The interesting thing about The Walking Dead is even mediocre episodes have scenes that stand out – either because they give us nail biting action or powerful character beats.  Such was the case for the mid-season return “No Way Out,” proving that even when it isn’t firing on all cylinders, this show knows its own formula for success so well that it can shift to autopilot and still be inherently watchable.  

Right out of the gate, this episode gave us a satisfying conclusion to the introductory sneak peek we saw months ago, when Negan’s motorcycle riding marauders stopped Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham on the road back to Alexandria.  It felt like poetic justice for Daryl to waste the entire gang, especially the tough talking leader who decided he would kill Abraham and/or Sasha, – well, just because.  However, that was also the first of many “What the hell?” moments that the show sometimes produces; only instead of the usual one (or two) per episode that is easily overlooked if everything else is done right, 6.9 was churning them out at a rate close to one every other scene.  Case in point: If Daryl was going to kill all of the bikers anyway, why didn’t he just run them over when they blocked the road in the first place?  A gang of weapon-wielding dudes doesn’t just stop you to chat on the side of the road in the zombie apocalypse. He could have saved time, an RPG, and spared the audience the silliness of seeing him, Sasha and Abraham hand over their weapons and almost get themselves killed, when they were safely riding in a giant fuel truck, for goodness sake.

But another “What the hell?” moment would shortly follow, when Rick aborts his plan to get to the armory and instead decides his group will roam the streets some more in an attempt to make it to the quarry and lead the walkers away by vehicle (as they did at the beginning of the season).  And that’s after the entire crew hides behind some shrubs to make their plan and give baby Judith to the most cowardly member of The Safe Zone, AKA Father Gabriel.  Now, I understand this was part of Gabriel’s redemptive arc, but even in a show about zombies it would be nice to have some realism, especially in regard to human emotion and reason.  How realistic is it that Rick would give Judith to the same man who abandoned his flock to die while he saved his own skin, and who only recently in Walking Dead time betrayed the whole group to Deanna and left the gate open which allowed walkers to shuffle into town?  But Rick did what he did, and then Jessie got in on the act and made a very critical error in judgement when she instructed Sam to go with Gabriel – and when Sam refused – Jessie acquiesced, thereby sealing her and her whole family’s fate.

The sequence when Sam starts to lose it (recalling Carol’s haunting words about the monsters)  before he and his mother are devoured by walkers was gruesome, but insubstantial; It felt like a contrived way of following through on the show’s infamous reputation of brazenly killing off characters.  We know supporting players’ days are usually numbered anyway, but the whole thing seemed forced and put in for shock effect.  This seemed all the more evident when the scene was followed up by Ron’s attempt to kill Rick, only to shoot out Carl’s eye –  an event that many comic fans had been waiting all season to see.  Carl’s injury needed an antecedent – so Ron’s rage and need for vengeance that was highlighted during the first half of the season was played out – therefore making it all the easier for his character to get slaughtered by Michonne (in defense of Rick, of course).  Jessie’s whole family was one big throw away plot point. 

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It’s safe to say, Rick’s plan ended up being a total failure, not to mention completely unnecessary: What was the point of him and his group dousing themselves in zombie guts and walking the streets of Alexandria (roaming around from daylight hours through to nightfall, apparently), only to take shelter in the infirmary like some of the other Alexandrians?  Kind of makes you wonder why they didn’t just do that in the first place.

The far more interesting side story of this episode was The Wolf’s behavior with his hostage Denise, who was taken outside as Rosita, Tara and Eugene – after surrendering their weapons – helplessly looked on (Rick’s entire group makes it way too easy for villains).  Though Denise and Morgan’s “people can change” mantra was getting tiresome, it was compelling to watch The Wolf and Denise’s interactions as they hid from the walkers, waiting for a break in the herd to make their escape.  Denise became bolder, telling The Wolf “Go to Hell” and The Wolf confessed to Denise that he wasn’t always “this way.” And as the pair ran for the watch tower and Denise got attacked by a walker, only to have The Wolf come to her rescue, it actually became plausible – and moreover, quite affecting – to think that The W Man maybe had a change of heart after all.  Of course, we’ll never know because Carol, fresh from her smack down with Morgan, kills The Wolf, certain she’s giving Denise her freedom.  This character death was far more effective.  It was a noteworthy twist to a morally ambiguous storyline (Can people who’ve lost their humanity ever get it back?) that pervaded the first half of the season.  In the end, there were no easy answers, and it’s at that place where The Walking Dead excels at storytelling.

Elsewhere in the episode, Glenn (with Enid) came to an injured Maggie’s rescue, but instead of an emotional reunion, we got another contrived moment where it seemed like even after all the fan backlash over Glenn’s “death,” we might still end up losing him as he allowed himself to be cornered by walkers in sacrifice for his wife and unborn child.  It was a cheap scare, really, but nonetheless effective as the scene did actually provide a tense moment.  Luckily, though, the sound of gunfire erupts, and Abraham and Sasha arrive in the nick of time – to save the day, and our beloved pizza delivery guy.  

Meanwhile, Rick and the others arrive at the infirmary where Denise starts working on Carl (and kudos to the make-up team for the startling, nasty eye wound).  In a fit of shock and rage, Rick goes outside – in the middle of a gargantuan horde of walkers – and starts killing them, somehow miraculously evading attack, which again makes you wonder why he and his group had to don walker guts, link hands and wonder around outside for hours when all they had to do was grab some hatchets and start swinging.

The moment of truth for the Alexandrians comes when they spy Rick outside, battling the zombies.  Inside the church, Father Gabriel gives a rousing call to arms, stating, “We’ve been praying together. Praying God will save our town. Well, our prayers have been answered. God will save Alexandria because God has given us the courage to save it ourselves.” The speech was a little on the hokey side, but it was good to finally see Gabriel step up and fight alongside Rick, and when the whole town followed suit – especially the fainthearted like Eugene and Spencer – it provided a powerful and stirring moment.

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That was immediately followed up though, with another “What the hell?” moment when Daryl hatches a plan to get rid of the giant herd.  His idea to lure them into the fire was fine, it’s just that when Daryl floods the lake with fuel, he uses another RPG to light everything ablaze.  Surely, with endless canned food, medical supplies, and every other creature comfort in the Alexandrian community, they could have saved the RPG and gotten hold of a lighter or pack of matches!  And it also makes you wonder – yet again – why, at the start of the apocalypse, before the earth was overrun, didn’t the military powers across the land do the exact same thing?  But alas, if they did, there would be no show, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief on that one. 

With the immediate threat ended but the community in disarray, Rick sits at an unconscious Carl’s bedside, happy to have been wrong about the Alexandrians.  He tells Carl of his plans for the community, and for showing his son the new world, and it’s then that Carl weakly squeezes his dad’s hand.  The episode ends on a hopeful note – and we all know that’s a dangerous thing on this show.  

Despite my consistent criticism of several key scenes in the episode, some things worked well: The Wolf’s possible shred of humanity shining through, the sustained action throughout the entire hour, and the community’s courageous (finally) willingness to take a stand with Rick.  But when you throw in the gratuitous death of Jessie’s family and the many contrived and head scratching moments, it all culminated in an average episode that was a bit disappointing for a mid-season return.  Still, I’ll definitely be watching next week (and the week after that, and after that, ad infinitum), so the show is obviously doing more right than wrong. Here’s to watching more of that right play out in 6.10. 

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