***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
Oh, damn. The Walking Dead's mid-season opener started with an explosion, ended in flames and lit the fuse on what could be its most traumatic, unpredictable series yet. S6.09 "No Way Out" might just be the best/worst episode ever, packed with deaths, shocks and implausibilities, that left fans enthralled and appalled, with the burning question: where does the show go from here?
In plot terms, we know Rick and crew are on course to discover the Hilltop community, plus its key residents Jesus (Tom Payne) and Gregory (Xander Berkeley), as outlined in the comic series. Show runner Scott Gimple has elaborated with some clues (opens in new tab) – and we already know the final episode of the series will introduce us to ultra-villain, biker Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), described as the series' "most dynamic, complex and charismatic villain" (opens in new tab) yet by series' producer Gale Ann Hurd.
In terms of shock value, it does feel like the series has backed itself into a corner – not that this position troubled, say, Glenn (opens in new tab) when faced by 200 walkers, before being miraculously saved by Abraham's machine-gun fire. "No Way Out" was riddled with logic gaps and implausibilities. Where did Daryl conceal that rocket launcher? How did he kill that biker without making a noise? Why would Rick entrust his two-year-daughter's life to the mentally unstable Gabriel? Why did nobody haul Sam along? Or cover his mouth? How did Carl survive a bullet to the face? Did we, like, completely forget about Sam shouting "Mom" as he left the house wrapped in zombie guts?
In isolation, all of these incidents could maybe be explained, but smack of the kind of lottery-winning statistical outlier that saved Glenn in the opening of Season 6 (opens in new tab) – who happened to fall directly in front of a bin, with a human shield directly on top of him, within crawling distance of safety, when surrounded by hundreds of zombies – that led many fans to accuse the show of trolling our affections. That said, this is a world where a woman can fall 60 feet from a department store balcony onto a bed (opens in new tab), so some latitude is required.
"No Way Out"'s logic trick was layering the tragedies, shocks and co-incidences like an unintelligible, breath-taking, death metal album played at 45 RPM. In the three month gap since the mid-season finale, I'd almost forgotten how bad a situation Rick Grimes and his fellow Alexandrian's were in. One second, I'm covering my mouth in disbelief (and relief) as Daryl explosively interrupts Negan's flunky in the middle of his hackneyed 'will I won't I' double-fake to Sasha and Abraham. Next thing I know, we're back in Alexandria, where the situation is farcically perilous.
In all the excitement, I forgot Rick and friends were walking past 300 walkers with only zombie guts for camouflage. I forgot two-year-old Judith was strapped under one of the blood-smeared sheets. I forgot about damaged teen Ron being forced into an uneasy truce with Carl who he'd tried to kill only minutes earlier. I forgot about the Wolf who'd escaped with Denise after inexplicably defeating Carol and Morgan. I forgot Glenn and Enid (who I forgot full stop) were breaking into Alexandria. I forgot Maggie was perched on a rickety outpost. I forgot just how ludicrously terrible, and ridiculous, the whole situation was when…
HOLY SHIT. SAM.
HOLY SHIT. SAM'S MUM.
HOLY SHIT RON.
MICHONNE! OMG CARL! OMG OMG OMG !
In that shocking blur of deaths – like a trawler colliding into an iceberg in slow motion where you can count every particle – I forgot how shocked I was at how the episode began or whether any of its incidents made sense. It's hard to deny the impact, whether this was the moment The Walking Dead packed the shark into a fridge and nuked the contents, or its purest emotional roller coaster yet. I mean, when the Wolf gets bitten trying to save Denise, it barely even registers. Ditto Carol and Morgan's curt exchange that drives to the heart of the show's dissection of the human condition. It just feels too incidental to process. Too raw. Too shocked.
Sam's death is especially hard to process. I mean, it's the on-screen death of a ten-year-old, but the brutality is unflinching. That said, for every human reason that appalls, it speaks to the truth of the show: a brutally Darwinian world where no one is safe (unless you're Rick, Judith or Glenn, of course), where morality creaks at the fractured crossroads between surviving, living and society. The counter, is that this brutality is reserved for Rick's unlikely walker rampage, where he's able to take down tens of walkers with a fire axe. It's not impossible, just implausible, and speaks to a deus ex machina that The Walking Dead is so often quick to challenge.
Logic aside, how it feels, is something else. As Rick improbably blunders into the walker horde, the show veers dangerously close to religious analogy. With Jesus saved for later in the series, Rick becomes human kind's unlikely saviour, galvanising the reluctant Alexandrian residents into resistance. It's absurd, but it works. A leap of faith on the viewer's behalf, if you will. Even Eugene fights, the unlikely disciple.
"Please Carl, let me show you the new world," Rick implores Carl, in the episode's slowest, and most tender moment. It's a welcome moment of connection, and it feels like the show has no option but to retreat to slower-paced human drama over the coming episodes, before whatever lies in wait for the season finale. How they top this – or lower the bar, depending on you point of view – is anyone's guess… but Negan is coming.
If "No Way Out" felt like no way back, consider this: Andrew Lincoln says the season 6 finale is the "darkest most extraordinary season finale that we've ever attempted. And it ends with a very big bang" (opens in new tab). Lincoln adds that the finale's script made him feel "sick to his stomach" and that he woke up in the middle of the night (opens in new tab) thinking about it. To top this explosive series opener, it'll need to be a very big bang indeed.