'Walking Dead' goes to war in new season

Norman Reedus in 'The Walking Dead'

(CNN)The following is a spoiler-free review of "The Walking Dead" season premiere.

Promotion for "The Walking Dead" features the phrase "ALL OUT WAR," which offers a pretty good road map as to where last season ended and this one begins. The result is a premiere impressive in its scale but preoccupied with tactics and strategy, offering a sketchy blueprint as to where the story goes from here.
On the plus side, the eighth-season opener features a sprawling assortment of characters -- as opposed to "Dead's" by-now familiar habit of scattering them and pursuing personal, individual subplots -- united under their leader Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in a military-style campaign to defeat Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Inasmuch as Negan's forces have thus far appeared invincible, outflanking them at every turn, nobody expects the baseball-bat-wielding psychopath to go quietly, but Rick still harbors some hope they can avoid full-scale conflict.
    "There's only one person who has to die," he says, during a speech intended to rally the troops in the early going.
    Although the Negan plot, having originated in the comics, was eagerly anticipated, it has presented challenges for the show -- pushing it farther into a brand of sadism that goes well beyond anything the zombies have inflicted in quite a long time. Even the producers acknowledged a need to dial that back, or at least down, after the coy cliffhanger that ended season six and brutal start to season seven.
    At the same time, the struggle against Negan plays into the moral issues the show has raised -- specifically, whether it's possible for even the ostensible good guys to occupy the high ground in the face of such an utterly lawless landscape.
    Being celebrated for marking the show's 100-episode milestone, this first episode certainly doesn't lack tension, while providing some hints at what might be to come. The current makeup of the cast remains a formidable asset, even with recent high-profile departures. On "The Walking Dead," death is, after all, a part of life.
    A hit of this magnitude doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it's worth noting that the series returns after a spate of unenviable publicity. Headlines from the summer included the tragic death of a stunt man working on the show, and another lawsuit filed by "Dead" producers over their share of its profits, separate from the ongoing case of Frank Darabont, who developed the series. At this point AMC, at least, has more to fear from lawyers than zombies.
    For now, though, "The Walking Dead" can get back to the bloody business of the battle for authority over this bleak world, as well as the souls of its central characters.
    Tantalizing as that sounds, creatively speaking, the show's best days appear to be behind it. But amid such success there's not much to do but keep marching forward, while serving notice that in the current plot line, some might get out alive, but almost nobody looks like they're going to escape unscathed.
    "The Walking Dead" premieres Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. on AMC.