Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Lenika Cruz: I’m certain it’s no coincidence that a character by the name of Jesus appeared and suddenly The Walking Dead was saved. If “The Next World” tentatively renewed my faith in the rest of season six, “Knots Untie” has forced me to join the camp of the show’s true believers again. Jesus isn’t just a cool new character—he’s also a narrative windfall (or land mine, depending on how much you want to dwell on all the tragedies that undoubtably lie ahead). Learning of the existence of Jesus’s Hilltop colony, and of Negan’s group, the Saviors, may be the biggest world-building development since the introduction of the Wolves. The show was starting to languish in the stale, claustrophobic Alexandria, so I sensed a cure-all coming when Jesus told Rick, Michonne, Maggie, and the rest, “Your world’s about to get a whole lot bigger.”
“Cure-all” is maybe a touch hyperbolic and premature, but judging by this episode, a bigger world has already led to a more promising story. Rick, Michonne, Glenn, Maggie, Abraham, and Daryl hopped in the RV and followed Jesus to his community in hope that they could strike up a trade deal and refill their dwindling food supply. Of course, Jesus’s line that “things aren’t as simple as they may seem” may as well be the disclaimer for every new community the group discovers. (No hospital is just a hospital; no genteel governor is just a genteel governor.) In this case, Hilltop may have livestock and crops and a fancy mansion, but its lack of fighters and ammo forced the colony to make a deal with Negan and his Saviors to keep them from murdering everyone. So, naturally, Rick and the gang proposed to go take on these bloodthirsty monsters in exchange for food and supplies. Naturally. What could go wrong?
I, for one, anticipate a Pyrrhic victory that’s more “Pyrrhic” than “victory.” So does everyone else, I’m guessing. (As wise Maggie offered darkly: “It’s going to cost us.”) But at least now that show has essentially revealed its endgame for the season—a bloody showdown between the Alexandrians and the Saviors. I couldn’t blame Rick and the crew for their hubris in volunteering for such a huge task. As Rick said, confrontation has never been their weak spot. They’re battle-tested—the masters of impossible head shots, the possessors of great cardiovascular endurance, the epitome of cool under pressure. And at this point, their ability to fight—a skill that seemed woefully mismatched to the placid earlier days of Alexandria—is their only currency. That brawl in the yard, which began with a Red Wedding-esque act of betrayal against Gregory (“Negan sends his regards”) and ended with a blood-drenched Rick shrugging at the stunned onlookers was a perfectly timed demonstration of their value.
But even apart from the central action, “Knots Untie” was a terrific hour of TV. The two subplots—Abraham’s concerns about building a family and Maggie’s negotiations with the Hilltop leader Gregory—not only dovetailed with the larger arc, but also had full and elegant mini-arcs of their own. The Walking Dead has concerned itself with the philosophical dimensions of having children in a post-apocalyptic world in the past. But having Abraham grapple with his simultaneous love for Sasha and his sense of affection and duty for Rosita gave his character a new depth. And the show handled it with uncommon subtlety: The tail-light necklace metaphor and Abraham’s near-death moment of clarity kept the thread from feeling like a tonally awkward soap opera. His plight threw the attitudes of other characters into relief as well—Daryl as the perennial lone wolf, who acutely sees the tragic potential in family-building; and Maggie, Glenn, and Michonne as the optimists, despite the odds.
Meanwhile, Maggie’s quick, assured rise to the level of Deanna’s successor led to one of the best lines in an episode that had plenty. “See? I have leverage,” she told a bedridden Gregory, after she demanded half of everything Hilltop had in exchange for saving them from Negan. It couldn’t have been a more satisfying reversal from earlier. David, you were probably also horrified, yet unsurprised, to learn that powerful men who feel entitled to women’s bodies are alive and well in the zombie apocalypse. Gregory’s creepy attempts to exploit Maggie’s vulnerability could not have worked less in his favor, but I was glad the episode 1) didn’t draw out his predatory behavior and 2) didn’t use it to trigger Glenn/Rick/Daryl into killing him out of anger. “See?” the show seemed to be saying. “We have restraint.”
David, which line of this episode was your favorite? Was it Abraham interrogating Glenn: “When you were pouring the Bisquick, were you trying to make pancakes?” Or was it every time someone said “Jesus” (“We’re not going to hurt you. We’re friends of Jesus”)?
David Sims: Abraham’s musings on pancake-making were top-notch, helped along by watching Glenn silently try to unpack what the hell he was talking about. I too enjoyed this episode, and I’m generally heartened by the show’s lighter tone after last year’s miserable set-piece. But, like Maggie, I’m fearful about what’s around the corner. The strong world-building of “Knots Untie” further gave the sense that The Walking Dead is going to change from a show that’s always on the road to one that’s about civilization taking deeper root.
I’m fascinated by the Hilltop colony, which stands in contrast to both the cloistered world of pre-Rick Alexandria and the shoot first, ask questions later approach of our main characters. These are smart, wily people, especially Jesus, but they’re cowed by the unseen protection racket of Negan, whose actions we’ve only seen in proxy form so far. I was excited to see Xander Berkeley, a character actor who excels at playing slimeballs, in the role of Gregory, but I don’t think The Walking Dead is too interested in delving into the dynamics of Hilltop and how he ascended to its leadership. Everything’s pointing toward a much bigger showdown, which gives me pause.
To me, The Walking Dead is at its best when it’s tackling smaller situations, like Slabtown or Terminus—I like watching the show spin little yarns of how people might behave at the end of the world. The way Negan is talked about in “Knots Untie,” it’s hard not to think of the maniacal Governor, who dominated the action in the show’s third and fourth seasons, when it was at its absolute worst. Yes, the zombie-ridden world of The Walking Dead is suited to dictators and psychotic maniacs, but hopefully there’ll be more to this new adversary than just the constant threat of violence, torture, and death for all who defy him.
But, like Rick and company, I guess I’ll worry more about Negan later. “Knots Untie” did a very nice job building up some characters who haven’t gotten enough attention lately, like Maggie (whose bedside confrontation with Gregory was something special) and Abraham. Perhaps one reason I’m so worried about Negan’s rise is that I’ve become so attached to this current ensemble and, for the most part, just want them to live in peace in Alexandria for the rest of their days. The group’s decision to go after this local bully is perfectly in line with their characters—they’re not one to be intimidated, after all—but it’s characters like Abraham and Maggie that I’m going to fret over once open warfare begins.
I’ll say this, though: I’m glad the show is taking a bit of a break from zombies for the moment. That shot of a useless walker, pinned under a car and growling harmlessly, seemed like a clever little hat-tip to the audience. After a half-season that was largely about the zombie horde as a threat, we’re digging back into The Walking Dead’s real villains—humankind—as the show gears up for its next major arc. That the people of Hilltop have survived for so long with barely any weapons is a bit of a head-scratcher, but the show doesn’t want us thinking about such zombie practicalities at the moment. Now that, I don’t mind so much.