[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
The biggest difference between the first half of The Walking Dead season 6 and its second comes in 'The Next World.' It has nothing to do the characters' action necessarily; rather it's what the series itself does by jumping forward in time following the aftermath of last week's midseason premiere. The series not only feels prepared to move forward but has, for the most part, already done so. This is in sharp contrast to the first eight episodes and their indistinct sense of time – i.e., the way it felt as though weeks had transpired and yet, in terms of actual story, it had only been a few days at the most. It's such a dramatic shift from the season's first half that if 'No Way Out' had happened last year it's not difficult to imagine that at least one episode would have set about depicting Alexandria's cleanup in exacting detail.
But 'The Next World' bypasses all of that in favor of just moving forward. It's a satisfying event in its own right, further amplified by virtue of how impressive it feels in the specific wake of what came before. It also demonstrates the way in which the series has begun to express a greater appreciation of tonal shifts during and between episodes. 'The Next World' doesn't just stand in stark contrast to the first half of season 6; it stands in stark contrast to last week's episode, starting with the opening scene that presents Rick, Michonne, Carl, and Judith as not just survivors of the apocalypse and countless horrific events thereafter, but as a legitimate family unit.
What is more surprising is the way in which the actors are able to make the scenario feel like something more than a makeshift means of getting by. There is sincerity in the casual intimacy on display, which acts as a surprisingly potent and necessary element in selling this specific collection of characters as something more than a mere talking point or Damoclean setup teasing the inevitable sting of tragedy. To see Michonne walk around the house in a bathrobe, head wrapped in a towel while talking to Rick as he gets dressed and – shockingly – smiles throughout their conversation is remarkable enough. The fact that the conversation is primarily about toothpaste feels like the series legitimately taking a step forward and recognizing the advantage a semi-stable place like Alexandria can bring to the story.
There have been exceptions of course, but for much of the previous five and a half seasons it seemed as though all any of these characters had to talk about was the situation they were in. That is, the world has gone to pot and things generally suck. It's understandable and even logical that such conversations would take place, but that doesn't necessarily make them interesting from a storytelling standpoint. And besides, hearing the same characters have the same conversation over and over again has about as much appeal as watching knives repeatedly perforate the spongy heads of the undead. To be fair, talking about toothpaste isn't really any more interesting, but considering how far to the other side the conversational pendulum has swung, the mere idea of Rick and Michonne exchanging thoughts on oral hygiene and mint preferences makes the interplay stimulating for more than just the actual dialogue. As the opening scene proves – and much of the episode, really – seeing the characters discuss a want (even if its just some toothpaste or some "pop") and then attempt to obtain it is far more compelling from a storytelling perspective than listening to them lament all that has been lost.
Here, the hour works by giving its characters clear wants before sending them off in pursuit of those wants. Because of this, 'The New World' is maybe the first time Spencer (Austin Nichols) has come close to being interesting (he's not, but he does get close). All he wants is to find his mother Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh does some A+ zombie work, by the way) and put her to rest. The fact that Carl is cognizant of that fact is a nice addition to a simple but effective C-plot thread, but what really matters is how the episode breaks Spencer's character down to a clear want and turns that into a familiar but nonetheless significant moment for a character who has, up to this point, been defined primarily by his plot-specific errors or lapses in judgment (preventing a Wolf-driven truck from crashing through Alexandria's walls notwithstanding).
What 'The Next World' excels at, though, is in letting little moments inform on the characters' relationships and to suggest a deeper connection between them beyond "we survived some crazy stuff together". Rick and Daryl's daylong adventure in sorghum-and-snack-food hunting introduces Tom Payne's Paul 'Jesus' Rovia, which, in turn, gives the larger plotline a sense of forward momentum. While that progression proves the season does in fact have a pulse, the hour's lifeblood is found not in Jesus' Houdini-meets-Jackie-Chan-like exploits, but in the interactions between Rick and Daryl – their shorthand, especially. The Walking Dead can get so busy depicting the excruciating effort it takes to stay alive in this particular world there's no room to feel like any of the characters are doing any actual living. This time, though, the show makes a meal out of Rick and Daryl snacking on a can of Orange Crush and a Kit Kat in a way that underlines the simple joys of life (e.g., eating a candy bar and having something meaningful to do) without either man having to explain it.
It is satisfying to see The Walking Dead take time to focus on smaller interpersonal moments as a way of supplementing the table setting that is Jesus' arrival. But the episode doesn't rely entirely on those minor moments. Instead it makes a big gesture by confirming what the opening scene between Rick and Michonne had not so subtly insinuated. The scene helps remedy the onscreen scarcity of what, given the circumstances, is probably happening more than anyone realizes, but it also makes two characters, primarily defined by their prowess at making dead things dead again, feel distinctly alive and human and vulnerable. Those three elements go a long way in rejuvenating interest not only in Rick and Michonne, but in the stakes of the series as a whole. And for a show that sometimes finds it difficult to establish an emotional distinction between its living characters and the titular walking dead, episodes like 'The Next World' make that distinction clear, which makes all the difference.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Knots Untie' @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC