[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
After five seasons (and some change), The Walking Dead is fluent in the ways of bringing destruction and desolation to its core group. While characters both old and new have survived on everything from a sack of old oats to raw tortoise, the series has mostly sustained itself on an increasingly bland diet of searching for sanctuary, engaging in conflict, losing said sanctuary, and then hitting the road again. That is to say, the show's storytelling beats are fairly predictable. You can count on either the undead or the unscrupulous crossing paths with Rick and his cohort at one time or another, resulting in a prescribed conflict that usually ends with a member of the cast making sure their agent is stocked up on headshots.
In the beginning, 'JSS' is really no different. The episode pays off the element that prevented the season premiere from concluding its central plot by shifting back in time far enough to see where the zombie-calling horn was emanating from. Predictably, that sound was the result of Alexandria being attacked by the Wolves – who are basically every villain the series has introduced before, all rolled into one. They descend on Alexandria without warning, like the show's most prominent villain, and are motivated by little more. On the other hand, they are also the post-apocalyptic version of Vikings, sending out raiding parties to plunder and pillage villages around them as a means of sustaining themselves. From randos met on the street to the Governor to the cannibals at Terminus, those are pretty much the goals of the people Rick & Co. have encountered. Those who didn't wind up dead or their ally, anyway.
In other words, on The Walking Dead, villainy comes in two flavors: those with brains and those looking to eat said brains. Sure, that's a far cry from 31, but in the end of the world, variation comes not in the choices that are available to you, but in how you mask something's sameness. In other words, Carol's paprika-infused celery soup concoction becomes the perfect metaphor for the episode and where the series is inevitably headed.
Instead of trying to make the Wolves interesting beyond their savagery, what 'JSS' does is mask the blandness of its antagonist by focusing on an outcome that is less expected. To do this, the show only has to make one simple change to its formula: it allows its characters to maintain the safe place they have built, in spite of it falling victim to the outside world.
This marks a shift in The Walking Dead that has been talked about by its showrunner and was certainly demonstrated in last week's premiere. Instead of adhering to Enid's mantra of "just survive somehow," the show seems intent on having its characters do more. It is intent on seeing Rick, Michonne, Carol, Morgan, Maggie, Glenn and so on, take a decisive role in rebuilding the world, making a society worth living in and fighting for. These characters are shifting the earth to form a more suitable environment on which the future can be built. You might say the same was true back at the prison, but it wasn't really that. Characters locking themselves away inside a compound originally intended to deny a person his or her freedom isn't rebuilding; it's hiding. It is just merely surviving. In fact, in terms of the show, the story, and its characters at the time, it was barely that.
Alexandria gives the show the one thing it has needed from the beginning: hope and purpose beyond just surviving. Oddly, it also helps lend a more profound gravity to the show's incredibly vivid use of violence. This larger purpose and drive towards a goal means seeing dead things erupt in a geyser of blood or the living meet a gruesome end carries weight of a different kind. In this world, violence, and eventually, just the threat of violence, can be a way of exerting dominance in a malignant way. But it can also become a powerful tool in bringing order to a society that no longer has any. It's not a great system, as Rick has made evident on numerous occasions in Alexandria alone, but it is something. In fact, the contradictory nature of what the characters are trying to build and how they are going about building it offers the show a level of depth it has recently seemed very interested in exploring.
For a show steeped in violence to attempt to explore the meaning and purpose of that violence is a step in the right direction. And in 'JSS' The Walking Dead proves once again why Lennie James is such an important addition to the cast. Not only does he provide a sense of balance against Rick's occasionally oppressive intensity, his opposition to taking a life is scrutinized in a decidedly un-Walking Dead way. That is, his choice and his ultimate action prove to be mired somewhere in a hazy, debatable gray area, not in distinct shades of black and white.
The raid of Alexandria basically works as a character piece for Carol and Morgan. Its purpose is to show how their differing approaches to a threat have to find a middle ground somewhere. Morgan is forced to defy his own vow not to take a life, while Carol has to become the threat in order to have a chance at defeating it. This is another example of how the of the show world isn't just choking what little good is left in it; it is actively seeking to quash that good at every turn. If 'JSS' succeeds at anything, then, it's showing these characters fight for something tangible, something beyond making it through another day. But it also succeeds in demonstrating what will have to be sacrificed in order to make anything beyond survival a viable option.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Thank You,' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC