As Rick and Daryl pull away from the Alexandria Safe Zone in the opening minutes of this week's episode — "The Next World" — they pop in a CD of baby-faced 1950s rockabilly sensation Ronnie Dawson, singing his first big hit, "Action Packed." Call the song an overture, though not because this chapter of The Walking Dead features wall-to-wall zombie-fighting. If anything, the latest episode is a lot quieter and simpler than last week's midseason premiere. But it's also more focused, which means that every scene and every moment matters a lot more.
Plus, it's funny. And when's the last time anyone said that about this show?
Then again, when's the last time a post-apocalyptic horror epic introduced a character named Jesus? Fans of the comics have been awaiting the arrival of Paul Monroe (who here says his last name is "Rovia") almost as much as they've been anticipating the long-teased Negan. And though he doesn't reveal much of himself or his plans this week, this ersatz Christ does make a strong first impression. His face is half-covered in a white cloth when he literally runs into our dynamic duo at a trashed old gas station, where he stealthily swipes the keys to the fully loaded truck they just found. Before he sneaks away, however, he pulls away his mask, reveals a long beard, extends his arms: "But my friends used to call me Jesus."
Most of the rest of the episode is about our heroes looking for Jesus. (Literally, not symbolically ... although is anything ever not symbolic on this show?) Actor Tom Payne has a fine presence as the hairy highwayman, exuding a calm assuredness even after Rick and Daryl catch up to him and draw their guns. Nothing seems to faze this Jesus with the slick kung-fu moves and ability to easily slip out of traps. He's a miracle-worker.
If there's a knock against this episode, it's that everything happening back in Alexandria is duller by comparison. Periodically, the story shifts to the woods outside of town, where Michonne has a heart-to-heart talk with Spencer about his purpose in life, while one-eyed Carl does the same with Enid. While they're gabbing away, both parties have an encounter with the undead Deanna, whom Carl allows to escape so that her son can get closure and end his zombie mother's second life.
There's nothing especially wrong with any of those scenes. They're well-acted and well-staged, and the more low-key, personal give-and-take about the future is a nice change of pace from the series' usual navel-gazing conversations, which tend to boil down to "let's build a beautiful new world" versus "toughen up, hippie."
Still, this could've been an all-time Walking Dead classic if it'd stuck mainly with the supply run. For one thing, this particular "brave and the bold" pairing is one the show hasn't done too often. Rick and Daryl have mostly been off on their own individual trips, which makes it all the more fun to see them scavenging for food, medicine, and toiletries in tandem while talking in their usual strong-but-silent way about evolving perspectives. Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus have a good chemistry together, which makes a big difference when "The Next World" takes a turn from road trip to farce.
First-time TWD director Kari Skogland (who's worked on Under the Dome and Boardwalk Empire, among many other shows) fills the episode with amusing moments, made wittier by the framing and choreography: the low-angle shot of Rick and Daryl simultaneously blowing away a walker to prove their guns are loaded; that long take of Paul falling off the truck, pausing for a split-second, and then running away like some silent-movie buffoon. Our heroes even get a little Abbott-and-Costello beat at the end of the hour, when they're back in Alexandria with their new prisoner, bemoaning the stupidity of their daily expeditions and then agreeing to "do it again tomorrow."
There's no way that the show is going to stay in this low-stakes adventure mode for long. This episode ends with Jesus escaping (again) and showing up in Rick's room, implying that he has something important to share. So the drama's likely to intensify again soon. But given the way The Walking Dead has been lately — dragging its feet, going in circles — it's refreshing to see this installment leap so confidently ahead in the story, rather than lingering on last week's slaughter. (And apparently, during that unseen period of rebuilding, Rick and Michonne became a couple. Huh. That'll be something to keep an eye on throughout the rest of this year.)
Maybe last week's mess was necessary, to get this show recalibrated. Or maybe it's like what the boys say to each other as they hit the road, that the "law of averages" was bound to break in their favor. The Walking Dead is too good to dwell in the doldrums forever. That's just math.
Previously: Trust Your Guts