[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 13. There will be SPOILERS.]
The second half of The Walking Dead season 6 has been smart in its depiction of Rick and his fellow survivors and what they choose to do with the rare position of power they find themselves in. The frantic mayhem of the midseason premiere aside, the show has in recent episodes found time to look at the Alexandrians and the man who is now their leader, and seen them (though mostly Rick) committed to their survival in a way that doesn't necessarily paint them in a good light. Last week's episode, 'Not Tomorrow Yet,' was the most potent example of this, with Rick selling the idea of going on the offensive and killing a group of strangers in exchange for food. And what was the crime those strangers were accused of committing? Well, it was bad, but, disturbingly, it wasn't anything you couldn't see Rick somehow justifying or convincing others was the right thing, so long as it meant the entire group's continued safety and survival.
Much of what drives characters in The Walking Dead is fear or the anticipation of fear, and when it's not that, it is the desire to get out ahead of their fear and control it by beating it to the punch. And now that the group has a community worth saving, protecting, and growing, there is an increased incentive to go out looking for potential trouble and to dominate it before it can actually pose a threat. The groundwork for this mindset was established in the season 6 premiere, with Rick organizing an ill-fated zombie marathon as a way to not only keep the people of Alexandria safe, but also to reclaim some sense of control over an environment that had grown violent and unruly. Although the plan was ultimately unsuccessful – both in terms of what it cost for the people of Alexandria and the fact that it didn't make for very good TV – the series' writers have recognized its storytelling potential and what discoveries might be made about the show's core characters, especially as a threat like Negan looms on the horizon.
What sets 'The Same Boat' apart from the previous episode is its focus on Carol and Maggie, and a mostly female group of Saviors led by Alicia Witt's unsentimental Paula, who is, unsurprisingly, a reflection of the kind of woman Carol has become. Paula offers a hurried account of her post-apocalyptic life and, like Carol, her pre-apocalyptic life wasn't anything she would necessarily be in a hurry to get back to. While Paula's experience doesn't sound to have been as physically abusive as what Carol endured at the hands of her husband, the parallel is enough that the comparison works. Both women have vacillated from one extreme to the other – from meek to hard-edged aggressors who look upon their works as necessary for survival in such a harsh world. The only difference now is that Carol's casehardened exterior has begun to soften; she has begun to drift away from her extreme ideology toward something more reasonable, something that leaves room for compassion and forgiveness.
Normally, an hour like this would be notable for its dearth of characters like Rick and Daryl and Glenn, but here the episode once again proves why Carol has become the series' MVP, thanks to her ever-evolving outlook on the world and her role in it. And matching Carol with Maggie makes for an interesting dynamic wherein both women appear to be on the same philosophical path – only with Maggie a few steps behind Carol. But, and maybe more importantly, the episode seeds the idea that either character might make for a fine leader in Rick's absence or, should things continue as they have, someone who could reasonably argue against the inflexible stance Rick has on "everybody else."
There's a sense that both women – though more so Carol than Maggie at this point – see killing those who don't agree with them or could possibly pose a threat to their way of life as something of a zero-sum game. For them, there has to be something more; there has to be room for choices to be made that go beyond kill or be killed, survive or die. The show makes this point by playing up Maggie's choice to bring a child into the world, one that Paula certainly decries as foolish but still recognizes as a choice nonetheless. What's interesting is how Paula links Maggie's choice with what must be her relative comfort and certainly a higher-than-normal level of protection. In other words, as far as Paula's concerned, Maggie has the opportunity to make her choice because of the level of power she's attained: the power to control her environment to a certain degree and to exert authority over those who have less than she does.
There is a weird push-pull going on as Maggie and Carol are Paula's hostages throughout most of the hour, and yet it seems as though Paula and her companions, Michelle (Jeananne Goossen) and Molly (Jill Jane Clements), spend a good amount of time reassuring themselves the balance of power is actually in their favor. These women are still stuck in the same boring, limiting binary of kill or be killed, survive or die and seeing the choices seemingly available to Carol and Maggie (e.g., faith and motherhood) is destabilizing to the personas they have created as a means of survival in Negan's world. That their wounded associate Donnie (Banshee's Rus Blackwell) seeks retribution against Carol for shooting him is another example of this being a zero-sum game. What Donnie doesn't realize is that Carol chose not to go for the kill shot. While he's busy convincing himself of his power – as both a Savior and a physically imposing male – Carol has already exhibited more power than he will ever have by making a choice outside the one most believe is all that remains available to them.
What's interesting is, as The Walking Dead moves forward, the every-man-for-himself ethos running through the series will almost certainly be tested again, especially because men like Rick and Negan seem to be such firm believers in it. And hopefully, as the season continues, it will push further into this exploration of the path Rick has his people on and whether or not becoming just as bad as, if not worse than, everyone around them is the right way to kick start society's return.
The Walking Dead season 6 continues next Sunday with 'Twice as Far' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC