The Walking Dead is a curious thing, storytelling-wise.
On a macro level, the show's stories are endlessly repetitive and predictable. They almost never vary from the same basic arc: The characters find a new safe haven. Gradually, they realize not all is as it seems. Conflict builds between human beings, before everything falls to ruin. Zombies rush in and eat at least a few characters. Rinse. Repeat.
Thus, the frequent complaints that the show doesn't know how to tell stories are sort of accurate. It's not like the series has the kind of sparkling dialogue or deep character work that might make this bearable, and its themes, such as they are, tend to circle a few of the same general tropes and ideas.
And yet The Walking Dead is also one of TV's most adventurous shows when it comes to storytelling, especially since current showrunner Scott Gimple took over in season four. Now episodes could be about any combination of characters. Their structures could leap between past and present, as the season premiere did. Or they could simply refuse to resolve a cliffhanger for as long as possible, spending time on other matters, as tonight's did.
In short, The Walking Dead is at once endlessly inventive and incredibly exasperating. But this latest episode, "JSS," offered some hope that the series may have broken out of its patterns.
Promising: Alexandria still stands as the episode ends
Even though the Wolves (those ultraviolent invaders with the W's etched on their foreheads) attacked the Alexandria compound around the episode's midpoint (causing all the commotion that led to the premiere's cliffhanger), the Alexandrians mostly held off the threat, and the walls still stood.
Along the way, Carol stabbed a bunch of people in the brain, Nurse Jackie all-star Merritt Wever joined the cast as the "town doctor" (or the closest thing Alexandria could find), and Morgan learned a valuable lesson about doing unto others (namely, you should probably just kill them if they're trying to kill you). It was exciting and action-packed, but it didn't end with everything falling apart.
Fans are clearly divided about whether Alexandria represents a good thing for the series, but Gimple and company seem determined to stick to it for at least the short term. If you listen to this discussion with AMC head Joel Stillerman, he mentions that Gimple has shifted from the days when the show was about humans versus zombies, then humans versus other humans. Now, he says, it's about building a civilization, and that's a natural next step for the show.
Will it work? Tough to say, but I'm relieved we don't have to follow this episode with one where the characters wander the wilderness at length, waiting for salvation to arrive and never finding it.
Not as promising: That giant zombie horde from last week's episode sorta seemed to be forgotten about
I'm sure it will come up again next week or some other time, but last week's episode ended with a giant crush of zombies headed for the walls of Alexandria, and this week's episode mostly seemed to forget about them, outside of a few stray walkers here and there.
The Walking Dead has always suffered from the fact that its writers just sort of wave their hands and declare that things are a certain way, whether that's having a character behave in a way that seems contradictory to his previous self, or simply rigging the game in favor of (or against) our heroes. It's the latter that happens here, as that horde seemingly disappears.
Now, that's welcome in some ways. In previous seasons, they would have been the "one thing too many" that caused Alexandria to crumble into ruin. But it's still a sign of the show coming up with a cool idea for a cliffhanger, and then mostly forgetting about it.
Promising: That cold open!
I have essentially no idea why "JSS" turned over its opening scenes to a lengthy depiction of Enid making her way through the early days of the zombie apocalypse to arrive at Alexandria's doorstep, but it was easily the best part of the episode, an arresting glimpse into a character we know barely anything about. It was like a Lost flashback in miniature, complete with interesting stylistic and filmmaking choices.
In particular, I loved the way the sequence built up to a point of extreme, graphic violence, then immediately cut from it to the violence's aftermath. Enid watches zombies dine on her parents, then later kills a turtle so she'll have something to eat. She comes upon a zombie hanging out of a car she wants to weather a rainstorm in, and we cut to her sitting out the rain.
At all times, the gore is elided, in favor of the ultimate result of that gore. It nicely underlines the rest of the episode, which suggests that in this world, violence is often necessary if you want to create a world where safety and security actually exist. It's one of the essential paradoxes of building a society, and it's fun to watch the show tease it out.
Plus, it helps with character development, a frequent problem for the show. As we watch Enid dig deep to "just survive somehow" (the letters that give the episode its title), she slowly but surely becomes something more than "that girl Carl might have a crush on."
It's yet another sign of the show's writers loosening up and having fun with the storytelling. The show introduces lots of characters, and has the bad habit of mostly making them zombie chow. By utilizing this technique, it might be able to make Enid's inevitable death sting a bit more.
Not as promising: The show still doesn't know how to tell stories not about killing
I will never, ever complain about getting to watch Carol kick some ass, as that's the best part of the show. Nor will I complain about watching Lennie James swing that bo staff around hypnotically. Violence and the questions of its necessity are a core part of the DNA of this series and always will be.
But if it really does want to shift into a "building society" story, then it's going to need to learn to tell stories not about killing, and on that score, it's more of a mixed bag. Remember how last season involved all of those stories about Rick slowly cracking up when exposed to Alexandria's small-town politics, before brutally murdering a man in the street? Yeah, if this show is going to get us to invest in Alexandria, then it needs to make that place somewhere worth saving, which it hasn't really managed to do thus far.
You can sort of feel the writers trying. Wever, for instance, gets the episode's B-plot, which is basically an old ER B-plot exhumed and trotted out for all of us to see. It's a good way to let us get to know her character, Denise, sure, but as medical drama, it left lots to be desired. The show doesn't need to turn into post-apocalyptic Scrubs or anything, but it does need to find gears other than "violence is soul-deadening but sometimes necessary" if it wants to make this particular leap.
Promising: The Wolves are potentially great adversaries
The show has lacked for good villains since the heyday of the Governor. The people in the hospital of evil back in season five didn't make much sense, and the Terminus cannibals were barely even characters. The show has had some success making the regular characters their own worst enemies, but when push comes to shove, we know the show isn't going to make Rick its Big Bad (though that would be kinda cool).
So the Wolves maybe don't have the personality of the Governor, but they definitely have some thematic weight behind them that makes them potentially good bad guys for what the show is trying to do right now. If we're talking about the formation of a society, then there need to be barbarian hordes out there, along with the zombies, and lo and behold, the Wolves fit that description quite well.
When Morgan kills one of the Wolves near the episode's end, it has some punch to it, not just because it's Morgan violating his code of not killing other human beings, nor because it really did seem like he might die there for a second or two. No, it has punch to it because it feels like, for a moment, all of the promise of this new society being done in by the shedding of blood. Yes, it's the only way to stop the Wolves for the time being. But it's also a sign of how far these people are from having anything like civilization.
Join me at noon Eastern for the weekly culture chat. Leave questions for me in comments!
As always, you can ask me about Walking Dead or any other topics of interest. And also as always, I have a question for you to answer: What's your zombie apocalypse survival plan? C'mon. I know you have one. I certainly do.