Gene Page / AMC

Each week following episodes of season six of The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the adventures of Rick Grimes and his group as they try to rebuild in the zombie apocalypse.

Cruz: Well, hey, that was better! I’m going to forgive the show its doddering sixth season premiere because in “JSS” this week we got a lot of Carol—maybe the best Walking Dead character ever. It’s not often that television, or any other medium for that matter, serves up a 50-year-old female action hero, not to mention one who survived domestic abuse and the death of her only daughter. So high praise to AMC for rescuing Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) from her housewife act again and thrusting her into exactly the type of situation where she thrives—the surprise siege by a horde of killers.

It seemed at first as though “JSS” was going to be a retread behind the walls of Alexandria. Rick, Michonne, Glenn, and the others were away on a badly timed impromptu mission to reroute the pit of walkers, and back home Carol was in the pantry discussing cream of celery soup and scolding a neighbor for smoking indoors. Abraham and Tara met a bland doctor named Dana—I mean, Denise—in the infirmary. Jessie was at odds with her eldest son Ron, who blames Rick (and maybe her) for the death of his abusive father. Carl moodily walked Baby Judith in her stroller and even more moodily observed Enid hugging Ron in the distance.

But one minute you’re making a casserole, the next a machete-wielding stranger is attacking your neighbor outside your window—which happened to Carol in one of the more memorable episodes in recent Walking Dead history. It also worked as a terrifying introduction to the so-called Wolves, who’ve been a hazy threat to the group since last season. These invaders instead raided the compound, indiscriminately killed anyone in their path, gleefully hacked away the limbs of their victims, and painted the letter “W” in blood on their own foreheads. It’s been a while since the show has grappled with a powerful, non-zombie external threat, especially one this malicious. Even the cannibals back in season four and five had a kind of humanity to them.

I complained last week that the show shafted viewers on quality time with Morgan (Lennie James), after he joined the group at Alexandria in the season-five finale. Fortunately, this episode did better than stick him beside a grumbling Rick; it placed him instead next to Carol. This made for a far more interesting dynamic. Carol responded to the Wolves with cold pragmatism and cunning: She secured Carl and Judith, mercy-killed a friend, observed the Wolves long enough to learn their ways, killed several, and then disguised herself in one of their clothes so she could blend in with the others. Morgan proved equally capable at protecting himself and others with his kendo skills. But unlike Carol, he refused to kill non-walkers. And he held out ... until the very end.

If you’ll bear with me I want to loop back to the cold open, which told the story of how Enid, Carl’s friend/love interest, arrived at Alexandria. Her parents were eaten in front of her, she learned to kill walkers, and she hunted for food, all the while tracing the letters “JSS”—“Just Survive Somehow”—as a reminder. The flashback was presented, though, with the crucial parts missing. It showed walkers approaching her family’s van, but cut to the aftermath, with Enid looking in terror at her parents’ bodies. When she approached a walker for her first kill, the camera cut to after she stabbed it. And when she picked up a turtle to eat it, the camera skipped its death to show Enid picking at the meat. In leaving out these now-mundane moments of brutality it’s almost as if the show was telling viewers, “We know you’ve seen this before, so we won’t bore you.”

But through Carol and Morgan, scenes of violence that could be passé took on new meaning, as the episode earnestly tried to understand the personal toll that not looking away can have. Carol watched her neighbor get cut down and went back to look at her body; killed one of the Wolves, but not in time to save her mortally wounded friend, whom she had to stab in the head; and methodically eliminated every threat she came across. Morgan staved off the intruders with his stick, looking them in the eyes and giving them a chance to leave; saw Father Gabriel get attacked and saved him; and apologized to his would-be killer before bashing his head in. So when the two crossed paths at the very end, there was a silent, psychic discord between them. It made me think of how many different ways there are to survive, somehow.

David, there’s a lot to talk about in this episode—the boring infirmary bit, Deanna and Maggie’s bonding, Father Gabriel’s return to the fold, and perhaps most compelling of all, Jessie’s drastic efforts to protect her sons. What will Rick and the rest do when they get back—or will they run into the Wolves on their way?

Sims: I adored that flashback sequence at the beginning exactly for the reason you said: It conveyed all the necessary info with none of The Walking Dead’s usual (and sometimes tired) approach to violence. I’m reminded of last season, when I was bugged by how graphically the death of Noah was depicted in the episode “Spend” (poor Glenn had to watch his face get ripped to pieces). Perhaps there was some argument that the event of Noah’s death had to be as traumatic as possible, because it helped harden Glenn’s heart, but I found poor Enid’s journey far more wrenching to watch. Cutting from her parents’ overheard voices to the sight of their corpses being rooted through by zombies was all we needed, and put the audience squarely in Enid’s headspace. When you watch a gruesome scene, it’s hard for your brain not to turn off and remember that it’s just a TV show—but in those opening minutes, you were stuck with Enid.

That’s why “JSS” was a triumph in general, even though it featured lots of nasty violence—because it knew when to cut away. That shot from Carol’s point of view through the kitchen window as her smoking neighbor gets cut down with a machete? That was chilling stuff. I know we still don’t totally know the Wolves’ deal, but because this episode came mostly from Carol’s perspective, I enjoyed not finding out. Carol doesn’t care who the Wolves are or why they’ve come to Alexandria. She just knows that they’re rampaging with axes, dismembering its soft citizenry, and that she can’t let them near the guns. Watching Carol spring into action felt genuinely triumphant—she thinks fast, immediately donning Wolves garb and drawing a “W” on her forehead in blood—and was nicely tempered by Morgan’s reticence to match her itchy trigger finger.  

So what’s up with these Wolves, huh? As you noted, Lenika, they’re basically without humanity. The Terminus cannibals were scarred by previous incursions into their territory; the Governor’s folk had fallen in line behind a brutal dictator. True to their name, the Wolves are practically animals, clicking and hissing at each other and taking axes to people for no good reason, hacking away with glee long after they’ve died. Doesn’t seem like much of a long-term foe, but in the short term they presented a real dilemma to Morgan, who’s become very anti-murder. He speaks to the humanity in all of us, and here he’s immediately confronted with an enemy entirely lacking it. What’s a kendo warrior to do?

In the same vein, it’s interesting what the writers are doing here, quickly tearing down the peaceful commune of Alexandria and proving Rick right at every turn. They thought they were largely avoided by zombies—until they found a pit of zombies. They thought their walls were strong enough—but they’re immediately breached by this Wolves incursion. It all feels a little too simple, but I also applaud the show for avoiding mistakes it’s made in the past and settling into a location. It’s going to have to move on from Alexandria, or at least fundamentally remake it, pretty quickly to avoid the kind of narrative stagnation it found at the farm or the prison. These Wolves can help clean house.

The general carnage, and emotional through-line, and moral conflict between Carol and Morgan were what I really liked about this episode (also, the clever reveal of what made that air-horn sound from last week). I didn’t find Denise the doctor too compelling as a character, but she was saved by being played by Merritt Wever, one of TV’s most unsung actors, so I’ll give her a few weeks and hope she comes into her own. I’m happy Father Gabriel has figured out some personal truths about himself, but his storyline has always been frustratingly one-note. It was important to see Jessie and her kids talk about the death of Pete, and the scissor-stabbing moment was quite cathartic, but “JSS” was best when it was just soaking in the overall chaos. I can’t wait to see what happens next week as the storylines intermingle again.

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