Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, David Sims and Lenika Cruz will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
David Sims: The Walking Dead is on a serious roll. We’ve had three great episodes in a row now—the first a somewhat comic romp, the second focused on world-building and politics, and the third a barnstorming action-adventure. I’m still worried about Negan lurking around the corner, ready to take the spotlight, but until he makes his entrance and takes over the show, we might as well have some fun, and these episodes have delivered plenty.
“Not Tomorrow Yet” was a dark, thrilling hour of TV, but it wasn’t the misery brigade that last season’s pit-of-zombies adventure often felt like. As the gang raided one of Negan’s outposts, they grappled with the moral quandaries of their violence in real-time, making split-second decisions that seemed horrifying in retrospect, but crackled with energy in the moment.
That’s what I want from this show—an exploration of the extreme choices made to survive in this world, but in real-time. At the beginning of “Not Tomorrow Yet,” Carol made cookies for the people of Alexandria (out of ... beets and acorns?), scored to a bouncy tune, a tone that echoed the relative lightness of the show’s plotting in recent weeks. Later, she tallied up numbers in a notepad, next to names like “Slabtown,” and it was quickly apparent she was accounting for just how many lives she’s personally taken over the course of the series (forgetting all the zombies, of course). It was a quick, quiet, sobering reminder, not just of all the violence committed over the years, but of how quickly everyone on The Walking Dead has to compartmentalize and move forward, just to survive. Cookies one day, murder the next.
Time has passed on the show, of course, but it’s worth remembering it hasn’t been too long since that horrifying invasion of Alexandria by the Wolves, a scarring event that the show never really had time to fully unpack because of the time jump between “No Way Out” and “The Next World.” Forget the zombie pit or the brief encounters with Negan’s men. That’s the big reason Rick is in charge, and that’s why the Alexandrians are so quick to move against the Saviors. There isn’t a lot of tolerance for outsiders anymore, and Alexandria’s rebuilt walls aren’t there for show. As The Walking Dead moves into this exploration of the first vestiges of civilization post-apocalypse, the tribalism on display is hardly surprising. Negan’s Saviors may not even know about Alexandria yet, but they pose a threat, and need to be preemptively conquered.
At first, it seemed “Not Tomorrow Yet” would be the preamble episode before a big fight, taking stock of everyone’s situation in the town, one of those table-setters The Walking Dead often uses to mark time in the middle of a season. Not so much. We did check in with a lot of residents, but very briefly. Carol made a romantic connection with Tobin, dropping her guard and taking a tenuous step toward embracing a more settled life. Denise and Tara declared their love for each other in a very sweet scene that took me somewhat by surprise (their relationship clearly took a big leap forward during the time-jump) but still landed an emotional punch. And Abraham rather harshly dumped Rosita, following up on his story arc last week, telling her she’s no longer the last woman on earth.
All of these scenes had the vibe of a much, much darker war movie—soldiers heading off to the front, bidding goodbye to their loved ones in ways nice and not-so-nice. Abraham was probably being meaner than he needed to Rosita to put some necessary distance between them in case he doesn’t return, but it was still tough to watch. Tougher still was the mission itself, which involved Rick’s gang and Jesus sneaking up on Negan’s outpost, presenting Gregory’s head (actually a zombie) as a sort of peace offering, then ambushing everyone inside. This kind of sneak attack is pretty unusual for Rick’s gang, who usually only act when they’re fired upon.
The subsequent massacre was bravura television. Rick, Glenn, and others seemed genuinely disturbed at the idea of executing people they didn’t even know while they slept. Eventually, they got rumbled and we got lots of shooting and stabbing, but it was clear that this facility (a bunker underneath a huge satellite dish) was just level one of Negan’s whole enterprise. The raid was successful, but at what price? It’s hard to tell, but “Not Tomorrow Yet” was a great example of The Walking Dead having its cake with some furious action set pieces, and eating it too with some hideous moral repercussions. Were you as disturbed as I by the sleep-stabbing, Lenika? Where do Rick and company go from here?
