The last time we saw Rick, he’d just shot a guy. This, for Rick, was not unusual behavior. Sure, the guy Rick shot wasn’t a zombie, and Rick isn’t a serial killer or anything, but over the past couple seasons of the show, he’s been heading in a direction that makes this sort of decision inevitable, both from a psychological and a narrative perspective. Psychologically, Rick has lost too many friends (and loved ones), been driven too hard and too long to hold on to his mercy; besides, there’s been a weakness in him from the start that makes this latest turn as inevitable as the Governor’s relapse. Narratively, Rick needs some kind of purpose, and taking his “I’m trying to be a good guy here!” shtick and turning it dark is a strong choice that helps makes his early wishy-washiness feel more intentional.
What makes “First Time Again” both compelling and frustrating is how it sticks to the idea of Hardcore Rick—the Rick who shot that guy, the Rick who ran around Alexandria with a gun, screaming at people until Michonne took him down—but can’t seem to decide if this version of Rick is a good idea or a bad one. To be sure, some ambiguity is important, but this is ambiguity that leans away from the darker choice, writing that at once pretends to raise an argument even as it hedges its bets.
The most obvious example of this is Carter, another in Alexandria’s parade of “dudes who think they know better, and then get dead.” Carter is horrified by Rick’s plans, and disturbed to see the rest of the group following his lead, especially after what happened to Pete. (The guy Rick shot. I had to look it up.) Carter objects, loudly; Carter plots against Rick; Carter comes around after Rick decides not to kill him; and Carter dies anyway, getting bit by a walker and then getting knifed in the throat by Rick. The guy is as close to a strawman as it’s possible to get and still have flesh. He has no personality beyond his objections, and he only exists to offer Rick a chance to make some choices.
Which is unfortunate, because Carter actually raised some good points before his face got ripped off. We’re conditioned not to like him because he’s working against our main characters, and because he’s kind of whiny and soft, but that doesn’t make him wrong, exactly. Rick isn’t somebody you can trust without reservations at this point. He’s got a hectic, nervous energy to him that always seems to be on the edge of collapse, and he doesn’t deal with rejection well. The only reason he doesn’t shoot Carter, as he explains to Morgan later, is that he knew that, sooner or later, the world would do the job for him.
It makes sense for Rick, the character, to follow this line of reasoning. But it’s disappointing to have the show basically confirm his assumptions, because I’m not sure this current version of Rick is someone I’m interested in seeing be right all the time. He’s more effective as someone you end up trusting when you need to, but can’t live with in the long run, and while that might be what the writers are working towards, the opposition against him is so slight as to make it largely moot. There are exceptions (which we’ll get to), but the weirdest thing about “First Time Again” is how, well, calm everything is. A calm before the storm, especially given the cliffhanger ending, but Rick’s take-over of Alexandria is frustratingly smooth so far.
But that could be resolved in the weeks ahead. (I should add that the reason I’m harping on this so damn much is that watching this episode, I realized that there really is no way the show is ever going to make Rick and out and out villain, or even a true anti-hero. Unless there are some drastic changes, he’s always going to be the center of a show which looks to be running pretty much indefinitely at this point. Which means that these fights are always going to back down before they cross the point-of-no-return line.) There are, as mentioned, exceptions. Morgan is, at least for now, on board the Rick train, but he has reservations, and it’s hard to imagine a situation in which Morgan is pitted against Rick where Morgan doesn’t come out looking the saner of the two.
Then there’s the flashback to Rick and the widow Jessie. Once again, we see Rick dealing with this woman he clearly has feelings for, and being unable to express those feelings in a non-creeper kind of way. This time around, he grabbed Jessie’s son Ron and yelled at him when the kid got into trouble (following Rick and Morgan to see where they were burying his dad, in point of fact), which, as Jessie patiently explains, isn’t something that’s going to work for anyone. Rick wants Jessie and the family life she represents, but his overtures are clumsy, desperate, and filled with an underlying frustration that all of this isn’t working out as smoothly as it should be. Jessie’s cold response at least suggests the idea that the show’s creative team understands how off-putting this can be. And yet she still hasn’t taken that final step of shutting him out, which means it’s entirely possible that the two of them will hook up somewhere down the line.
The episode’s choice to start some time ahead of the end of last season’s finale, and then flashback (in black and white) to fill in the gaps was stylistic clever, although I’m not sure the end result was really much more than a gimmick. Far too many scenes from the past provide information that could’ve been delivered more efficiently (and effectively) on the fly. Given the premiere’s expanded length, the added minutes should’ve been crucial to filling in the plot of this episode, or else to laying the groundwork for the week’s to come. But while most of the flashbacks work towards this, few of them feel undeniably essential.
The premiere never lags completely, and the main problem—taking care of the herd of walkers trapped in the quarry—is a solid, and interesting, one. We get to be both impressed by the heroes’ cleverness and affected by the obvious, terrifying tedium of their work. But those flashbacks keep breaking up the tension. “First Time Again” remains watchable throughout, and there’s a novelty every time the color leaves the screen. Novelty only gets you so far, though. The episode raised some potential issues for the future, but it only really got tense in the last minute or two. It’s probably playing a longer game, but for right now, it’s hard not to feel like one of those zombies trailing behind Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham, hoping against hope that something juicy might drop.
- It’s nice that Glenn and Nicholas are buddies now. As grim as the show can be, it’s occasional stabs at character rehabilitation offer a slightly-less-than-nihilistic view of humanity. Admittedly, this is probably set up for Nicholas to get himself killed anyone, racking poor Glenn with guilt, but for right now, it’s good to see that heroic behavior (in this case, saving the life of someone trying to kill you) can still be rewarded.
- “I don’t take chances anymore.” -Rick
- Sasha and Abraham seem to be doing some kind of suicide relay race. Here’s hoping their brands of crazy will balance each other out.
- Morgan asking Michonne if she’d swiped one of his energy bars is maybe the best moment in the entire episode.
- Rick: “It’ll hold.” Michonne: “Well, that’s good. Y’know, considering where we’re standing.” (The more these characters show a sense of humor, the more I root for ‘em.)
- When the horn starts blowing: “It’s a horn or something!” Thanks, Glenn.
- “Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” -Rick
- The cast is huge at this point. People have to start dying at some point. (I was going to make a jokey list of characters whose deaths would actually upset me, and realized it would be a surprisingly long list. Good work, show.)