How rare is it to see people on The Walking Dead actually happy? Sure, the show gives its band of survivors the occasional moments of triumph or brief bits of levity, but how long do we ever really get to see the atmosphere around Rick and Daryl and Carl and Michonne be simple and pleasant?
It’s not often, and there’s a reason for that. Happiness and stability are nice for a while; it’s comforting for the audience to see the characters they’ve gotten to know over the years catch a break here and there. And yet too much happiness or too much stability over the long term becomes boring. Storytelling is fueled by conflict. As shows like Parks and Recreation have proven, that conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be dark or dour, but a good show needs real, meaningful obstacles for its characters to hurdle over or the entire enterprise eventually feels too slack to be truly engaging.
But it’s been such a harrowing season for The Walking Dead, and beyond that, a harrowing series from the very start, that it was incredibly refreshing to have an episode like “The Next World” where, more or less, everything was okay. After the gruesome deaths, fireworks, and bombast of “No Way Out”, this was a quieter episode that let its heroes enjoy their victory for a little while before the next great challenge (Negan?) rears its ugly head.
We get to see our protagonists enjoy a little peace; we get to see Rick and Daryl seem like buddies rather than just brothers in arms; we get to see Michonne and the Grimeses coalesce into a family; and we get to see Alexandria seem like a place of hope rather than a tinderbox waiting to catch fire.
Despite that atmosphere, and despite the sleepy piano-heavy score that flitted behind many scenes in the episode, there were still obstacles to be leapt over in “The Next World.” The most obvious of them was Rick and Daryl’s cat-and-mouse game with a crafty fellow who calls himself Jesus. That story didn’t turn out perfectly, in either the inevitable debate it prompted or its larger themes.
For one thing, we’ve seen Rick and Daryl go back and forth on the “every man for himself” vs. “all for one and one for all” spectrum so many times that their debate over whether to take in the wandering miscreant felt fairly trite. Their recent shifts in perspective were, at least, well-motivated. Rick saw Alexandria rise to the occasion in the prior episode (with Denise saving his son’s life as a kicker) thus giving him faith in the kindness of strangers once more. Meanwhile, despite his prior optimism, Daryl has twice been accosted by folks he met out in the wild since he and Rick last had this type of conversation, and in one instance, Daryl even stuck out his neck for a group of strangers and was taken advantage of and robbed for his trouble. Still, we’ve played this same game with these same characters so many times that the latest debate still just feels tired.
Likewise, the fact that the truck with badly needed supplies rolled into the lake and sunk while Rick and Daryl were settling their grudge with Jesus was too on-the-nose as a metaphor. We get it, Walking Dead. People spend so much time fighting each other, and so much time fighting the external threats, that they neglect the tools for basic survival they so badly need when there’s plenty to go around if they could just stop screwing around and share with one another. The Walking Dead has never been an especially subtle show, but this was still pretty blunt for an episode that, at least, managed to avoid the type of expository dialogue that usually hammers home these types of messages on the show.
But you know what? I can forgive all that, every last bit of it, because the scenes with Rick and Daryl were just so damn fun. We’ve seen the two of them work together for almost the entire series, and there’s a clear rapport between them that makes their storyline here feel like some kind of strange, sort of breezy buddy cop movie. It has endearing little character moments like Daryl’s annoyance at Rick’s choice of music, or the pair’s laugh-worthy response to Jesus’s inquiry as to whether or not their guns were loaded, or the delightfully staged and directed scene where Daryl and Rick play the world’s strangest game of freeze tag with Jesus.
The Walking Dead is many things. It can be an onslaught of bloody spectacle, a meditative show about mortality and human nature, or an overwrought prime time soap opera. Rarely, however, is it this freewheeling and yes, fun. But I’ll take it. Give me the joy of Rick and Daryl palling around, with an amusing wildcard like Jesus to chase up and down the countryside for good measure, any day of the week.
The other half of the episode, featuring Carl, Enid, Spencer, and especially Michonne dealing with the reanimated corpse of Deanna wasn’t nearly as diverting, but it still served a much calmer, happier purpose than the show’s usual elegiac tone. These scenes were much slower, much more contemplative and deliberate than the ones depicting Rick and Daryl’s game of capture the flag, but they too led to some palpable joy.
In truth, there were problems with the Zombie Deanna storyline as well. For one thing, it strains credulity that Deanna made it out of the Andersons’ house and somehow avoided being put down in last week’s fray. But as I’ve said before, TWD is a show that runs on big moments and themes instead of logic, and it feels silly to complain about it now.
