The Walking Dead Season 6 Episode
Courtesy of AMC

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” Season 6, Episode 13, titled “The Same Boat.”

When a show has been on for a few seasons and established an emotional status quo among its characters, it earns the right to give us episodes like “The Same Boat,” an incisive chamber piece that serves as a compelling analogue to last week’s “Not Tomorrow Yet” in its surprisingly deep examination of moral relativism, ably penned by Angela Kang and directed with claustrophobic intensity by Billy Gierhart.

Instead of focusing on a larger group going up against the Saviors, as we saw in last week’s bombastic installment, “The Same Boat” gave us a chance to sit with Carol and Maggie as they argued the merits of their choices against an equally tight-knit posse of survivors — one that was arguably every bit as justified in their defensiveness as our group. We’ve been told that the Saviors and Negan are bad news, thanks to the residents of Hilltop (and Daryl, Sasha and Abraham’s encounter on the road), but when you take a look at the damage inflicted so far, Rick’s people have a much higher on-screen body count, and far less justification to attack the Saviors than the Saviors have to harm them, given Daryl’s rocket launcher trick in the midseason premiere.

This proactive approach of “do it to them before they can do it to you” may be logical and even advisable in a zombie apocalypse, but overall “The Walking Dead” seems far less interested in delineating the line between “good” and “bad” this season than it has in years past, a narrative choice that is proving to be a creative goldmine in terms of character development. We’ve seen Carol evolve from a meek and battered housewife into the hero of her own story over the past six seasons, but despite her battle-hardened exterior, this is a woman who still clearly has a conscience and a conflicted soul — a fact that’s sometimes easy to forget, given her pragmatic outlook.

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While Rick is unflinchingly mutilating zombie faces and shooting men in the head at point blank range, Carol is still keeping a running tally of all the human lives she’s taken and giving her enemies second chances to do the right thing, even when logic says killing them would be the safer route. While I don’t believe that Rick takes these acts of violence lightly either, it’s been fascinating to see where each character lands on the spectrum of whether the ends truly justify the means in recent episodes. That these characters remain likable even when doing heinous things is a testament to the groundwork that the writers have laid over the past few years, and the show is finally venturing into territory so expertly trodden by another AMC hit, “Breaking Bad,” which wasn’t afraid to take its “hero” to dark places in the name of good storytelling. While “TWD” often lacks the elegance of Vince Gilligan’s TV masterpiece, it’s nice to see the show tackling those thorny ethical questions without worrying too much about whether a few shades of grey in our heroes will put us off.

In seasons past, it’s been easy to talk in absolutes: Rick’s group = good, Governor = bad. But as “The Walking Dead” expands its world and introduces more characters who have all found their own means of surviving this long, we’re finally starting to get a more nuanced look at what the cost of living is in this new world. Is one group more entitled to live than another? How is that worthiness determined? That conflict was personified in Paula, Carol’s dark mirror image, who believed that shutting off her conscience made her somehow greater than she used to be. “I’m still me, but better,” she told Carol. “I lost everything and it made me stronger.”

The same is undeniably true of Carol, but it’s interesting how subjective the idea of strength is in this apocalyptic landscape: I’d argue that it takes far more strength to allow yourself to feel in a world where loss is a constant, relentless certainty — making yourself numb might be easier, but it doesn’t require much intestinal fortitude, if you’re just trying to sleep at night. Carol, on the other hand, has been an insomniac for a long time now, and these decisions weigh heavy on her — as much as she was adamant that Maggie should stay outside during last week’s episode (a choice that inadvertently got them both captured), this episode crystallized the fact that Carol was probably trying to find a way to avoid bloodshed just as much as she was concerned for Maggie’s safety. The point isn’t just to stay standing, as Maggie points out to her own twisted reflection, Michelle — because “the walkers do that” too — they’re choosing something else: to try and find a better way to live than the way they’ve been living up until now, whether that means opening themselves up to the possibility of love, or children, or the ideals of Alexandria that Deanna believed in.

“The Same Boat” eventually bore out Rick’s warning that everyone they let go will inevitably come back to bite them (no pun intended), after Carol gave Paula multiple choices to escape rather than to pursue violence and yet still ended up having to kill her. But was Carol and Maggie’s decision to lure the remaining Saviors to the kill floor and burn them alive an act of resignation — a concession that there’s clearly no point trying to give people second chances? That remains to be seen, but the events of the episode clearly took their toll — in the closing moments, an emotionally drained Carol told Daryl that she wasn’t good — a rare moment of vulnerability — while Maggie admitted to Glenn “I can’t do this anymore,” after narrowly avoiding having her stomach slashed by Michelle. Everyone should have a line they refuse to cross, and this season seems determined to test whether that’s a hill that each character wants to die on: Morgan refuses to kill under any circumstances, perhaps for the sake of his own sanity, but Glenn, who had previously been the only member of the group never to take a human life, was willing to make that sacrifice for the supposed greater good, and both will have to live with the consequences, just like Carol’s decision to take out the Saviors to ensure their own survival.

One of the most interesting aspects of the episode was the way that a number of the Saviors decided to channel their inner “Spartacus” and take credit for being Negan — implying that this many-headed beast can’t be so easily eradicated, and that this leader clearly espouses a philosophy that the Saviors believe is worth dying for. While we’ve heard enough from the cast, the executive producers and the comics to know that the real Negan is no laughing matter, it’s still interesting to consider, from a hypothetical standpoint, what it would mean if Negan wasn’t real, and really was just the boogeyman that Daryl suggested he might be. What if we met Negan and he was actually a nice guy, and all our characters had turned themselves into human-killing monsters for nothing? Would all this have been worth it?

Food for thought.

“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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