It’s no surprise that I struggle with The Walking Dead sometimes. There’s so much about the show that’s frustrated me over the years: its sloppiness, its nihilism, its repeated willingness to sacrifice character for the sake of shock value. Hell, just last week gave us a perfect example of how easily, and painfully, things can go wrong. It’s not losing the Andersons I object to so much as the ineffectual narrative sadism of it, the way their deaths play like “Eh, this is going nowhere, let’s kill a kid and then his mom.”

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So yeah, that wasn’t great. But part of the reason those (let’s face it, pretty frequent) lapses in judgement can be so painful is that the show is still capable of good, or even greatness. The Morgan-centric episode in the first half of the season was fantastic, and while tonight’s entry doesn’t have the same focus, what works about is arguably even more promising. And yes, I know how stupid it is to say “promising” when talking about a series over halfway into its sixth season. We’re probably never going to get consistent excellence at this point, but the cycle of “Ugh this sucks, but wait, this is better!” is better than nothing.

“The Next World” is better, then. A lot better, and nearly every choice it makes, from the major to the more subtle, is a step in a right direction. The time jump, for one thing. It’s not much, just a few weeks after the events of the previous episode, but that’s enough time for Carl to stabilize, and for people to move on from the carnage. We don’t have to deal with forced mourning (the one plotline we get about actual mourning is pretty good), and there’s no sense that Rick and the others got over all that death too quickly. If we’re going to wipe the Andersons from our memories, this is the best way to do it.

There’s something refreshingly relaxed about the episode—there’s danger, but not a whole lot of it, and the bigger focus is just on watching these people live their lives outside of the constant threat of violent death. Everyone gets to be likable for a change. Rick and Daryl going on a scavenging mission together might not make the most sense from a plot logic standpoint (it’s like when Kirk and Spock beamed down to the planet together; you don’t send your leader and your best man out at the same time), but the logic doesn’t matter because it’s a pleasure to see them working together.

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Rick is the most charming he’s been in ages, and while part of that is him being on the upswing of his particular mood disorder (Our Rick goes from “The world is a vampire, never trust again” to “Sunshine! Friendship! Joy!” so quickly you wonder he if has a Paranoid/Trusting switch on this back), mostly it’s just seeing him relaxed and in control of the situation without needing to dominate it. He plays some goofy music that Daryl hates, and he maintains his optimism even in the face of difficulty. This is someone I didn’t hate spending time with.

While “Rick and Daryl meet a man nicknamed Jesus” story is the big draw, the subplots aren’t bad either. Michonne follows Deanna’s son Spenser out into the woods, and learns he’s dealing with his grief over his mother’s death by trying to track her in zombie form; Carl and Enid hang out in the woods themselves, although Enid’s getting sick of it, and Carl finds zombie Deanna and leads her past Michonne and Spenser, giving Spenser a chance for some closure. It’s not the most subtle of storylines, and the more dialogue Carl gets, the more obvious it is that Chandler Riggs isn’t the best actor in the world, But the events are clear and relatively affecting, and the writing tells a complete story without getting bogged down.

As for the Jesus, he’s a likable fellow. A bit of a scamp, one might say. Daryl’s gradual evolution into basically a goddamn super-hero turns out to’ve been a harbinger, as Paul “My friends call me Jesus” Monroe makes even Daryl look like a piker. I think it was the “somehow manages to get on the roof of the van despite being left tied up on the road” that really got to me. But there’s a charm in the absurdity as well. There’s sense in the idea that anyone who’s survived this long in the outside will have almost preternatural gifts, and, on a meta level, this show could stand to embrace its absurdity in ways that aren’t just about gore. It’s instantly obvious that Jesus is going to be an important figure—he more than holds his own against Rick and Daryl, at least for a while—and that means his sudden, surprise appearance in Rick and Michonne’s bedroom at the end carries a lot of weight. This guy has a past, and he probably has a warning, and he’s made enough of an impression that we want to hear it.

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But hey, Rick and Michonne hooked up! Finally! It’s a development that’s been brewing for a while, and the laidback chemistry between the two makes lot more sense than Rick’s fevered pursuit of Jessie. In theory, Michonne could do better—she’s smarter, saner, and more emotionally grounded than Rick will ever be—but the writers have done a good job of laying the groundwork for this pairing (intentionally or not) and there’s something immensely satisfying in seeing it finally happen. This was at once an inevitability and a surprise, a twist that ends on a positive rather than negative note, and that’s a rarity for the series. God only knows how long it will last, but “The Next World” offered us a status quo that, for once, was actually worth defending.

Stray observations

  • Dr. Denise and Tara are a couple now, and Dr. Denise asks Daryl to find Tara some “pop.” This is absolutely adorable. The show is a lot more inclusive than it was in the earlier seasons, without straining or making a big deal out of it. We’ve got multiple gay characters, an interracial relationship, a modestly diverse cast—these things matter because of representation concerns, and also because they allow for a great variety in storytelling.
  • Eugene is big on sorghum.
  • No Carol or Morgan this week. It makes me sad that I’m dreading seeing two of my favorite characters on the show again, but there you go.
  • “It is pretty stupid of us to go out there.” “Yup. Do it again tomorrow?” “Yup.” -Rick and Daryl
  • “Oh, so you had a day.” -Michonne

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