[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 11. There will be SPOILERS.]
Making new friends on The Walking Dead is not something that comes easy. And when it comes to Rick and his group of survivors, making new friends seems downright impossible. Rick's outward hostility and lightning-quick temper are hard-earned features of his personality. Those components have emerged alongside an increased confidence in his and his group's ability to overcome whatever obstacle is thrown their way by sheer resolve and willingness to turn into the skid of extreme violence. After run-ins with the Governor, the Terminus folks, the Wolves, and various other unpleasant groups, it's easy to understand why newcomers would be treated with great trepidation.
The thing is, everyone the group encounters basically falls into one of two categories: the violent and the weak. And after having dealt with one or the other for so long, Rick and his crew have developed a certain distaste for both – which is why Tom Payne's Jesus has to essentially be magic (i.e., incredible fighting skills, able to get out of any bind, has a congenial personality, and really owns that terrible wig he's wearing), in order for the group to give him a chance to talk (and a cookie, apparently) and to buy into what he has to say. It's roughly the same scenario as when Aaron talked them into joining the community in Alexandria; the only difference being the increased degree of difficulty in getting the crew to care, which is where Jesus' aforementioned display of extraordinary skills comes into play.
What Jesus promises in his pitch for the Hilltop community is the chance for trade, the chance to approach the acquisition of goods from others through means more civilized than simply taking what they want. This is what the end goal of Alexandria is, right? To offer comfort and protection and civility as a way of combating the chaos and general lawlessness of the world beyond the community's corrugated metal walls. What Jesus is offering Rick and his group isn't just a chance to restock Alexandria's increasingly barren pantry, but to be a part of a "larger world" that has emerged unbeknownst to the isolated Alexandrians.
The mere mention of other settlements and protected communities makes for fecund ground in which to progress this story. This time, however, the usually well-trodden territory of meeting new people on The Walking Dead is altered by the existence of Alexandria and the group's apparent commitment to maintaining the community. This feels like a significant step forward in terms of the show's development, as it offers a ray of hope for the characters and gives them a goal that has been a long time coming: build something sustainable rather than merely survive. The attractive part of that sustainability, then, is in its ability to potentially reduce the rootlessness that has kept the narrative walking in circles for so long, and to allow room for the show to cultivate plots and arcs that vary beyond being eaten by the undead or being killed by the living.
To its credit, 'Knots Untie' is well aware this potential and plays it up with plenty of discussion on the topic of relationships and, more notably, childbirth. While so much of the hour unfolds in typical Walking Dead fashion – with most new characters demonstrating how quickly they can fit into the basic roles the series is most comfortable playing with – the episode finds time for Abraham, Maggie, and Glenn to explore what the idea of a "larger world" means and how that promise of something being built amidst the wreckage of the old world gives them reason to do the same – or at least try to.
There's an interesting kind of hubris in Glenn and Maggie's defiance of the current world order that is simultaneously a reflection of Rick's behavior and the antithesis of it. The two see something viable germinating in a place like Alexandria, and the existence of Hilltop – despite the presence of another banal jerk like Gregory (Xander Berkeley) running things – confirms their belief. Glenn and Maggie are now in it for the long haul; they're willing create life in a world that's outrageously inhospitable. It's kind of a startling prospect, and one that can only be reasonably brought about by a certainty in their little community. That's what makes Glenn's conversation with Abraham interesting for reasons beyond the military man's colorful euphemisms: the couple's conscious decision to have a child makes them pioneers; it allows them to tear down the emotional fortifications the apocalypse required them (and everyone else) to build. Abraham's response to this is one of awe and rightly so; there's a disturbing sort of safety in closing yourself off emotionally, in reducing the purpose and the responsibility of your life to simply surviving. Perhaps that reduction of life's complications is part of the overall appeal of the show, which makes Glenn and Maggie's rejection of it all the more attractive.
At any rate, Glenn and Maggie's decision, their flaunting of Walking Dead conventions makes them a target, and the show is not subtle about letting its audience know this. The same holds true for Abraham, who seems to have had a moment of personal growth in the wake of nearly being choked to death by another desperate member of the Hilltop community. Raising the stakes for characters like Maggie, Glenn, and Abraham is not only a great way allow their threads to dovetail off Rick's and carry meaning beyond the group's move to take an aggressive stance against Negan – despite never having met him – but it also creates the sort of tension that will make the bat-wielding villain's eventual arrival carry more weight.
That also makes Rick and Maggie's decision to sell their groups' propensity for violence as a commodity an interesting one, as it appears to contradict what the existence of Alexandria and now Hilltop could stand for. There's reason for members of The Walking Dead to be hopeful, but as evidenced by Rick's inability to make new friends and the service the group seeks to provide, there's still a long way to go before everyone is on the same page. And that's a surprisingly interesting place for the series to be.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Not Tomorrow Yet' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC