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.
David Sims: After The Walking Dead returned with last week’s brutal slog, I felt more detached from the show than ever. Life in Alexandria felt unsalvageable, the body count had piled even higher, and Carl was newly disfigured. What a difference a week makes! “The Next World” actually featured a more significant time jump than that, and it was exactly the reset we needed. Lenika, you talked last week about the show’s creators saying they wanted to lean more on humor in this coming half-season. I found that hard to believe, but “The Next World” was indeed a rather light, funny episode that ended on a surprising note—but not a bloody one, for once.
I’ll get to that ending in a minute, but first the time-jump itself, which I initially thought might have been months, but now I’m not entirely sure. The walls of Alexandria are rebuilt (perhaps extended?), Carl is up and walking (though wearing an eyepatch), and little baby Judith is starting to toddle around. However long it’s been, it was just what this viewer needed. I’m sick of carnage and episodes that take place entirely at night, and I’m glad the gang isn’t just on the road again to points unknown. They’re making Alexandria work, for now, and I guess they’re just ignoring the looming threat of Negan, whose gang apparently hasn’t made any extra trouble since Daryl blew some of them up with a rocket launcher in the last episode.
So the main action of “The Next World” saw Rick and Daryl drive around the countryside looking for salvage and generally acting like a cute couple. When’s the last time these two have spent a lot of time together onscreen? It was great seeing them bicker over the radio and gently discuss their respective personal evolutions in recent months. Rick recognizes that Daryl has become less cold-blooded, despite his still-tough exterior, and acknowledges that he’s evolving in the same direction. Usually these leadership debates play out in much darker circumstances, through shouted speeches or grunting monologues, but this episode spared us the usual dramatics. Light humor on The Walking Dead! Who even thought such a thing was still possible?
Things went from quietly funny to majorly madcap when Rick and Daryl ran into a hirsute Jared Leto-lookalike named Paul, or Jesus, if you prefer. Played by the English actor Tom Payne, he’s a slippery sort with all kinds of skills—martial arts, deception, unprecedented athletic ability—who, for once, wasn’t being introduced as the latest adversary for the gang to overcome. The audience immediately recognized that Jesus was up to no good, hoping to steal a truck full of supplies that Rick and Daryl discovered in a garage, but he also wasn’t evil—just another scavenger playing the same game. Throughout the episode, Rick and Daryl tangled with Jesus, trading possession of the truck in a bunch of expertly choreographed action sequences before losing it altogether, a trite lesson learned about working together. We’ll see more of Jesus, of course, since he gets brought back to Alexandria, but that was about as winning an introduction a character can get on this show.
The episode’s B-plots were much less interesting, though they did some necessary unpacking of the trauma suffered in recent weeks. They both involved random pairs walking in the woods—Carl and Enid in the middle of their very slow-moving flirtation, and Spencer and Michonne meandering through the forest looking for ... well, something. The setup for each plot was a little vague, and the payoff was something we’ve seen before—an encounter, for both pairs, with poor zombified Deanna. Carl seemed to think he needed to confront her as some way of saying goodbye; Spencer’s motivations were even more nebulous (it almost seemed like he was in the woods for something else, then used the encounter with his mother as an excuse to placate the suspicious Michonne). There needed to be some acknowledgement of recent losses, but this was too muddled and boring to have any emotional impact.
Before I hand off to you, Lenika, how about those final minutes! At the beginning of the episode, there was a surprising suggestion of familiarity between Rick and Michonne, as she bantered with him and Carl while wearing a bathrobe, and I wondered if the time-jump was going to be drastic enough to include a new romantic connection. Yes, but not quite—while crashing on the couch together at the end of the episode, Rick and Michonne finally sealed the deal on a potential romance that hasn’t exactly been bubbling away in the background, but has always felt possible. Am I crazy for saying so? They’ve always had chemistry on the battlefield, and they understand each other better than most. Is this something that will drive fans into wild rapture, or incensed protest? More importantly, did you think this moment worked?
