The most amazing thing about this week’s The Walking Dead, “J.S.S.,” is the fact that it’s not the show’s season premiere. As I remarked last week, following the exceptional first episode of the sixth season, the show’s forte has always been strong season premieres. From the pilot episode all the way up to Carol taking down Terminus with Commando-like efficiency, they always start off strong.
This week, however, does something unprecedented, which is to continue its momentum and craft an episode that share’s equal footing with the series’ best. The first ⅔ overlaps with the events of “First Time Again,” with most of the Ricktatorship 2.0 off on herding an unbelievably large horde of zombies away from Alexandria. And, of course, while the camp’s away, The Wolves come into play.
Starting rather unexpectedly as Carol glances out her window, who up until this point had only let the slightest hint of her trademarked hard-heartedness out. After setting the timer for a casserole (of course) she sees the beginning of their attempted invasion while gazing out the window. It was a tremendous out-of-the-blue moment right when the show settles into its 40 minutes of nothing before the big cliffhanger ending.
Instead, the episode picks up the anxiety that we were left with last week before we see a literal slaughtering of the herd. Alexandrians, who aren’t prepared to handle zombies, much less cannibalistic sociopaths, end up burned, hacked to bits, or taken into chains. Carol, meanwhile, after a casual mercy kill, dons their garb, writes a ‘W’ on her forehead and proceeds to move through The Wolves’ army, stopping at nothing to kill them.
Morgan, the only one from the zombie cattle drive that we see show back up, returns to help, but very much with his “all life is precious” mentality. It lends itself to a nice, if not the slightest bit overused, Sergio Leone homage in the episode’s closing moments. After a surprise encounter near the end (the second member of The Wolves that Morgan has encountered prior), which drives the question of Morgan’s ability to kill, rather than his choice not to.
What’s more apparent now to those who’ve been sheltered by the walls this whole time is the age-old parable to zombie movies (and Scooby-Doo cartoons) since the invention of the genre – the real monsters are the people. “You don’t belong here, not anymore” says one of The Wolves, which echoes Spencer asking Rosalita the motivation for living if this is what life is like outside. “Make sure you have something worth dying for,” she tells him, it’s as blunt and non-cinematic as the moment could have been.
There’s not an answer anymore, outside of the most primal will to survive. Something we see play out in the cold open, as Enid’s de facto origin story, unsettlingly edited together to reflect the abrupt nature of life after the world’s end. Though for some, like Carl, who doesn’t mourn, doesn’t reflect, but simply takes the casserole out of the oven once the timer goes off – a nice real-time effect, by the way.