Whatever your thoughts on Fear The Walking Dead this past summer, the companion series to AMC’s ever-expanding monster smash helped crystallize a question central to the success of The Walking Dead itself: At the end of the day, how much more is there to say about an endless cycle of misery porn, action sequences and survival narrative? Exciting and driven though The Walking Dead will always be, you’ll inevitably hit that wall of keeping things fresh. Six seasons in, and however many to come, it’s a shambling, relentless question.

That’s what made the introduction of Alexandria such a refreshing change last season, one admittedly borne of the comics, but a means with which to hold a mirror up to the characters, and even the show itself, to see how far gone everyone had grown against the world we know. It’s exactly that willingness to experiment that makes tonight’s “First Time Again” premiere such a strong opener, mixing things up with a parallel flashback structure, and some monochrome visual panache in line with the book itself.

Not only that, but focusing on a driven goal like corralling a quarry full of walkers away from Alexandria makes for a clever narrative engine of ongoing suspense, one that plays well to the show’s inherent exploration of unending zombie apocalypse. There’s a great Cracked article way back when that considered some of the natural impediments to a zombie apocalypse, specifically land formation, and Rick’s discovery of a massive herd shows at least some of the show’s inventiveness in keeping walkers a practical, unexpected threat, so many seasons in.

At least until they start making album covers.

That’s something showrunners have spoken to over multiple seasons, the idea of keeping the show’s most visual menace a continued threat, even as the living become more dangerous enemies from time to time. And while we don’t yet hear anything new from the Wolves, or get a sense of many new characters to come, the flashback structure also made for a solid exploration of tensions within the Alexandria walls, specifically some justified distrust of Rick.

Morgan made for a good balance against Carter in examining Rick’s mental state, however expected that the return of Lennie James would liven things up with new perspective. Carter (the always welcome Ethan Embry) had his reasons to doubt, even without offering any solutions to his constant digs at Rick’s plan, and it spoke volumes of Rick to see his different responses to both men. Like the trip to Alexandria, Morgan’s return seemed fated by its presence in the comics, but it’s no less exciting to have Lennie James as a regular, for all the unique interactions and sense of history he brings. Sometimes, a man just wants to know what happened to his peanut butter protein bar.

If they start disappearing from Alexandria, we'll at least have a clue.

Unlike a certain motorcycle drama in recent years, the expanded runtime also helped flesh out (or refresh) a few character beats and conflicts that might otherwise have been left on the periphery, including Glenn’s shaky relationship with Nicholas, or Rick’s awkward insertion into Jessie’s family. A bit less focused was the interplay between Abraham and Sasha, the latter of whom we knew to be near suicide last year, though I’m not entirely certain what’s become of Abraham, to be so affected by Pete and Reggie’s deaths. It’s an unexpected pairing at least, but one that didn’t make very much headway by the runtime’s end.

All around, “First Time Again” brought with it a lot of great moments, tightly-constructed action without skimping on the character beats, a few welcome moments of levity, and even an unexpected twist in the mysterious horn derailing the hour’s efforts. It’s an exceptionally intense opener, strong support that The Walking Dead has more bite than ever, though not a particular thesis statement for the season itself. Keeping The Walking Dead fresh remains a spectre in the woods, always lurking, lingering, waiting to take a bite out of the story when we least expect it.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • “We’ll do it live!” It’s a shame Abraham can’t rise to the same level of vulgarity as the books, but offhand Bill O’Reilly references will suffice for now.
  • It certainly strikes as odd that no one involves Jessie in the conversation whether or not to bury her husband somewhere accessible, if not in the main graveyard itself.
  • Melissa McBride is murdering her role as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, whether in the town meeting, or with more pointed observations from someone like Morgan.
  • So … is anyone on Gabriel’s side at this point?
  • Still not sold on Eugene’s flat affect just yet, but the hair jokes, and little moments of humor with Tara and Heath were great.
  • We could definitely see a few of the walkers’ digital enhancements this season, but skin ripping off the one wedged between the trucks was exceptionally gruesome.
  • So, any theories on the horn? It’d have to be someone intentionally drawing the walkers to Alexandria, right?

The Walking Dead will return next Sunday night on AMC with “JSS.”

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