Lenika Cruz: I had the exact same reaction you did in that first scene, David. Carl smiling with an eyepatch and holding baby Judith ... in a framed photograph? Rick and Michonne teasing each other ... while the latter lounges in a bathrobe? In Maggie’s chat with Enid, she suggested that it had been “weeks” since the bloodbath, and I think the time jump worked perfectly: Just enough to move past the familiar cleanup and rebuilding, while keeping the momentum. I will say, I could tell from the cold open that this was going to be a better hour than usual. The camera work was excellent (and remained that way for the entire episode), the dialogue was engaging, the pacing brisk, and we got the amusing shot of a newly at-peace Rick cranking up the music volume to Daryl’s dismay.
A few quibbles aside, I’d consider “The Next World” one of the show’s best hours in a while: clear proof of how wonderful The Walking Dead can be when the stars align. And it was wonderful in precisely all the areas that tend to be terrible. Usually, the one-on-ones make me want to throw myself into the jaws of a sewer zombie, but every pairing this week not only made sense, but also meaningfully advanced the story or the characters. (For this, let’s praise the writers Angela Kang and Corey Reed and the director Kari Skogland.) Even the B-plot scenes with Michonne and Spencer, and Enid and Carl’s emo-teen book club, felt particularly strong. Perhaps that’s because the show wisely chose to tell the stories of a handful of characters, rather than scattering its attention across all of Alexandria.
Really, if only you could have seen my reaction to Michonne and Rick finally realizing they’re destined to be together. Skogland’s direction (and Danai Gurira and Andrew Lincoln’s performances) made that scene so beautiful and tender, I felt for a second like I was watching a romantic drama, not a gory zombie thriller. I will tolerate no hating on this matter: Obviously they are perfect. They’ve been looking out for each other for ages. Carl loves Michonne, and she loves him (and baby Judith). Next to Lori and Jessie and probably all of womankind, Michonne is a goddess—she’s smart, strong, kind, brave, stunning, and principled. Even an episode ago, I would’ve questioned whether Rick was good enough for her. This is the man who, leaving his unconscious son in the makeshift hospital, decided to run outside alone and start killing walkers to blow off some steam, forcing everyone else into harm’s way as they tried to protect him. Actions like these don’t exactly scream “life partner.”
But Rick’s behavior in this episode alone convinced me that he’s finally ready for a real relationship. I actually like Rick now. It feels like a small thing to admit (and characters can still be fascinating without being likable), but I can’t remember the last time I did. He’s the lynchpin of the series, meaning he’s allowed to do anything and everything, including the kinds of things that should make the audience afraid for his life but don’t, because we know he survives. I’d lost interest in him because all he did for a while was languish, scold people, kill people, and make out with someone I didn’t care for. This new Rick is someone I wouldn’t mind spending more time with—there’s a levity to him, a sense of self-assurance that hopefully signals a new arc.
There was no way his and Daryl’s supply run was going to be like a quick run to the grocery store, but their adventure may have been the highlight of the episode (aside from the ending). It moved easily between high suspense and humor—as Walking Dead viewers we’re used to ambushes or other FUBAR twists, not something as delightful as the introduction of Jesus. Yes, Rick and Daryl had to run a half marathon before they caught up to him (n.b.: Orange Crush is good for replenishing electrolytes), but I began cheering for this well-groomed gentleman once he revealed his sweet fighting moves. What’s not to like about a guy who hitched a ride on the roof of a truck moments after being hogtied on the side of the road, whose grand plan for evading an angry Daryl was to just literally run in circles around him?
After the episode, while internally singing “Jesus Walks” to myself, I thought a little about the show’s timely return to this theme of family. Viewers have seen so many families destroyed over the seasons. The last episode alone ended with a mother and her two sons being wiped out. Spencer is only starting to come to terms with the loss of his mother and father. Now, Carl, Michonne, and Rick, having lost almost everything, are feeling their way toward a new iteration of family—one made stronger, not weaker, by its grim history. One that absorbed all those years of anger, pain, and fear, found that the road led, miraculously, not to death, but to love.