The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman promises season six will be the most intense season yet: a non-stop series of episodes, each punctuated with cliff-hangers. And episode one certainly shows he's not kidding.
The first episode, First Time Again, is so set on dropping viewers directly into the action that it uses an interesting trick to do so: Opening up into what normally would have been the second half, the peak of the episode.
It's an abrupt opening that, given the show's six-month break, is a little confusing and slightly jarring, but it also delivers. There's no chance of comfortably settling back into the rhythm of The Walking Dead; instead you're off with a sprint.
After introducing the Safe Zone town of Alexandria and its latest residents to a seemingly insurmountable challenge, the show flips back to moments after the climatic, bloody ending of season five. To try and keep bewildered viewers on track during the time jumps, the show plays in black and white for the earlier stuff and in color for the later. As the problem and the solution of the episode slowly progress to their conclusion in color, the show's black and white bits steadily progress toward where episode one started off.
While the episode's pivotal plot and its solution pulls viewers through the hour-long show with over-the-top special effects and big cinematic moments, the black and white bits aptly weave in the fallout from season five's finale. The end result is a show packed with tense moments, both emotionally and physically.
There's a constant sense of danger empowered not just by the show's tense jumping back and forth, but also the knowledge that Kirkman — already a writer willing to kill off just about anyone on the show — has set a goal for himself to out deliver all of the previous seasons.
The episode has a lot of work to do in opening the show this season.
Season five ended with Safe Zone member Nicholas luring Glenn Rhee out into the woods to try and kill him. Glenn manages to get the upper hand, and after a tense moment, decides not to kill Nicholas.
Rick Grimes, on the outs for threatening the Safe Zone community with a gun in the penultimate season five episode, stops a small zombie invasion (created by Gabriel Stokes' lackadaisical attitude) but then ends up killing abusive doc Pete. He shoots Pete in the head at the orders of Safe Zone Deanna Monroe, after the drunken, jealous Pete accidentally cuts the throat of Deanna's husband. The shooting, following so closely on the heels of Rick's outburst, leaves many in the community undecided about Rick and his group and tensions high.
If that wasn't enough, Sasha confronts Gabriel and nearly kills him before Maggie talks her down. The confrontation seems to finally shake the priest from his guilt-driven stupor.
And of course, on top of all of the issues the group faces inside the Save Zone, there's the new threat of the Wolves, a group of people we've seen very little of. What we have seen (setting zombie-traps, carving Ws into zombie heads) hasn't been pretty.
Dealing with all of those season five finale loose ends is a tall order and managing to tackle them while still moving the show forward in a meaningful way took deft writing and directing.
That said, while First Time Again is one of the most visually captivating episodes of the show's run to-date and it's certainly tense, it doesn't have the same sort of stunning conclusion as many other episodes from the show. That's in part because, as promised, it ends on a cliffhanger. But that's not all.
The episode has a lot of build up for little pay-off, it's a fun ride, but with all of the intensity you can't help but expect more death, more mayhem, more something.
Fortunately, the show lands a nice cliff-hanger in the final minutes of the episode, cranking that intensity right back up to 11 as things seem to go sideways just in time for the credits.
The episode is a fantastic opening for the season, but also shows signs of a what could be a big problem: As the show's mainstay stars continue to grow in popularity, does Kirkman risk killing any of them?
During New York Comic-Con last week, Kirkman talked about the lengths to which he goes to prove, at least to himself, that he's not losing that edge. Those moments resulted in some of the most brutal scenes in the comics, but not necessarily in the TV show.
As the show continues to walk along the loose path of the comic's story, it increasingly seems to be toning down that story's brutality. That said, the show has also added some new, over-the-top violence of its own over the years, like Terminus.
Anyone who reads the comics knows that the TV show is coming up against a pivotal moment, one that could return a sense of danger and evil to the show: Negan.
If he comes, if the show takes that route this season, then Kirkman's promise makes sense and we're in for one hell of a season.