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New Season Of 'The Walking Dead' Likely To Please Thrillseekers


AMC's zombie drama "The Walking Dead" reaches an important TV milestone on Sunday. It'll air its 100th episode, kicking off its eighth season on air. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show may have to work hard to win back fans who were put off by some brutal turns last season. This review, by the way, discloses some of those previous brual plot turns.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As Sunday's episode begins, hero Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, is delivering a speech. He and his followers are about to fight and possibly die to free their community from the control of a murderous madman.


ANDREW LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Those who use and take and kill to carve out the world and make it theirs alone - we end them. There's only one person who has to die. And I will kill him myself. I will. I will.

DEGGANS: That person is supervillain Negan, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. When last season started - spoiler alert - we saw Negan pick up a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat and kill two characters fans of the show loved. He murdered hardboiled ex-soldier Abraham and stalwart husband and father-to-be Glen Rhee.


JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN: (As Negan) You can breathe. You can blink. You can cry. Hell, you're all going to be doing that.

DEGGANS: The trauma of that moment shocked viewers and led to storylines where Rick and his followers were dominated and brutalized by Negan and his men. It was a bummer of a season as the show's heroic survivors were divided and demoralized. Ratings dipped, and former fans wondered if the aging show was finally slowing down for good. But in Sunday's episode, we see Rick gather a force and confront Negan, making an offer to his followers that looks tough to refuse.


LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Listen. All of you have a chance to survive here, to survive this. Y'all can live if you surrender - can't guarantee it any time but now, right now.

DEGGANS: Anyone who's seen previous episodes of "The Walking Dead" where Rick often tries to get enemies to give up rather than fight can guess how this ends. Negan is not giving up. Because this is "The Walking Dead," Sunday's episode doesn't tell a linear story. Instead, it jumps back and forth in time, showing preparations for the confrontation, the actual confrontation and some time, presumably in the future, when Rick has a Santa Claus-level white beard.

But what Sunday's episode really reveals is how hard the show is working to try to entertain us again. There's a lot more action here. But as Rick and his followers prepare for battle, we hear no less than three speeches from different characters about the fight they're taking on. Even Glenn's widow, Maggie, gets in on it.


LAUREN COHAN: (As Maggie) We all know the plan doesn't end this morning, that we may have to live in uncertainty for days, maybe more, that we have to keep our faith in each other. If we can hold onto that with everything we have, the future is ours.

DEGGANS: In an odd way, it feels like they're also talking to viewers, telling them not to give up on a hit show that still dares to challenge them. Some say "The Walking Dead" is an allegory for our fear of outsiders, a horror-show version of anti-immigrant or anti-refugee sentiment. But I've always seen the zombies - or walkers, as they're called in the world of the show - as a natural disaster. They're a plague that pushes aside the thin veneer of civilization and asks, what will you do to survive in this new world, and can you keep your humanity while doing it?

This war with Negan will last for several episodes, so it's tough to know based on the one episode shown to critics if "The Walking Dead" regains its old mojo. But at a time when the real world seems scarier than ever, it helps to see a group of people once demoralized and fractured band together to make their home a better place. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNIPERUM'S "WALKING DEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.