Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” episode 602, titled “JSS.”
Unlike the ponderous season six premiere, the Oct. 18 episode of “The Walking Dead” wasted no time getting to the action, taking a few minutes to reestablish the mundane status quo of life in Alexandria before upending it completely. With most of the group out on their ill-fated zombie-herding mission at the quarry, “JSS” gave Carol a chance to shine by demonstrating just what a master of disguise she is — first by blending in among the helpless housewives of Alexandria, who were more concerned with how to make celery soup taste palatable than worrying about the monsters outside their walls, and then by going undercover as one of the Wolves, moving freely among them to defeat them from within as the vicious group infiltrated Alexandria and began murdering everyone in their path.
The incongruity between Alexandria’s pristine suburban backdrop and the brazen violence of the Wolves was certainly startling as Carol witnessed a man barrel in and murder her neighbor with a machete while the woman was outside smoking. We’ve become inured to the violence that our group and the walkers inflict on each other, but much like with Reg and Pete’s deaths at the end of last season, it’s jarring to see blood spilled in the white picket fence world of Alexandria, especially when that violence comes courtesy of other human beings. The savagery of the Wolves was almost cartoonish, hacking off limbs and mutilating bodies without a second thought, but their brutality only made the murder and mayhem more chilling, as they treated helpless civilians like pieces of meat in a way that was far more gleeful and callous than what the walkers do to their prey (zombies gotta eat, after all).
But that bloodlust is contagious — when a Wolf broke into Jessie’s house and managed to wrestle her gun away from her, Jessie attacked her with a pair of scissors, screaming like a banshee and stabbing her over and over again with just as much fervor as the Wolves outside. In her case, at least Jessie was protecting her son, but it was a potent reminder of how easily people are capable of doing violence when pushed — and Jessie probably has more rage inside her than most, given how long she had to endure being abused by her husband.
On the other end of the spectrum was Morgan, who may have made a grave miscalculation last season by allowing a couple of Wolves to escape — perhaps inadvertently leading them right to Alexandria’s door. Despite the horrific violence he witnessed in this week’s episode, Morgan still couldn’t bring himself to kill any of the attackers, imploring them to leave and never come back before allowing a number to escape again.
“You keep choosing this life, you will die,” Morgan told one of the Wolves.
“We didn’t choose,” the Wolf ominously replied, before taking a discarded gun and leaving the compound.
This was pretty much the opposite strategy to Carol’s, and while it was fairly effective in getting the wolves to leave, it also seems more likely to bite them all in the ass in the long run. Still, Morgan and Father Gabriel might’ve actually been able to get some information out of one of the Wolves they captured, who was muttering about traps and how they “don’t belong here” anymore, before Carol ruined their whole plan by shooting the guy without a moment’s hesitation. There has to be some kind of middle ground between Morgan’s merciful methods and Carol’s shoot first mentality, but I’m betting neither of them wants to concede an inch in that tug of war.
The hour also served to illustrate just how out of their depth the Alexandrians are — we got some face time with Merrit Wever’s nervous new doctor, Denise, who apparently went to medical school before all the blood and pressure got the best of her and made her shift her focus to psychology. She was given a trial by fire this week when the Wolves attacked (and lost her patient on the operating table), but Deanna and her son Spencer didn’t fare any better — both were completely overwhelmed by the attack, with Deanna choosing to stay outside the walls and hide, because she at least recognized she’d be a liability more than a help if she tried to fight. Spencer couldn’t even dispatch a zombie and turn off the horn that was drawing thousands of walkers back towards Alexandria, too panicked and shocked by the truck crashing into the watchtower to do what needed to be done before Morgan arrived.
(One thing that did bother me about this episode: Morgan didn’t get that much of a head start on Rick and the others when he was sent back to Alexandria last week – it seems unlikely that it would take Rick and the rest of the group so long to get home, especially once the horn started going off. I’m guessing they were hindered by the herd, but it gave me pause.)
So it was left to Carol and Morgan to clean up most of the mess, with an assist from Tara, Rosita and Aaron, who discovered his bag of photos on one of the Wolves, implying that he might’ve somehow helped lure them towards Alexandria.
In a particularly chilling moment, Carol came across a red “A” painted on Rick’s porch after the dust settled; the letter “A” has become fairly significant in the world of “The Walking Dead” — lest we forget, it was the title of the season four finale, which corresponded to the train car that Rick and his group were trapped inside at Terminus (as well as being visibly tagged around the compound), and after their escape, the letter was painted on the side of Father Gabriel’s church by Gareth and his fellow Termites, as if intended to be a mocking symbol of the group’s impending demise. That scarlet letter was then stamped on Rick and Jessie’s hands in episode 513, “Forget,” by Jessie’s son Sam — though in that case, I interpreted as a more positive way of conveying that the group had become part of the Alexandria family. Few things are ever coincidental in “TWD,” though, so the appearance of a red A on Rick’s home around the same time as a vicious attack by outsiders who have a penchant for scrawling letters on people seems a little suspicious.
The same goes for Enid’s obsessive habit of writing “JSS” everywhere she goes — her not-goodbye note to Carl revealed that the letters (and thus the episode title) spelled out “Just survive somehow,” which is certainly a logical piece of advice during the apocalypse, but it seems significant that the show chose to introduce her “JSS” fixation at the same time the Alexandrians had their first major run-in with the Wolves, which saw Carol drawing a bloody “W” on her own forehead to blend in with the attackers and survive their rampage. Did Enid just pick up the letter-writing habit as a result of the trauma of seeing her parents get eaten by zombies, as we saw in the opening minutes, or did she have a run-in with the Wolves at some point before she arrived at Alexandria?
We still don’t know how the Wolves managed to infiltrate the compound — did Enid let them in? She didn’t seem to be afraid of wandering over to Carl’s house to say goodbye while a band of murderers were wreaking havoc across Alexandria and slaughtering innocent bystanders — perhaps she was in league with the Wolves all along, and was sent to assess the safe zone for a few months before the attack? She managed to leave during the commotion, but did she leave with the Wolves, or did she randomly choose the day of a bloody slaughter to wander off on her own into the woods? Time will tell, no doubt.
In any case, her mantra places an emphasis on surviving by any means necessary (which might be why the Wolves told Morgan they didn’t have a choice — perhaps they were simply offered the choice between life and death, which is no choice at all), but as our group has come to realize over the past five seasons, surviving isn’t the same as living, and keeping yourself distanced from everyone around you is no way to live, even if it keeps you alive.
On the other hand, Morgan places such a high value on life, he refuses to kill even for the “greater good” — the possibility of preventing further death and destruction down the road. That moral high ground is admirable, but untenable in such a selfish world — it’s all very well to have a conscience, but not everyone you meet will share it, especially after the apocalypse. It just remains to be seen whether that ideological struggle will bring him around to Rick’s way of thinking, or end up getting someone killed.
After the plodding pace of last week’s premiere, “JSS” provided a welcome shot of adrenaline to bring us back to the series, and the casual sadism of the Wolves will linger long after the blood has been hosed from Alexandria’s streets — but how will Rick handle this latest threat against his sanctuary? Not well, I’m guessing.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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