For all of you who've been wondering when Carol Peletier would finally drop her happy homemaker act and get back to being the woman we know and love — the one that's as cold and lethal as a butcher's knife — your wait is over. She doesn't just masquerade as a member of the marauding human horde known as "The Wolves" in order to quell their invasion of the Alexandria Safe Zone, taking down at least a half-dozen of the enemy in the process. No, Carol also snaps at a child, bullies a pantry-manager into taking up arms, and stabs a wounded neighbor in the head just a few hours after trading cooking tips. This was a woman who, earlier, was talking about making a creamed soup casserole and using paprika to mask its "celery-ness." It would now take an entire spice-rack to cover her own rot.
The big return to the One True Carol comes about halfway through this week's episode — "JSS" — right around the time we catch up with where we left off from last week. The Season Six premiere was divided into "what happened after Rick took charge of the Zone" and "what happened during his big zombie-herding plan"; we now get to find out what the folks back home were up to while Rick lead the rest of the Alexandrians on their expedition. Carol was cooking. Carl pined for his fellow moody teen Enid. Jessie all but ordered her kids to get over the death of their abusive dad. Eugene met the town's nervous new doctor, Denise (played by the Emmy-winning Merritt Weaver, returning to the medical profession after wrapping Nurse Jackie a couple of months ago). Everything appeared to be copacetic.
And then Carol popped her celery soup-goop in the oven, set the timer, looked out the window, and saw an armed madman run into the frame and wallop the lady across the street. To switch to the present tense: The Wolves are at the gate.
Unlike the premiere, "JSS" doesn't cohesively integrate its white-knuckle action with its philosophical musings. When the Wolves are rampaging through Alexandria, the episode's fairly nerve-wracking, because it's obvious from the start that our heroes are under-prepared and their invaders unreasonable. This is raw, violent survival, and at times it's boldly unrelenting.
But not all the time. The episode's credited screenwriter Seth Hoffman and director Jennifer Lynch skip between scenes of life-or-death urgency and folks having awkward conversations about what it means to live in such a fallen world as their friends are being hacked to pieces a block away. This is primarily meant to set up some potential conflict between Carol and Morgan, who interrupts the mayhem to tell her that she doesn't have to kill people. That's a debate worth having, but the timing seems…oh, let's call it "inopportune."
Nevertheless, when the pulsing synthesizer score is cranked up, John Carpenter-style, and the Wolves are encroaching from every corner — it carries over the barreling narrative momentum of last week's Great Zombie Roundup. And the breathlessness suggests this season of The Walking Dead isn't going to slow up any time soon. With Carol and Morgan's help (and also Aaron, back on duty after some time on the sidelines), the intruders do get driven away, though not before they make some idle comments about humanity's proper place, implying a dangerous zealotry that's unlikely to flame out. Creepy times are ahead.
Also unnerving? This week's largely dialogue-free cold open, which shows off a lot of veteran genre director's skills. During an extended flashback to how Enid arrived at the ASZ, Lynch and company throw in a jarring jump-cut from the new arrival and her parents in a stalled car to the young woman sitting behind a blood-streaked window, watching her kin get eaten. From there, we see the character scrapping through the wilderness, always scratching the title acronym — short for "Just Survive Somehow" — everywhere she goes. The first five minutes of this episode is a haunting mini-movie, about how a young woman hardens.
Which brings us back to Carol. The raid on Alexandria ends right when her timer dings and her casserole's done, at which point she's already shed her disguise at last. Then, in one of the last shots, she crosses paths with Morgan, headed in the opposite direction — literally and metaphorically. It's becoming clear that this season is going to be about whether it's worth rebuilding society if everyone has to be a Carol to survive. So maybe by the end of this year she'll decide to circle back and start following her more peaceful peers. In the meantime, it's good to have our woman-of-action back, as sour and sharp as ever.
Previously: Follow the Leader