***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
“Please Carl, let me show you the new world,” Rick implores his injured son at the end of last week's devastating mid-season opener "No Way Out" (opens in new tab) – rated the best The Walking Dead episode of all time by IMDB readers (opens in new tab) – and "The Next World" did just that: a glimpse of Alexandria at peace, which was no less dramatic despite the absence of walkers.
In an episode where Rick and crew wrestle with apocalyptic concepts of domestic harmony, I still found myself mouthing "Holy Shit!" twice. Once for ex-Alexandrian leader Deanna's tragic reappearance as a zombie (offed by her son, no less, in a moment that probably says more about Michonne's new path as a spiritual helper, than Spencer's potential redemption), and twice for, well, that unforeseen meeting of hands, but more of that later.
In some ways, "The Next World" was The Walking Dead's attempt to redefine Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological model used to understand people's basic wants and aspirations. The idea is that you start at the bottom of the pyramid, and work your way up. It's a neat framework for viewing the show's protagonists, and I've sketched it to reflect the show's parameters below...
“Spearmint and baking soda, that's my favourite,” remarks Michonne, hair wrapped in a thick bath towel, as Rick heads off on a supply run. A black and white photo of Judith and Carl (with one eye bandaged), is a symbol of life returning to 'normal', while implying the weeks or months that have passed since Carl almost died. Denise, perhaps operating at a lower level on the hierarchy of needs, apologetically mumbles to Daryl about finding a bottle of soda for a friend. Eugene even gets time to nerd out and explain why finding a certain grain of corn could transform Alexandria's food shortage.
This is a community trying to reconnect and establish new rules. After last week's walker bloodbath, Rick and Daryl are effectively going on a weekly shopping run. They even have time for a domestic disagreement: Daryl is more aggrieved about Rick putting a CD he doesn't like on the car stereo, than he was in the previous week, having to fight back hordes of walkers.
The green shoots of "The Next World" are a fitting canvas for the introduction of new character Paul Rovio, aka Jesus, whose cat-and-mouse duel with Rick and Daryl for control of a lucrative supply truck forms the episode's dramatic core. In the wider show narrative, Jesus' arrival is a metaphorical shift from BC to AD, with hints that the world is about to get a lot bigger – as comic book fans well know. New series' actor Tom Payne does a great job capturing Jesus' enigmatic significance: a subtle blend of charm, threat and martial artistry to rival Morgan. He almost takes out Daryl and Rick single-handed, and it's fun to contrast their blunter, practical, methods of dealing with their foe.
Jesus' dialogue with our battle-worn duo is another neat signifier of the new world, and how two parties who obviously view each other as good people, are well-practiced in caution and deception. Both lie about not having a base camp, before Jesus swipes Rick's van keys and tries to steal the supplies. “Sorry!” he hollers, as he speeds off.
A series of typically calamitous events lead to the truck being submerged in a river, and Rick/Daryl driving an unconscious Jesus to Alexandria – despite Daryl's initial desire to leave Jesus up a tree, rather than risk taking him home. There's a neat inversion, where the pair discuss the merits of finding people to bring into the community. “You were right, I was wrong,” says Daryl, who used to lead recruitments runs. “No, I was wrong, you were right,” replies Rick, with renewed optimism, as Jesus lolls around unconscious in the back seat – or at least, that's what he wants them to think.
“In the car, heading back to Alexandria, I don't think he's asleep; I think he's faking all the way back. He's really intrigued by these guys…”, Tom Payne, who plays Jesus, told IGN (opens in new tab). “He [Jesus] is a very, very clever guy, and he sizes people up very quickly. He doesn't take any bullshit, really; he's no-nonsense. He knows people. That's where that light tone comes from… I think the lightness with which he approached them is a big part of him and how he is. You haven't seen him with people that he doesn't like.” Tom added.
While Jesus' full significance is yet to be revealed, the show ended as it began, in domestic routine. The camera even lingers on the zombie impaled outside Alexandria, as if he's welcoming Rick and Daryl back after a hard day. “It's good to be home” Rick tells Michonne, collapsing on the sofa. “You want to talk about it?” says Michonne. “Not now, I just want to turn my brain off for a bit” replies Rick, as hundreds of thousands of viewers shift on their sofas in recognition.
Before you know it, Rick and Michonne are holding hands and ohmigodisthishappening they kiss… pause… and kiss again… before waking up naked; clothes, guns and blades strewn on the floor. It's a left-field plot development, but feels right. The pair have lived through a lot, and are evenly matched in terms of what it takes to survive in the new world, not having lost their appetite to live, or nurture those they love (note the tender exchange between Carl and Michonne outside the house, where chiding turns to embrace). How their relationship develops isn't clear, but it does lend an extra frisson – and, for Rick and Michonne, a potential moral weakness – as the show inches toward its unveiling of ultra-bad comic book villain Negan, due in the season finale.
And, of course, we can all appreciate the humour in Rick hooking up with Michonne, in a total bolt from the blue, only to find Jesus at the bottom of his bed. As you do. “Rick, Rick, we should talk,” says Jesus in the show's closing scene, as this intriguing series of The Walking Dead continues to impress. After two great shows on the bounce (depending on your view of "No Way Out"'s over the top conflicts and logic leaps), I can't wait to see how we're introduced to a wider world, and hope the producers can tread the line between the explosive and spiritual contrasts of both episodes so far.