‘The Walking Dead’ comes back from the grave
Jimmy Kemper | Thursday, February 25, 2016
For the first time in a while, I’m actually excited to watch “The Walking Dead.”
The episodes over the past two weeks have proven this show still has legs, unlike a few of the zombies Rick and his friends have faced. This most recent episode, “The Next World,” escaped the exhausting melodrama that bogged down the show for the past couple of seasons by settling in and focusing on a few characters in a peaceful, mostly zombie-free episode. It’s a stark change of pace from the also excellent mid-season premiere, “No Way Out,” which was one of the most thrilling and tense, action-oriented episodes we’ve had in quite some time.
Together, these two episodes are the highest point the show has reached in years. But of particular interest is “The Next World” because it subverts viewer expectations and is all the better for it. “No Way Out” left Rick and Co. in a particularly dreadful place: Alexandria had just barely managed to survive another onslaught of zombies, a number of the cast fell to the walkers and Carl’s life is still on the line.
Instead of dealing with the immediate consequences of this mess, “The Next World” skips those ramifications entirely, jumping ahead two full months. Alexandria is back up and running, completely devoid of walkers. The characters seem to be over their grieving and are diligently working to keep Alexandria this way. Even Carl is back in the action, albeit with one less eye. Life seems normal, or at least as normal as life can get several years after the apocalypse.
This sense of normality that pervades throughout the episode allows for a unique exploration of the characters and life around Alexandria. Carl and Enid hang out in the woods like typical teenagers until Enid gets sick of it — in typical angsty teenager fashion. Michonne also tracks Spenser, Deanna’s son, into the woods as he tries to get closure over his mother’s death. Carl ends up leading the zombified Deanna toward Spenser so he can finally put her to rest.
While the run-up to this sequence was less than perfect, the payoff is rewarding when Michonne and Carl’s story lines finally converge. Michonne confronts Carl about the incident, and we get a strangely touching moment when Carl reveals that he would want to be the one to kill off Michonne if she became a walker.
The big draw of this episode, though, is Rick and Daryl’s storyline as they go on a buddy road-trip on the quest for supplies. Here, we see a kind of Rick that hasn’t existed much throughout the melodrama of the apocalypse — a Rick who goofs off, cracks jokes with Daryl and sings along with his oldies tunes. It’s the kind of Rick that would make the apocalypse a little more enjoyable.
In this sequence, we also get our first look at a character who calls himself Jesus. Paul “Jesus” Monroe manages to escape and trick up Rick and Daryl several times throughout the episode and adds to the humor that’s been sorely lacking recently. He also brings with him the promise of “the next world,” both for Rick and Co. and for the show at large. If you’ve read the comics, you know that Jesus’ hints toward the next world are inevitably going to lead us Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan character and the horrors associated with his arrival.
The next world also involves increased diversity and complexity for the cast. Jesus is the first openly gay male in “The Walking Dead,” which is great both because it allows for a greater variety of storytelling and because of general representation concerns.
In the final moments of this episode, Michonne and Rick finally end up together after a few seasons worth of sexual tension and chemistry. It’s a very fulfilling scene and a very different kind of twist for “The Walking Dead” that shows that this next world may not be so bad after all, at least until next week’s episode.