'Walking Dead' enters political coalition-building phase

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in 'The Walking Dead'

(CNN)The following contains spoilers about "The Walking Dead's" February 12 episode.

After the first half of its season seemed to inordinately wallow in violence and brutality, "The Walking Dead" appears to be entering a more political phase, devoted to building coalitions against a totalitarian regime.
Of course, the kick off to the current flight of episodes, which aired Sunday, is all about jaw-boning with different constituencies in preparation for war -- about Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his group seeking to convince other communities to join them in a battle against Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). So far, the appeals haven't been very effective, but there were signs of discord within the ranks that suggest some are willing to enlist in the cause, even if that means going against their leaders.
While first impressions of this latest hour might be that not much happened, the shift toward persuasion, as opposed to brute force, represents something of a welcome respite. It also reflected a return -- even if it's only temporary -- to keeping Rick's gang together, as opposed to scattering them about and featuring individual or pairs of characters in stand-alone episodes.
    Although "The Walking Dead" remains a major hit, ratings for the show steadily declined throughout the fall, which some attributed to its escalating levels of violence. That's probably a too-simplistic read on the defections, since other factors -- including the show's age and a few too-cute cliffhangers -- no doubt played a part.
    Still, the drop was precipitous enough to suggest a sizable number of viewers were losing patience with the program. Producer Gale Anne Hurd also acknowledged that the creative team was sensitive to the criticism and had sought to "tone it down" after the season premiere.
    Obviously, there's a gross-out element associated with the horror genre that some fans expect. At its best, though, "The Walking Dead" is about human interaction, and a post-apocalyptic society where lawlessness is the norm.
    Throughout its run, the show has been about a search for safety and security under that scenario, with the zombies receding further into the background as the most serious threat.
    To be fair, Rick and his posse can't stay comfortably ensconced anywhere for too long. A series with zombies baked into its DNA can't become a debating society.
    Yet if there's a way to engineer what amounts to an inflight course correction, part of that requires rediscovering the show's core characters and internal sense of community. The premiere felt like a modest, lurching step in that direction, after having let Negan (heard, but not seen, Sunday) essentially overwhelm the narrative, thanks to a mix of his dictatorial manner and Morgan's magnetic presence.
    At times "The Walking Dead" has deviated from the comics, but the current storyline appears to be heading toward a major, potentially bloody showdown with Negan and the Saviors. Even so, the writers would benefit from remembering what made so many viewers connect with the show on an emotional level, not merely a visceral one.
    Besides, if nothing else it was sort of nice to get through an hour with a bit more talk and less head bashing, for however long that lasts.