Lenika Cruz: That whole sequence in Negan’s level-one bunker could have felt like a fun first-person-shooter mission; instead it came off as a claustrophobic nightmare, with the dim lighting, the rundown interior, and narrow hallways. And those sounds—the squelching, the crunching of bone—as Rick and Glenn sank their knives into the heads of the sleeping men were somehow more gory than watching a zombie gnaw on someone’s arm. Though I empathized with Heath, Rick, and Glenn’s horror at their own (utterly justified) actions, my concern melted away when Glenn surveyed those polaroid snapshots pinned to the wall. Forget a pleasant photo collage of smiling kids or bygone family days at the beach—who doesn’t love to fall asleep to a wall-full of pictures featuring mutilated corpses with their heads smashed in?
Cool world, this zombie apocalypse. These last few episodes especially have done a terrific job of re-situating where Rick and the gang currently fall on the moral spectrum. These check-ins are useful for viewers to understand the emotional and psychological toll different decisions will take, and how far everyone will go for X, Y, or Z reason. The Hilltop colony of last week, the Wolves from before, and even the Eastman episode all functioned as a kind of external rubric to judge the group against (the same goes for any time they meet a different community). Watching how Heath and Glenn recoiled (and cried!) as they tried to move on with the plan, juxtaposed with the apparent evil of the Saviors, felt like a clear recalibration of who our heroes are now—just before they head into yet another (likely deadly) crisis.
Another similar establishing scene: Rick in the church, relaying the terms of the deal Maggie made with Hilltop to the group, but saying that it ultimately wasn’t his decision to make. (A final message to anyone was still in doubt about the possibility of another Ricktatorship.) His much-welcomed acquiescence meant room for dissenting voices like Morgan—who proposed a sit-down before resorting to bloodshed—or Carol—who understandably questioned why a pregnant Maggie was allowed to go on such a dangerous mission. There’s plenty to be said for allowing a pregnant woman to make her own decisions and not be reduced to mere fetus incubator, but Maggie’s capture only seems to prove what a disastrous mistake it was for her to leave Alexandria. I don’t even want to think about what kind of torture the Saviors would eagerly put her through.
I thought Abraham’s breakup with Rosita couldn’t have been more cruelly orchestrated. You’d think that Rosita had been an awful girlfriend, rather than one who only last episode had given him a handmade memento necklace, and to whom Abraham had whispered sweet, pillow-talk nothings. If I had any renewed respect for Abraham, it vanished when he began behaving like an emotionally stunted teenager (to be honest, it felt a bit out of character for him, since he’s acted maturely and sensitively in the past). Rosita’s heartbreak was hard to watch, but there was one bright spot: Eugene’s hilariously ill-timed, bumbling appearance in the doorway, and Rosita’s subsequent door-slam.
One other loose end: Is it terrible that I loved Father Gabriel’s darkly comedic scene as the clerical-collar-wearing priest, calmly reciting Scripture before shooting the escaped Savior lying on the ground? It’s been interesting to see him reconcile his faith and his sense of self with the deeply contradictory actions he must perform in order to survive and to help protect his group. That said, part of me wonders if he’s going to swing too far in the opposite direction—he seemed almost numb as he pulled the trigger, while even Rick (who hours earlier punched a decapitated zombie head to disfigure its nose) hesitated before killing his first sleeping guard.
In the end, I was impressed The Walking Dead so quickly delivered another action-packed episode—it tends to withhold the showdowns, as if to make the most of the suspense, and squeeze in filler episodes instead. As you noted, David, “Not Tomorrow Yet” was the opposite of a filler episode. Yes, it had some slower moments that didn’t feel as well-scripted as they could have been—Tara and Denise’s farewell, or Morgan and Carol’s conversation (in which they didn’t even make eye contact! Literally, who in the real world has a serious discussion with one person standing behind the other person?). But these didn’t bother me too much in light of the significant plot movement forward and the other more meaningful instances of character development. I’m terrified for the week ahead, but this time for the right reasons: not because I’m dreading the writers screwing up the story, but because the story finally feels like it’s doing its job.