The latest episode of The Walking Dead, “The Next World,” is by and large a necessary, if not exactly radical, pressing of the reset button. “Start to Finish” culminated with a vision of what appeared to spell the end for Alexandria, and “No Way Out” with the promise of its salvation, with the denizens of the safe-zone fighting in emphatic lockstep to reclaim their little patch of earth from a mass of zombie marauders. “The Next World” jarringly leaps forward in time to reveal Alexandria still standing, and it conveys all the gumption that went into keeping it so through a wide range of non-incidents.
The worst of these land with the force of a sledgehammer: As Michonne (Danai Gurira) follows Spencer Monroe (Austin Nichols) outside of Alexandria, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) approaches Enid (Katelyn Nacon) and, entirely for our benefit, speaks of the work that people did to “get this place back together.” But the best of these, mostly the scenes depicting Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) going out for supplies, suggest said work through implication. All the names that have been added to the memorial wall tell no lies—and neither does Daryl’s frustration at Rick for singing along to the CD he slides into their car’s stereo. It may or may not be the only music left in their immediate world, but it’s certainly been the only soundtrack to these runs for medicine, food, or other desirables requested by their group.
The moment is figurative, expressive of Rick and Daryl having been down this particular road before. It’s clever, then, when this point is subsequently flipped and made literal: a long shot of their car soaring past an intersection and out of frame before pulling back to the spot and turning onto an unfamiliar road. And at the end of it is a supply outpost of sorts with the word “Sorghum” drawn onto a garage door, behind which is parked a truck within which is a small treasure trove of supplies that one also understands is capable of keeping the people of Alexandria satisfied for some time. The unfurling of these events is so elegant it brings to mind nesting dolls being separated from one another.
After stopping at a gas station, to raid a vending machine they subsequently chain to their new truck, Rick and Daryl bump into a man who claims to be running from the dead. The beautiful-eyed stranger calls himself Paul “Jesus” Monroe (Tom Payne), and even if you don’t know that this is our introduction to one of The Walking Dead comic’s most essentially good characters, you’ll know as much when he says, after ingeniously stealing the truck from under Rick and Daryl’s noses, “I think you know I’m not a bad guy.” Or at least by the time Jesus tells Daryl, while fighting him for the truck whose ownership passes between them in an amusing spectacle of almost silent-film slapstick, to duck so he can shoot the zombie coming up behind him.
Jesus lives to the end of the episode because Rick and Daryl understand his ways to be different from those of the biker gang that the latter blew to smithereens last week. Jesus’s beard is well-manicured, which suggests that he might come from a camp that Rick and his group might want to know, and he more or less passed the test Rick delivers to all prospective compatriots almost as soon as they met, though it certainly helps that Jesus never pulled a gun on him and Daryl. The show’s audience is long-familiar with Rick’s gift for intuition, and this episode’s strength derives from how his reading of Jesus dovetails with the way we’re meant to piece together the full scope of Alexandria’s resurgence through telling bits of character interaction.
And, of course, some of these bits are more dimensional than others. Michonne and Rick hook up by the end of the episode, and if the moment appears to come out of nowhere, it’s because there’s little sense of how they might have grown even closer to one another throughout Alexandria’s rebuilding and Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) healing process. For now, their roll in the hay registers only as a product of lust, and if it remains as such, their union may end up feeling like a ratings grab. I worry, too, and not to put too much of a fine point on it, that the series may be unveiling another prolonged trolling of audiences to rival “Is Glenn Dead?”-gate, hinting at aspects of the comic and rumors addressed on the press circuit in the way Daryl both instinctually trusts in Jesus and pointedly and repeatedly pushes the unconscious prisoner off of him while driving him back to the safe-zone.
Elsewhere, Enid continues to emerge as one of the show’s most richly observed characters. As she and Carl walk through the woods outside of Alexandria, the hopes of a long-lost past rub up against the realities of a cruel present. Carl needs to walk through these woods because it reminds him of everything that kids were able to freely and safely do before the zombie apocalypse, while she longs to go back inside. This is a far cry from the Enid who only wanted to get away from the safe-zone, and her desire to return to it, even if she remains in a perpetually shell-shocked state, speaks as much to her desire to have nothing to do with the spaces that remind her of her parents’ death as it does to her devotion to whatever lessons Glenn taught her about not giving up on her adopted family.
Pity, then, that this haunting assessment of Enid’s psychological turmoil also has to partly hinge on a bit of audience misdirection, as the full extent of her insecurities boil to the surface in a scene where she and Carl fight over whether to put a walker out of her misery. By the time it becomes clear that Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh) is the zombie, and that Spencer treks into the woods to find her and to do to her the thing that Carl feels isn’t his right, audiences may either be moved or dumbstruck by the sentiment of it all. This subplot works, at the very least, to round out Nichols’s character, but given how much time is bound to be spent across the next few episodes charting the socio-political landscape that Alexandria will become part of, this moment may represent the first of many familiar beats to come: a little bit of grue here and there to break up what the show’s producers self-defeatingly believe audiences will react to as monotonous world-building.
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