The Walking Dead Season 6 premiere opens with the camera facing up at our hero-turned-antihero, Rick Grimes, as he executes loathsome drunkard and abusive husband Pete. It’s a moment viewers might remember vividly from the Season 5 finale, but now, as the shot erupts, Rick’s face fades to black and white.
The Walking Dead writers are no strangers to the art of the flashback. Episodes have long been peppered with backward glances into the past. The Season 5 premiere even featured one at the very beginning, when we saw the people who had captured Rick’s group being held captive themselves—which had been the event that transformed them into cannibalistic monsters. These flashbacks, as flashbacks tend to do, have unveiled unseen backstories and reminded us of pivotal moments from previous episodes that give context to the present. Michonne’s showed us that she once had a lover and a son, both of whom she lost, and transformed her in our eyes from a two-dimensional badass into a more emotionally complicated character. This also explained some little moments that had previously been mysteries, like why she cried when she first held Rick’s daughter in her arms. And when Carol flashed back in Season 5 to all of the gruesome things she’s had to do to survive—and to a private moment of her crying alone after being exiled from the group—it underscored her development from a timid figure to a cunning fighter who will do whatever it takes to protect herself and her friends.
But the hour-and-a-half-long Season 6 premiere, which airs next Sunday, uses flashbacks in a new and inventive way. It takes a story and basically folds the whole thing in half—revealing it in equal parts through present-day action and flashbacks. After we watch Rick execute Pete and fade to black and white, the screen goes dark. Then the camera opens on Rick, in color, giving a rallying speech to a group of familiar faces and some strangers—in front of a zombie horde big enough to eat its way through a small town in one afternoon. Luckily, that horde is trapped in a ravine. And then, suddenly, as everyone disperses and shouts frantic directions, the zombies begin to escape.
Instead of immediately seeing this nightmare scenario play out, though, we cut again to where Season 5 left off on the night Rick executed Pete, with glimpses of various characters catching us up on what they were doing that night and in the days that followed, all in black and white. After we’re reacquainted with everyone, we cut back to the ongoing action for a while—again, in color. This pattern of toggling between past and present continues until almost the very end of the episode, when we watch Rick giving the same battle cry we watched at the episode’s start, now in color.
The flashbacks help emphasize the series’ usual recurring themes of ruthlessness and redemption by highlighting key character-developing moments—and turning them into miniature story arcs of their own. Rick, for instance, has come a long way from the good-guy Sheriff we met at the show’s beginning. The reality of surviving an apocalypse has transformed him from decent to dictatorial to delusional. In the season premiere, we begin to wonder whether Rick has gotten control over the rage that seemed to be consuming him toward the end of Season 5—but then we find out, in a key flashback that occurs right before he indifferently kills another character—that he’s just become terrifyingly good at concealing it.
Sometimes, the flashbacks force us to give characters we’ve taken for granted a second look. Abraham Ford had a devastating flashback of his own last season, when he recalled how his family fled after they saw his brutal side—and how he later found them dead. The premiere continues to disperse strategic glimpses into the past to hint that, despite his impressive mustache and tough-guy persona, he might actually be one of the group’s most psychologically fragile members. The flashbacks make him seem like a ticking emotional time bomb, nicely building suspense into his storyline.
The season premiere could easily have been told in a linear way. But hacked apart and reassembled, it becomes something denser than a straightforward, gory thriller. And despite all the chronological whiplash, the show moves forward at a steady, suspenseful clip. It deftly intersperses emotion with entrails. The showrunners have said that this season will use flashbacks extensively. So far, that seems like a very good thing.