The Walking Dead’s Valentine’s Day Massacre: Inside the Bloody Awesome Battle of Alexandria

The AMC zombie drama’s midseason premiere was an epic return to form, with the explosive Battle of Alexandria, long-awaited reunions, and bloody heartbreak. [Warning: spoilers!]

The Walking Dead often shills for upcoming episodes with recurring promises: “brutal,” “epic,” “the bloodiest yet,” its marketing swears, while the episodes themselves often deliver tepid results. But in the case of “No Way Out,” the show’s sixth midseason premiere, every superlative actually applies. It’s a visually arresting terror of an episode that racks up an impressive human body count and re-establishes the show’s moral stakes, its emotional center, and the urgency it somehow lost after a dynamite opening to Season 6.

Glenn’s not-so-near-death experience—a month-long conspiracy-fueled mystery that attempted to convince viewers that Glenn had flailed to an early demise after toppling off a dumpster into a scrum of walkers—helped steer the first half of Season 6 to a divisive end, soured by what some felt was an anticlimactic midseason finale that seemed to end mid-scene. An overfamiliar narrative that seemed to be repeating yet again didn’t help: The survivors had found another “safe haven,” that place had fallen under attack, and presumably, once again, whoever survived would pack up and move onto the next farm, prison, or town, ad infinitum, until AMC decides it no longer needs zombies to pay the bills. (Never.)

That’s what makes “No Way Out”—and the Battle of Alexandria, the show’s most exhilarating action centerpiece since Carol took down Terminus—feel so much like redemption: Six wildly uneven seasons later, it showed that The Walking Dead still has life left in it, and is still capable of rising to the creative heights that turned it into cable’s biggest ratings juggernaut. Cutting dialogue, unusually bold directing, and standout performances from Andrew Lincoln and Merritt Wever (as Denise, the anxiety-wracked psychiatrist turned doctor) culminated in an ending that saw Rick buck the overused roadmap from seasons past, resolving to stay, rebuild, and defend Alexandria—rather than fleeing into the woods and starting over again.

Rick’s bedside reverie in the final scene also provided a much-needed sense of hope by making a rare statement on the why of surviving in the zombie apocalypse, rather than the how. “I haven’t felt [this] since before I woke up in that hospital,” Rick tells a newly one-eyed Carl, referencing the show’s pilot. “I want to show you the new world. I want to make it a reality for you.” A cheesy line? Definitely. Necessary and cathartic after years of watching these doomed souls wander aimlessly around America with zero chance at finding a cure? Absolutely.

“No Way Out” also redeemed heretofore human trainwrecks like Father Gabriel, Eugene, the Wolf, and the Alexandrians. Despite the apparent death sentence Rick seemed to be bestowing on baby Judith by handing her off to Gabriel, Mr. Stokes not only managed to keep Rick’s daughter alive, he was also among the first to join Rick in his deranged struggle against 5,000 walkers. Eugene proved Rosita wrong and held his own as a fighter; ditto the dozens of Alexandrians who heroically charged in to help Rick like so many Elves following Aragorn to Helm’s Deep. Even the Wolf, a bloodthirsty maniac who betrayed Morgan and took Denise hostage, sacrifices himself to bring down some of her attackers. He could still change, after all—then Carol needlessly fires a few rounds into his gut.

Carol and Morgan’s philosophical war, between pacifism and cutthroat survival-at-all-costs, works to expose their ugliest hypocrisies here. Carol cuts the bullshit and calls Morgan’s no-kill rule for what it is: a way to assuage his own killer’s remorse. “You saved him [the Wolf] for you, not us,” she tells him, in the episode’s most biting exchange. “If it was for us, you would’ve…” She trails off, hesitating to prescribe a solution she clearly just balked at: murder. “I should’ve killed you,” she tells Morgan, before he turns his back on her. “You can’t,” he says, pointing out her hypocrisy.

Carol’s increasingly murky hawkishness also takes a turn for the disturbing when her words are the last to echo in Sam’s head before he loses it at the sight of a kid-zombie. Her warning about monsters tearing Sam up inside set him off, effectively sparking the carnage that ends the Anderson family line. What looked like tough-cookie love, it turns out, actually traumatized the boy (and, indirectly, led to his death). By the time Carol shoots the Wolf after he’s already given up his last moments saving Denise, it’s clear: Her methods may be doing more harm than good these days.

Of course, not every moment in “No Way Out” is as inspired. Another cute attempt at making audiences fear for Glenn’s life comes about midway through, when he, the show’s romantic lead, gets cornered by another mob of walkers, this time in front of his wife (oooh!), whom he’s just seen for the first time since disappearing (OoOoh!). Maggie shrieks like hell while audiences roll their eyes: after his implausible escape from the Dumpster of Doom, we know Glenn is all but impervious, at least until Negan enters the picture. When Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham swoop in to save the day and mow down the horde, it’s rah-rah heroic, but not unexpected.

Still, there is so much to love about “No Way Out,” especially special effects master Greg Nicotero’s idiosyncratic direction. The scene in which Jessie and her sons are torn apart following Sam’s meltdown is punctuated by flashes of red-filtered memories, as we see Jessie’s smiling face one last time through Rick’s eyes. (Lincoln is regularly overlooked at mainstream awards shows, but scenes like this highlight the injustice—apart from the understandable shock and heartbreak, there’s a faint tone of knee-jerk acceptance in Rick’s voice. Watching loved ones die is practically routine for this man now; that he doesn’t fight to save Jessie is a gruesome reminder.)

The battle’s climax is also a standout, as Nicotero positions the audience in the horde’s point of view and puts us on the receiving end of every hack, slash, and guttural roar, in an epically GIF-able eruption of pure violence. Daryl’s scheme to ignite gasoline in a nearby pond also has stunning visual effect, lighting up the faces of every walker in Alexandria, luring them in, then consuming them in fire. It’s a breathtakingly glorious end to an episode that single-handedly renewed our faith in the zombie apocalypse.

The show is hewing ever closer to writer and creator Robert Kirkman’s comic book source material now, paving the way for a series of iconic events to come. While the show has been moving slowly these days (the last 16 episodes have covered only about 12 issues, a pace that’s resulted in blatant filler episodes like “Now”), showrunner Scott Gimple has said that the first eight episodes of Season 6 were written as a kind of “prequel” to the last eight. What this could mean is that in the next few weeks, we’ll see Negan, the Hilltop Colony, and the Saviors’ factory appear for the first time onscreen. Whether the show will actually deliver on the promising momentum of this stellar midseason premiere, however, remains to be seen.