithereens. Well, The Walking Dead always does like to kick things off with a bang, and this is writer Seth Hoffman and horror effects maestro/regular premiere/finale director Greg Nicotero devising a memorable opening. If only the rest of the premiere was as truly entertaining.
It goes for spectacle, but then tries to have its brain and eat it with the quieter moments.
After the credits, we catch up with Rick, Carl and the others who are trying to wend their way slowly through the swarm of rotting stumblers. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), not usually known for his bravery, agrees to take young Judith to keep her safe in the church until Rick and co. can reach their vehicles, return and then, according to Mr. Grimes, lead the walkers away again. We're seriously still on this plan? Okay, Rick. Because it worked SO well last time. Alexandrian Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) tries to have her son Sam (Major Dodson) stay with the priest, but he convinces her and Rick he'll be okay despite a history of panic attacks.
Elsewhere, Tara and Rosita are arguing about whether they can make it out alive. Carol, meanwhile, is going to search the house to find supplies and Morgan, who was knocked out by the Wolf in his escape, wakes up. The scene then intercuts between a couple of locations: Glenn and Enid (Katelyn Nacon), who he has rescued and persuaded to help him, are in a church to look for weapons and anything they can use to help Maggie down from a tower. They discuss why there's any reason, or hope to continue, and talk about those they have lost. We also catch up with Denise (Weaver, as ever does stellar work, vibrating with fear in the presence of the Wolf, but still able to find her spine and talk back to him when needed), who is with the her captor on one of the buildings roofs, surveying the mass of walkers as he figures out how to get out of the town. They briefly talk about what might have been, which comes across as less than fascinating when you consider what else is happening. Enid and Glenn eventually find a weapon and some material that can be used as a climbing rope and despite Glenn ordering her to stay put, Enid refuses and says she'll help.
Rick and the main group, meanwhile, hit real trouble when Sam's panicky nature gets the better of him, There's a spooky little moment as they're surrounded by walkers where he imagines them attacking him, and it's well supported by the dreamlike - or perhaps we should say nightmare-like - tone that Nicotero and the team give this scene. And Sam has good reason to fear, as he drifts from the group and is... attacked! Much to Jessie's horror. Chaos reigns as Jessie is also attacked, and Rick decides to cut her hand from where it's holding Carl's, which doesn't sit well with Ron (Austin Abrams), Jessie's other boy. He lifts his gun and points it at Rick, but in the confusion, he shoots Carl, who ends up with a mangled eye.
Tara and Rosita are still arguing with Eugene, who has finally decided that it's time he showed some guts and helped them fight their way out through the walkers. A bit late there, fella. And honestly, if it wasn't for matters of continuity, this all feels like something that could be moved to a different episode or, for preference, cut so other storylines can get more time.
Such as Denise and the Wolf, who make a run for it, but Denise gets trapped by a couple of walkers. Instead of just leaving, the Wolf shows a spark of humanity and goes to rescue her, whereupon he becomes the latest attack victim as a walker chews on his wrist. Denise, surprised by his act of generosity, says she'll save him if they can get to the infirmary. We'd have left him, but we're not as heroic as Denise.
Carol, still searching the house, has a stand-off with Morgan, telling him that she regrets not killing him when he saved the Wolf previously. Morgan tells her she still could end his life. But Carol has her hands full helping Denise, shooting some of the walkers around her and the Wolf dude so they can reach the infirmary.
The stories finally start to dovetail as Rick also reaches the makeshift medical unit, cradling the critically injured Carl. Denise becomes all business helping Carl. Rick, meanwhile, has clearly had enough of these motherfucking walkers in this motherfucking town. He leads a small group out on a rampage amongst the zombies, cutting down one after another in what should surely be a foolhardy effort. One by one, others join the effort, even Father Gabriel.
Soon everyone who can is fighting the walkers. Glenn, however, is still trying to help his wife. Sending Enid up to the guard tower to take her the makeshift rope, he distracts walkers by firing his gun. Soon, they're swarming around him in a way that suggests he won't get out of it this time, despite his miraculous previous escape. But this is Glenn we're talking about. Just as all hope looks lost, machine gun fire rains down on the walkers... It's Abraham and Sasha! Daryl has the tanker truck outside, and would Glenn mind opening the gates? Yes, Glenn is apparently the luckiest bastard alive.
From there, we blend a montage of Rick and co. killing walkers and Daryl's new plan, which is creating a lake of fire with the fuel from the tanker and using the rocket launcher to light it. Seems like overkill, but it works. The noise and, we suppose... the bright flickering flames? Draw a big group of walkers to a flaming doom.
Cut to the aftermath... A road strewn with slain walkers. Rick is sitting by his son's bedside and starts telling him that he realises he can see new strength in the Alexandrians, and that he wants to build a new world that reminds them all of what they knew before the apocalypse. He hopes Carl will be there to see it, which seems a little mean given that his son now only has one functioning eye. Still... Carl's hand twitches... then closes around Rick's. He's going to live! He might live to wish he hadn't, though.
This one is a real mixture of the show's strengths and weaknesses. As with most of the show's premieres, it goes for spectacle, but then tries to have its brain and eat it with the quieter moments, few of which truly work. The latest Glenn escape isn't likely to placate anyone who was annoyed by his previous brush with death, but maybe we just have to admit that the main cast is, at least for now, bullet/zombie proof. Even Carl, who looked to have a life-threatening injury, pulls through. Still, Nicotero goes near-biblical with the imagery - a big bang at the start and it ends in fire. As usual, it's nice to have Daryl back with the gang, even if he only gets a couple of fun moments, and there's the overwhelming feeling that Rick's idea to just go and hack at the hordes really shouldn't have worked any better than his scheme to lead them away in the first place. Perhaps someone else should come up with the plans from now on? Mostly, this was about wrapping up the big Alexandria-under-threat mini-arc and find a mood of rebuilding. Of course, Negan (who we know will be played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is coming.
In the UK, The Walking Dead airs Mondays at 9pm on Fox.
Who the hell is Negan, anyway? Read our definitive guide to the character in the comics.