“No Way Out”, in a nutshell, is what is so good and bad about The Walking Dead. It features what is probably one of the most intense sequences in the history of the show, where Rick leads a blood-covered human chain through the walkers, only to have Sam, Jessie, and Ron all slaughtered within two minutes, and Carl shot in the eye. It’s a fantastic sequence in that it’s visceral, brutal, and relentless, never stopping for the sake of exposition or useless character interaction. It’s amazing, shocking stuff. There’s a lot to like about this episode. The Lord of the Rings-esque zombie fight at the end of the episode is a lot of fun and a way to bring the first half of the season to a strong coherent conclusion. Really, “No Way Out” is much stronger than “Start to Finish”, even if some of that is simply because it’s the conclusion.
But man, there’s a fantastic fifty or sixty minute episode to be made out of the eighty-five minutes that encompass “Start to Finish” and “No Way Out”. So much of those two episodes could have been whittled down for the sake of keeping the tension high, because so much of those two episodes was only there for the sake of wrapping up loose ends. Glenn, Enid, and Maggie could have been scratched from these two episodes entirely. The Wolf storyline also could have been scratched. Daryl’s confrontation with Negan’s Saviors (while awesome) could have been put in a different episode. The anchor point for “Start to Finish” and “No Way Out” was Rick and his group desperately trying to stay alive amidst the zombie invasion, and it was clearly the strongest facet of the episode, wrapping up Rick’s character arc and providing a strong status quo moving forward.
Still, it’s dangerous to amplify the stakes by simply creating more violence and gore (and if you’re a comic reader, then you should be substantially more nervous). It makes seasons of television a collection of moments, and even though those moments can be exciting, it can ultimately dilute the impact of the episode as a whole. Because let’s be honest, who remembers any of Game of Thrones’ “The Rains of Castamere”, a 52-minute episode, except for the 7 minute ending? Who remembers any of Game of Thrones’ “The Mountain and the Viper”, another 52-minute episode, except for the one scene at the end? And those scenes always make audiences want more bloodshed, more violence, more insanity. While scenes like that are always fun (like I said, the zombie walk scene was fantastic), if they’re not supplemented with other strong content, it can be a big problem.
A lot of this has to do with ambition, which I have always praised The Walking Dead for. At least they try to top their violent action scenes, and at least they try to create episodes like “Here’s Not Here”. Scenes like the zombie walk show that at least the show is trying, but the kind of ambition that damages “No Way Out” is the expansion that the first half of the season included. Fragmenting the cast and isolating them can be a good thing, as it is easier to create episodes around three characters than it is around then. But then this faux-two-partner (“Start to Finish” and “No Way Out” has to reintegrate EVERYONE, which can make the overall episode extremely muddled, as it did here. Look at everything this episode had. Daryl shots a rocket launcher! Glenn and Enid have to save Maggie! Denise has to escape from the Wolf! Abraham, Sasha, and Daryl have to escape from The Saviors! Rick has to get his people through the zombies! There is so much happening that it all becomes garbled. Compare that to Better Call Saul’s masterful finale, where every storyline is shed, instead having Jimmy go to Cicero, Illinois to hang out with his old friend Marco. It’s clean, simple, and easily one of the best episodes of the season (“Five-O” has a special place in my heart). “No Way Out” is very strong, but it has almost too much noise for its own good.
And it goes to show that The Walking Dead has to become more than its comics, something it occasionally shoots for but doesn’t seriously commit to. Carl getting shot in the eye is played fantastically, giving Rick the chance to reflect on his attitude towards the Alexandrians and his overall view on the world. But the comics, on a deeper level, always had a difficult time communicating a deeper thematic message than “The world is rough and you need to be tough to SURVIVE!!!”. The Walking Dead has consistently shown that it is capable of thinking further, of getting artsy and reflective and really pondering the thematic concepts that it claims to tackle. But when episodes like “No Way Out” pack their runtime with extraneous action, it becomes difficult to really reflect and dig into characters. Instead, characters like Father Gabriel are given ridiculous speeches (please, The Walking Dead, stop giving minor characters speeches) that communicate a complete lack of engagement with complex notions of status quo. Because there’s a lot to be said here. The Alexandrians are able to conform, the world is able to change, people are able to endure and transform. The Walking Dead gets so close to really saying all of that, but is so far from being able to say anything particularly enlightening about it.
The Walking Dead has absolutely been getting better. I’m certainly excited to see how the new status quo informs Rick and the rest of the characters. The show just needs to be more than that if it wants to be as prestigious as the rest of AMC’s greatest shows (it’s not even the best show on the channel right now, that honor goes to Better Call Saul). “No Way Out” is a lot of fun and excitement. But it’s not one of the show’s highs. And The Walking Dead is still fighting to be a consistently good show, not just a show that has periodic “highs”.
So what did you think of the mid-season premiere? Are you torn about it like I am? Let me know in the comments!