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Written By:

Rich Cross

With The Walking Dead franchise now producing so much new content, each TV spin-off must establish its own distinctive identity and aesthetic immediately. Its makers have to give battle-hardened Walking Dead viewers a reason to commit to following yet another show set in the sprawling world of the walkers.

The extra challenge facing the showrunners of The Ones Who Live is crafting stories that deliver upset and surprise. That’s because they are duty-bound to make good on the show’s much-trailed premise: Rick and Michonne will be reunited, and – if that title is to be believed – neither of them will die. While that will be a fan-pleasing moment, it’s not enough on its own to sustain a series. The opening episode Years shows that the Rick-Michonne storyline will unfold in the context of a much larger military-political conflict involving the ruthless Civic Republic Military (CRM) and their equally implacable opponents.

Five years on from his abduction, Rick is once again a prisoner. Now fully recovered, he’s conscripted labour, part of a chain gang keeping a CRM-held city free of encroaching walkers. Ensuring that the city’s location remains secret means that no one is ever allowed to leave. The only hope is to survive long enough to win citizenship and enter the inner sanctum.

Even when Rick’s attempts to escape end in failure, his resilience and determination attract the attention of Lieutenant Okafor (an assured turn from Craig Tate), who tries to convince him his future lies in joining the CRM and reforming it from within. Rick also catches the eye of Major General Beale (Terry O’Quinn, at his enigmatic best), who’s keen to work out where Grimes’ loyalties lie. Rick must decide if any hope of returning to his family has gone and if he can reconcile himself to a soldier’s life instead.

What was originally announced as a trilogy of big-screen movies has evolved into this six-episode TV miniseries. The Ones Who Live is now the sixth Walking Dead spin-off (following on from Fear, World Beyond, Tales, Dead City, and Daryl Dixon). Its producers are keeping open the option of a second series, but insist that this story will unfold without crossovers with other TWD properties.

One of the attractions for Andrew Lincoln in returning to the role of Rick Grimes was the chance to do something different with the character. Scott Gimple’s script delivers that by taking Grimes’ mix of strength and world-weariness and putting him in a setting where he’s essentially powerless, alone, and out of options. Fans will relish Lincoln’s return to the role and the actor’s evident commitment to seeing Grimes’ story through to its conclusion. There’s nothing perfunctory about Lincoln’s performance.

Much of the running time of Years is spent on renewed world-building, introducing the culture of the CRM and teasing at the tensions and hidden divisions within it. That’s mixed in with flashbacks that reveal Grimes’ unseen life history following his character’s explosive departure from the original series in Season Nine. The episode covers a lot of ground, using what’s quite a complex structure, blending dream sequences, narrated montages, and time jumps to relate the story.

Dead City has its own signature design motifs, Daryl Dixon even more so. Despite its larger sense of scale, The Ones Who Live is not immediately able to match the same evocative sense of place. If anything, its larger canvas and functioning, populated city setting makes less visual impact – despite the reasonable quality CGI of urban degeneration. That might well improve as the show’s dramatic tone and texture evolves, and its key locations are settled.

Years ends with an audacious shock reveal that confirms that Gimple is no fan of deferred gratification. It’s a gutsy moment, which accelerates the narrative tempo and succeeds as the episode’s most confident single beat. But Years is a less compelling debut than those of either Dead City or Daryl Dixon. It’s an entertaining story, right enough, but there are too many big themes, secondary plot points, and short-lived supporting characters competing for attention for it to thoroughly convince.


New episodes of THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE premiere on AMC and AMC+ in the US each Sunday.

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