From the opening scenes, “The Next World” seems like a classic catch-your-breath episode. We’ve seen it before — after a completely bonkers hour like last week’s, The Walking Dead slows down to let everyone regroup, including us.
The story has jumped forward at least a month after the Alexandria battle. The streets are spotless, the walls secure, oral hygiene is finally a priority, and One-Eyed Carl is back on his feet. Rick and Daryl embark on a supply run, which turns into a road trip/buddy comedy. (Call them the Dukes of Alexandria.) When Rick slides his CD into the car stereo as they drive away from the safe zone, the song choice seems ironic for what appears to be such a slow episode ahead — it’s a rockabilly jam called “Action Packed.”
That’s all a shrewd bit of misdirection. While there isn’t a lake of fire or an RPG ambush, “The Next World” is an explosive episode of a different sort. It’s been a long time since we’ve met a new survivor who is as intriguing, charismatic, and dystopian-fashion-forward as Jesus. And the bomb that drops in the closing scene is just as jaw-dropping and game-changing as anything we’ve seen.
Let’s start with the supply run, which turns out to be a masterful mix of tension and humor — a mash-up this grim show doesn’t attempt very often. Now that the greater Alexandria metro area has been cleared of most walkers, Rick’s crew has a rare opportunity to leave the safe zone without the threat of imminent death, at least not of the undead variety. Eugene advises Rick and Daryl to look for sorghum, a “criminally underrated grain … the envy of all corns.” Sure enough, they find a depot filled with the stuff, along with a literal truckload of supplies.
(Two issues worth mentioning here: How did Eugene map out food-supply spots? Maybe now that he’s battle-tested, they’ve let him go scouting. Still seems unlikely. And the much bigger head-scratcher: Why, after he’s hit the supply-truck jackpot, does Rick say, “Let’s see what we can see,” and cruise around? You’d think he would hightail it back to A-Town before the inevitable disaster, or a Krav Maga Christ figure, strikes. Didn’t Daryl give Rick a heads up that some dude named Negan might appear to ask who blew his henchmen to pieces? I’m chalking this dumb decision up to the comforts Rick hasn’t had since before the world turned. They’ve got shelter, and the walker-alert level is lower than ever. In a sense, at least for a moment, Rick’s as soft as the Alexandrians he used to despise.)
So, it looks like we’ve got a keeper in Jesus. He manages to outwit and outfight both Rick and Daryl, steals their truck, and basically tells Rick to talk to the leather-gloved hand when he tries to give him the Ricktatorship Test. Nevertheless, Daryl really does not like this dude; in fact, he’s waffling like a presidential candidate on the bigger issue of trusting other people. Now Rick is the one with the rosy outlook, convinced that their humanity will ultimately save them. (Though a pistol helps, too.) It’s hard to blame Daryl for his change of heart, given the way his last two encounters with strangers — Negan’s posse and now Jesus — ended up.
We’re treated to some comical high jinks as Jesus and the guys play “capture the supplies.” Highlights include Rick chugging that can of Orange Crush in his very Rick way (dramatically, head back, with gusto) and the open-field chase between Daryl and Jesus that was begging for some Benny Hill music. In the end, the supply truck ends up at the bottom of the lake. Moral of the story: If folks don’t help each other, they’ll all lose in the end. (But what’s a bro supposed to do when someone steals your wheels?) The road trip officially ends with an exchange that winks at what we’re all thinking.
Rick: It is pretty stupid of us to go out there, isn’t it?
Daryl: Yep. Do it again tomorrow?
Meanwhile, back at town, a poignant story line plays out in the woods. Remember how Deanna went out in a blaze of zombie-killing glory, but we never saw exactly what happened to her? Well, she not only turned, she also somehow survived the Great Alexandria Walker Slaughter … and was spotted by Spencer amid the chaos. Far-fetched? Sure. But it’s an excuse to thread a family theme throughout the episode. After Spencer delivers a mercy-killing to the Zombie Formerly Known As His Mom, Michonne assures him he hasn’t just lost his fam — he’s also gained a new one. Carl saw zombified Deanna in the woods, too, while he was half-reading a comic book and throwing shade at Enid. He tells Michonne he couldn’t kill Deanna, that it needed to be someone who loved her, “someone who’s family.” What’s important is what he says next: “I’d do it for you.” Carl sees Michonne as family — perhaps even as a mother. Judith gets caught in a group hug, and Michonne returns the sentiment.
It’s obvious that something is brewing. After all, that first scene in the house before the road trip was a bit bizarro: Michonne in her bathrobe; an easy rapport between her, Rick, and Carl; Rick teasing her for hogging the toothpaste; their lingering low-five. Now both Rick and Michonne are home after a hard day’s work. On the couch, both exhausted, they banter like an old married couple. (Crazy day. Want to talk about it? No, I’m beat. Chat about yours? Nah, same deal.) Rick came up short on the toothpaste, but found some mints. The mints are in Michonne’s hand. Rick touches the mints. Their fingers interlock. Is this really happening?
Oh yeah, it happens, and for good reason. There’s been more chemistry between these two than there ever was with Rick and Jessie (or even Lori, his wife). This all seems a bit sudden, given that for us, it’s only been a week since Rick chopped off his girlfriend’s arm while she was being eaten alive. But in TWD time, at least a month has passed. To them, that probably feels like a year. And why nitpick — we’ve seen this coming since Woodbury. I just didn’t see it coming now. Isn’t that always the way with love?
We’re left with a lingering overhead shot of Rick and Michonne, naked in bed together after what we can safely assume was some action-packed apocalyptic boot-knocking, with Rick’s gun on the nightstand and Michonne’s blade near her pillow (that counts as safe sex in the Walking Dead world). Then comes a three-way of the unwelcome variety — Jesus, Jesus, couldn’t this wait till morning? Rick and Michonne don’t hesitate to leap out of bed naked and draw their weapons when he shows up whispering. Old habits, right? Now we’re have a multitude of questions to consider. How will Rick and Michonne’s budding romance affect the group? How did Jesus get past Daryl? What does he need to talk about? And since everyone who hooks up with Rick turns into zombie food, is the clock ticking on Michonne?