It's called "Now" — but has another Walking Dead episode ever felt less urgent? The show was due for a downshift after four straight weeks of terror, panic, and tragedy, but maybe not into a gear quite this low. It's fine for a thriller to pause and reflect — but there's a fine line between "contemplative" and "sleepy." And this latest TWD is philosophical to a fault.
Before last week's extended Morgan flashback, here's where we'd left everyone: The residents of the Alexandra Safe Zone had just finished warding off a sneak-attack by the marauding, anarchic Wolves; Daryl was riding with Abraham and Sasha as part of a rushed plan to route an overwhelming horde of walkers away from the ASZ; Michonne was leading the remnants of her ravaged band back home; and a frazzled, wounded Rick was making a last-ditch effort to salvage his zombie cattle drive. Oh, and that fan favorite everyone was mourning…well, we still have no confirmation on what happened to him. (But he's dead, right? Surely he's dead.)
There's no Glenn — living or otherwise — here. Nor is there any sign of Daryl, Carol, Morgan, or Michonne (outside of one brief shot of the latter from a distance, to indicate that she's arrived in Alexandria). Instead, this episode mainly concerns the return of Rick, who seems largely unaffected by his harrowing near-death experiences and the heavy casualties beyond the wall. He's still parading around the zone, self-righteously lecturing the residents on how they need to toughen up. The only difference is that now the community is surrounded on all sides by hundreds of zombies, led right up the gates by the hero.
His mad dash to the entrance — while knocking down ghouls left and right, like a punt-returner stiff-arming his way to the end-zone — is one of only two genuinely exciting scenes this week. The other involves Maggie, out on a fool's errand. She's already certain that her husband's gone for good, but still feels obliged to look for him, wherever (or whatever) he may be. Serving as her wingman: Aaron, who feels guilty that his abandoned pack of maps and photos led the Wolves to his door. The two venture down into the sewers, and nearly get killed by a pair of the coolest-looking stank-covered zombies the show has yet introduced. (Picture the cover of an old The Haunt of Fear comic come to life.) But when the pair realizes they can't get far enough past the undead blockade, they scrap the mission.
That's about it for action, aside from a scene where Jessie quietly lobotomizes the shambling corpse of a former neighbor. And for those of you thinking, "Wait, which one's Jessie again?"… Yeah, exactly. The main problem with this chapter of The Walking Dead is that it's lousy with Alexandrians. Besides the abusive Pete's widow, we spend a lot of time catching up with the doubt-ridden leader Deanna and her angry son Spencer, who blames his mother for deluding her followers into believing they could live peacefully. We also get a generous dose of Denise, the cowardly doctor, who serves as a surrogate for all of the townsfolk who are ready to gobble up the rest of their supplies, curl into a ball, and wait for the sweet (and temporary) relief of death.
As with a lot of Season Six so far, the primary function of all this worrying, blaming, and shaming is to reiterate a theme: It's time for survivors to abandon any hope of ever regaining the civilization they once knew, and instead to work toward a new way of being, halfway between savage and enlightened. In recent weeks, the writers have woven that message through tense sequences of conflict and raw terror. Here we just get a lot of scenes of people stating out loud their new understanding that, "This is what life looks like now," and, "If we don't fight we die." Put it this way: This season's first four episodes could all stand up to multiple viewings. It's hard to imagine too many fans eagerly cueing up a second round of "Now."
Thankfully, by the end of the hour, most everyone seems to be on the same page, which means The Walking Dead may be ready to move past all this hand-wringing toward something more constructive — or at least more entertainingly pulpy. The most promising conversations in this episode involve the heroes owning their choices, as well as their mistakes. Spencer admits that he's to blame for the breach of the ASZ, but points out that he also stopped the Wolves' truck from knocking down the wall. Aaron defends Rick's botched zombie-funneling plan, noting that even though they're surrounded by monsters, more than double that number would be snarling outside if they hadn't taken action.
The most persuasive person in this regard is Maggie, who has a touching moment where she talks about all the promises she and Glenn had made to each other, and how it's been impossible for them to know from day to day or hour to hour whether they're doing or saying the right thing. And yet they keep making commitments and forging ahead anyway, because that's what it means to be alive. The alternative is paralysis…followed closely by consumption. As soon as the other characters come around to that way of thinking — as it seems they very slowly are — the quicker The Walking Dead can get back on track.
Previously: Cabin in the Woods