For the last few seasons, I’ve felt that Walking Dead hasn’t done anything interesting with Rick Grimes in spite him being the de facto lead character. His struggle between being a violent animal and being a good family man has been his constant conflict since season 3, and it hasn’t gone in any new directions since. So, I’m always happy when we get a Rick-free episode, and this week’s, directed by Jennifer Lynch, is a great one.
This is the second episode of the show Lynch has directed, following season 5’s gruesome episode Spend, in which Tyler James Williams’s sadly underused character Noah died just as he was starting to get interesting (a running theme on the show.) Like Spend, JSS is an episode that actually manages to make violence look disgusting and upsetting, a feat this show rarely accomplishes.
Often, The Walking Dead uses over the top gore and makeup for the ridiculousness of it, but without any real attempt to be frightening, even when the events on screen really should be. Both of Lynch’s episodes showcase the brutality of violence rather than linger on the glamour of fancy effects work. Whether it’s a hideous killing or a young girl eating a turtle to survive, Lynch does not shy away from the visceral elements that the show other times shrugs at. It’s unpleasant, but it’s thoroughly effective. She’s the best visual director to have worked on the show. Also, it’s darkly funny that the woman who directed Boxing Helena shot an episode with so much focus on limb dismemberment.
This episode has an especially simple plot: While Rick and most of our toughest crew members are out messing around with zombies, the safe-zone town of Alexandria is attacked by marauders known as The Wolves. The majority of the episode focuses on the chaos and violence of the battle, and yet does a better job developing our characters than many dialogue-heavy episodes manage to.
Lynch does a great job building up to the attack. Almost the first third of the episode focuses on small town melodrama and petty squabbles; Jessie fights with her son about getting a haircut, Carol continues to play the role of smiling housewife while containing her violent side, Father Gabriel wants to learn how to be more helpful, and Carl scowls crazily at his maybe-girlfriend Enid when she hugs Jessie’s son as he mourns the loss of his father. A lesson, no doubt, that Carl learned from his crazy-nuts dad. The lingering soap opera is interrupted silently and shockingly as the first Wolf murders an Alexandrian, and it’s so unreal that for a second I wondered whether Carol was just daydreaming about murder. It wouldn’t be a surprise.
There’s some unconventional direction to this episode that really helps make it so effective. The pre-credits opener gives us a look at young Enid before she came to live in Alexandria (and contains the earlier mentioned disgusting turtle scene) and contains one of my favorite cuts in the show; Enid, alone in a car, calls for her parents to hurry back. Deads are approaching from both sides. Abruptly, violently, the scene cuts to Enid alone, doors closed, car and hands covered in blood. We don’t see what happened. We don’t need to; the fierceness of the cut tells it all.
Another good moment is Jessie’s talk with her son. She stands alone, off center, with the camera focused on the sterility of the kitchen counter in front of her. She calls for her son, who takes a long time to finally saunter downstairs for his lecture. There’s nothing scary going on here, but the slow sluggish mundane reality sets the mood well and causes discomfort where none naturally belongs. David Lynch uses this technique in his work too; one of my favorite shots of his in Twin Peaks comes in the second season’s finale, when the audience waits an excruciating length of time for an old banker to cross the set. If done right and used sparingly, this technique is wonderfully disconcerting, and I’m glad Jennifer Lynch learned it from her father.
It’s not all nervousness and discomfort here, though. There are a couple of genuinely funny moments, one involving my continuing favorite dude, Eugene. While he and Tara dig through the town clinic for some aspirin, Eugene announces that it “hams my biscuits” that the town’s wasting time and resources building a church while they could be build “a sweet-ass game room.” Still the best. This scene also introduces a new character, the nervous, nerdy Denise, played endearingly by Merritt Wever. She’s fallen into the role of town doctor, in spite of her background being in psychology. I loved seeing her, Eugene, and Tara form a trio of wonderful weirdos, but she’s not just a one-note character, and the scene where we do see her forced to operate under stress is a hard one.
Out in the town-turned-battlefield, Morgan (who leaves Rick’s expedition and rushes home when he hears a blaring horn) and Carol are strong enough to be in no real danger from the Wolves as they wantonly slaughter unarmed townsfolk, but are instead at war with their own inner monsters. Back in season 3, Morgan had gone off the deep-end and had built himself a solitary prison-fortress of deadly traps and memories. He’s since found inner peace in the time between then and now, and arrives in Alexandria as a wandering monk. The Wolves’ attack tests his resolve, forcing him to unleash his demon just enough to survive and stop the attack, but not enough to go berserk and kill. He chooses instead to try and take prisoners, a smart move when you’re trying to figure out where an invading force is coming from. Carol doesn’t allow it.
After half a dozen episodes of pretending to be a mousy mom, Carol gives up her humanity and becomes an angel of death. She sheds her housewife disguise and puts on the clothes of a Wolf she kills, the costume of a ragged rogue that suits what she’s become far better. She’s been a wolf in sheep’s clothing ever since arriving in Alexandria, after all. When she begins killing again, she looks a little sick, but simultaneously enthralled. This is what she’s good at, and there’s no question that on some level it’s not just pragmatism; she enjoys the killing. The only thing keeping her from becoming a villain is the love she still feels for her survivor family. When it’s all over, she grabs a cigarette from a dead friend, tries wiping the blood from her forehead, and sheds a tear. Even in the name of protecting the people she loves, she knows she’s a monster. The blood won’t come off. It’s blunt, but I love it.
This episode was a huge step up from the season premiere, both in writing and in direction. It’s a smaller, simpler episode, but it’s exceptionally well made, and up there with the best the show’s ever been. With minimal dialogue and lots of physical action, this episode looks at the monsters inside us through the lens of both Morgan and Carol. It’s something the show often tries to do with Rick, but rarely accomplishes this gracefully. I’m just completely happy with it overall, and at this point, I just want them to give the rest of the series to Jennifer Lynch from now on.