Now in its 10th season of basic-cable domination with no expiration date in sight, The Walking Dead knows what it’s not trying to do. It is not, for instance, a show about flirting. Even characters who bone, get hitched, procreate, or co-parent together often ooze the chemistry of two sheets of sandpaper. They also all dress terribly. Those issues are perhaps related.
For all its perennial cast shake-ups—particularly momentous in the past few seasons with original series lead Andrew Lincoln’s departure—The Walking Dead is also, it knows, not an especially adventurous sort. It doesn’t aim to be one of those fancy critical-darling shows that reinvent themselves every season to explore new avenues of inquiry into the human condition. It sometimes gestures at being one, sure. But that dilettantish impulse soon subsides, and why shouldn’t it? The monster ratings it consistently pulls through season after season of cyclical us-versus-them bloodlust and warmongering are enough for this sweet, simple zombie show, God bless America.
No, The Walking Dead’s real ambition 10 seasons in, what it still does better than almost any show on television, and what’s on full display in this year’s season premiere (“Lines We Cross”) is the goo: the show’s special and practical zombie effects. The sheer craft and creativity of the show’s effects teams have outshone its narrative imagination for years and are still a thrill to behold.
Special makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero, a horror veteran who also directs Sunday’s episode, and his team have an unrivaled command of grotesquerie. The slippery shine of “raw,” disemboweled intestines. The stretching and tearing of “skin” and cartilage on a person’s face as they’re being eaten alive. While the show’s writers recycle the same conflicts with different enemies every season or so—same “us,” different “them”—Nicotero & Co.’s bottomless appetite for ever more creative permutations of zombies, guts, and gore is still a reliably perverse delight.
The opening minutes of “Lines We Cross” serve as a showcase for Nicotero’s talents. Not only does he depict the scene—a routine battle drill among the residents of Oceanside—with genuine momentum and a sense of danger, but he also luxuriates in the goo of it all. The slow-motion splatter of rust-colored blood as Michonne (Danai Gurira) slices a walker’s head in half. The monstrous tangle of driftwood and limbs as a waterlogged zombie emerges from the ocean. The clean “splat!” as a walker’s dismembered face lands face-up in the sand. All too soon it’s over and we’re back to the snail’s pace of the episode’s other dramatic offerings. But even there, there are glimmers of life amid the drudgery.
The show’s current problem areas—again with the excruciatingly stiff flirting, this time between Jules (Alex Sgambati) and Luke (Dan Fogler)—remain untended, for the most part. Lauren Cohan’s absence is alluded to only in awkward asides about letters from Maggie, without revealing where, exactly, she’s gone. (The actress left the show last season for an ABC drama that was promptly canceled, though TWD’s head creatives insist she might one day return.) Aaron (Ross Marquand) is saddled with the obligatory regurgitation of one of Rick’s favorite crises of identity, the same tired quandary the show has dug up a dozen times before: “Are we the good guys?” he stops to ask Michonne in the middle of a high-tension operation, or are they “the villains of someone else’s story?” Perhaps he missed the bit where the Whisperers left an actual infant to be eaten alive by zombies.
Alpha (Samantha Morton) and the Whisperers are still MIA, though Judith turns up one of their skin-masks on the shore (another delightfully creepy effect). That sends everyone into a tailspin about the potential return of this season’s Big Bad. The real villain of the episode, however, is a dastardly inanimate object: a satellite that plummets through the sky in a blaze of bright light, then crashes and sparks a fire in the forest bordering Oceanside. It’s panic. It’s mayhem. It’s… actually a remarkably efficient and well-organized several long minutes of total mundanity. “Fire was the beginning of the end for The Kingdom. I’m not letting that happen to Oceanside!” booms Ezekiel, in an example of the show’s laziest method of characterization: having people recall events from the past out loud, as if that’s equivalent to showing how they’ve changed in the time since.
One character who has benefited from the handful of episodes since Rick’s departure, however, is Daryl (Norman Reedus), who has slowly regained some of the charm and innocence that made him a fan favorite in the show’s early years. His connection with Connie (Lauren Ridloff) has worked wonders for him, with endearing shots of the sign language guide tucked in his back pocket, and the dopey way he splutters “Really?” after Connie tells him he signs “in a Southern accent,” like he isn’t sure whether that’s good or bad. (Such is Ridloff’s charisma, too, that she radiates swagger with just a look and a single line written on paper.)
Daryl’s reunion with Carol (Melissa McBride), and the pair’s idle dream of running away together and starting over without the conflict-prone knuckleheads they’ve palled around with for nine years, meanwhile, is the brightest spot of the episode. She teases him for calling her his “best friend.” Half-annoyed, half-amused, he gripes “Oh my God” in that faux-beleaguered way best friends do. It manages what so little of the show’s dialogue ever does: making these characters sound like real people.
Still, an interesting thing happens in a conversation between Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), one that veers exhilaratingly close to self-awareness for the show. Negan’s behaved well enough during his life imprisonment to be granted a long enough leash to perform basic chores: taking out the trash, picking tomatoes, all under close supervision. Rather than a sign of the Alexandrians’ faith in his rehabilitation, however, his limited freedom is, he notes, simply a result of the colonies having someone new to hate. A “bogeyman,” as he puts it. There’s ripe ground there for examination of the show’s paltry faith in stories about what bonds people together other than fear of a common enemy. (For a few brief episodes at the beginning of last season, the show indulged more complex storylines about the formation of governments, the distribution of power and privilege, and how such constructs, no matter how well-intentioned, tend to marginalize people. It was a welcome change of pace—and then came the Whisperers. The show soon fell back into old habits.)
Negan drops the subject, of course, before the show dares to critique its own reductive psychology—though Daryl does echo the sentiment later. “Sometimes I think we’re just surviving one fight to the next,” he tells Carol, sounding weary. For a moment, I hoped the pair would make good on their word, ditch the endless cycle of war, and strike out on their own for a new life of seafaring, motorcycling adventure. No more “them,” just “us.” But invisible strings hold them back, and by episode’s end, Carol is left facing the enemy again. I felt sorry for her. She and Daryl are far from the only ones tired of the same old routine.