For five seasons, The Walking Dead has flip-flopped between its two biggest bogeymen — zombies and humans. And as any fan of the show can tell you, the humans are inordinately more terrifying. (Remember Season 2’s slogan? “Fight the dead, fear the living.”) Regardless of the enemy, the theme of the show has long been survival, and its inherent costs, but season six, which returns Sunday, takes us into uncharted territory for our band of merry men, women, and Wolves: how to live, after having spent years just trying to survive.
It’s no accident that Rick’s support group in Alexandria took a turn for the more benevolent with the re-addition of the series’ least-annoying pacifist (sorry, Father Gabriel), Morgan. He may have become a machete-wielding, Wolf-maiming badass by the end of season five, a marked upswing from the paranoid recluse we were reintroduced to in season three, but make no mistake: Morgan is the moral compass of the show.
Season six opens with a shifted power dynamic – exactly the kind of thing that fucks Rick Grimes up, so I’m not going to lie, pretty excited about that. Deanna, who previously encouraged the group to find a way to fit into the walls of Alexandria at the onset of last season, closed out season five encouraging Rick to execute Pete. It was, of course, the right decision but also a noticeable sea-change in the attitudes of those once peace-loving Alexandrians. A great time for Morgan to return, as we all know Rick is one sweaty hallucination away from living out his years quietly at a nice mental health retreat upstate.
The Alexandrians, even with their desperately unsafe “Zombies on Hot Tin Wall” fortification, now face a bigger problem: what is their society going to look like, now that it’s seen the choices they need to make to thrive? We’re far past survival here – a plotline quietly abandoned in the aftermath of the prison’s flu plague and subsequent Woodbury showdown. No longer are our heroes looking for vials of serum, or hotly debating whether the CDC is a better option than the National Guard; they’ve fully leaned into the fact that their temporary societies originally built as stop-gaps for survival are the new normal. Which means that their martial law is suddenly under far more scrutiny. Has the group finally found the right way to live, now that Pete’s dead? Probably not, because this show is nothing if not cyclical. But we are a hell of a lot closer.
Season six does return us back to much of the bloodlust that makes The Walking Dead so palatable, even if it’s not a show about zombies (it’s not). The 90-minute season opener reminds us of that, with a battle-heavy episode that’s reminiscent of the good old early days when Glenn was navigating strangers out of zombie-infested army tanks by radio alone. Death is coming: to zombies and fan favorites alike, as it always does. The cast remained purposefully bloated at the end of season five, a sign clearer than any that a weeding out would be coming quickly by the top of the sixth, and sure enough it comes quickly. Though every season of The Walking Dead is heralded as “the most intense yet,” the show – even in the wake of seeing its brand diluted by this summer’s not-half bad Fear the Walking Dead – is as strong as ever, and shows no signs of slowing down. No small feat for a show essentially based on the concept that everyone is terrible and eventually will die.
Some of the various loose-ends that likely will find resolution in this season: Who the fuck are the feral-children Wolves, and why do they love killing people so much? Will another season of a Ricktatorship fall to pieces when a rival gang shows up? How did Morgan learn to fight with a staff? And why the fuck can Carl never learn to stay home, even when asked? It’s nice to know that in a world in such flux, some things will never change.
The Walking Dead Season 6 premieres on AMC on Sunday, October 11th at 9 EST.