What was more bothersome about that development was that it turned into another “it’s too hard to kill the zombie of a loved one” story. The Walking Dead has hit these same notes since literally its first episode (with Morgan and his wife), and while there’s a certain amount of realism to the idea that the issue would come up again and again in a world infested by the undead, Spencer’s turn lacked any real novel take on the topic that might otherwise make it feel fresh or different here.
At the same time, Carl and Enid’s teenage adventures continue to hew a little too far toward Dawson’s Creek-meets-Night of the Living Dead territory for my tastes. But again, the show seems committed to the idea of exploring a young adult romance with the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, and I’m willing to give it some leeway on that front, even if I don’t necessarily have high hopes for it.
But the point where those two parts of the episode converge and then later dovetail with the aftermath of Rick’s adventure as well, turned into one of the more emotionally resonant and earned finishes that The Walking Dead has managed to pull off in its six-season run.
“The Next World” leans in a little hard into the Michonne-as-mom motif with its opening domestic scene between her and the Grimeses. But the end of the episode, where she accepts that maternal role, scolds Carl, and questions both what he was doing beyond the wall and why he was taking those risks with Deanna, leads to something wonderful. Michonne melts when she hears Carl’s explanation that not only did he choose not to kill Deanna because he believed that Spencer, someone who loved her, needed to do it (as he had to do with his own mother, a nice touch), but that he would perform the same act of kindness for Michonne. And she embraces him, and the look on her face conveys everything about how touched she is to realize that Carl sees her as family, and affirms the same.
Like Carol, Michonne has had one of the more fleshed-out arcs over the course of the series. From her introduction as a frosty, nigh-mute assassin with little-to-no interest in making friends beyond Andrea, nor seemingly any interest in anything beyond antagonizing The Governor, she gradually found herself warming to this group of survivors. Slowly but surely, through myriad shared struggles, she discovered that these were the people she belonged with, and opened herself up to others for the first time since the world ended. “The Next World” is the culmination of that journey, and it caps off one of the best slow burns The Walking Dead has accomplished.
Michonne’s particularly warmed to the Grimes children. The adventure she and Carl shared together back in Season 3′s “Clear” was quite possibly the first time the audience ever sees her smile. By the same token, the first time we see her cry, with hints of trauma that made her cold and in pain, was when she was holding Judith. And those connections have grown stronger and stronger as the series has gone on, with small-but-potent character beats like Michonne’s quick kiss for an unconscious Carl in “No Way Out” before she stormed out to help Rick fight the horde. She has become family to Carl and Judith, and not suddenly either, which makes Carl’s affirmation all the more sweet and meaningful.
But, of course, her affection for the Grimeses doesn’t stop at Carl and Judith, and the final moments in the episode pull the trigger on a romantic relationship between Michonne and Rick that has been developing for some time as well. That too is a development that feels as earned as it is just a bit surprising.
In the great scattering of Season 4, where Rick, Michonne, and Carl were grouped together, there was an easy bond between the three of them, forged in their combined efforts at survival. And last season, when Rick started to lose his marbles in Alexandria, Michonne was the steady hand, there to protect him from the rest of the town and more importantly from himself. Their relationship, though not romantic until this point, has steadily developed over the past few seasons, to where that kiss feels organic to their growing bond.
And when they sit on the couch together after their match set of adventures, and ask one another how their day went, it has the quiet normalcy of home, the ring of intimacy. They make casual jokes about silly things like breath mints and exhaustion, like people who are close to one another do. And the way the moment builds from their casual comfort with one another, to affection, and finally to romance, feels like the natural result of everything we’ve seen between the two of them in the past. And once again, Michonne laughs. She’s thought about what Deanna said, about what she wants from this world, and realizes that she’s already found it.
As I said at the top, The Walking Dead is not an especially happy show. Take away the walkers lurking at the gates, take away the horrific deaths that seem to crop up every third episode or so, take away the bleak prospects for what’s left of humanity, and you still have a show about people constantly struggling — with trust, with survival, and with each other. But if there’s a silver lining to all of that misery, it’s that it makes the episodes like “The Next World”, that take the time to show a handful of the series’s best characters enjoying a measure of peace and tranquility and yes, even love, shine like a beacon in the darkness. There’s sure to be more pain and more misery around the corner, but for now, it’s enough to enjoy that happy stillness, even if it’s only for a little while.