As different as The Walking Dead is from just about any other TV show either before or after it, it has always been very straightforward and conventional in its storytelling. It is just about always a straight line from point A to point B. The most formally daring move it ever made was in the pilot, when Rick woke up from a coma to the zombie apocalypse.
These first two season 6 episodes suggest that the show is going to be experimenting a little more. Last week’s premiere was split between black-and-white flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of Morgan’s arrival at Alexandria and Rick’s killing of Doctor Pete, and plan to lead thousands of walkers out of a quarry and away from Alexandria, a plan that was going great until a horn started blowing and drew all the dead off the road and back toward the neighborhood. This week Rick, Daryl, Sasha, Abraham, and everyone else involved in that operation are nowhere to be seen, as the episode goes back to show what was going on in Alexandria to make that horn blow: an attack by the Wolves, who aren’t just content to kill their enemies, they seem to take pleasure in chopping them up.
The episode also did something else I don’t recall seeing before on this show: its pre-credits opening was an extended flashback about how Enid, a teenage girl Carl’s been hanging out with, came to be behind Alexandria’s walls, and it wasn’t pretty. The scene of her eating the turtle – not just eating it, but eating it raw, with dead eyes and blood all over her face – underscored the double entendre of the show’s title, and the letters she wrote everywhere – “JSS,” which we later learn stands for Just Survive Somehow – gave the episode its title. It may become relevant later that this young lady came up the hard way, or it may just be a little extra coloring; hard to say.
We started to see real fissures between Morgan, who prefers not to kill people if it can be avoided, and Rick’s side, in this case Carol, who didn’t just shoot a Wolf or two in the battle, but killed one of the other housewives just to shut her up and keep from being detected.
But for the most part, this episode was a ripping yarn, with little time for character development or foreshadowing; it was about the Wolf attack and the horn, and about people starting to really get in touch with their brutal sides; Jessie, the recently widowed mom that Rick’s sweet on, went completely feral on a lady-Wolf that came into her house, and the episode ends with even Morgan finishing someone off.
Anyway, now we know how the horn got blown, and now that both halves of the story have been told, episode three, when the walkers begin to arrive and Rick et al return to defend Alexandria, ought to be a doozy.
This episode had Paul Vigna of the Wall Street Journal screaming from the rooftops:
“JSS,” the second installment of the sixth season of “The Walking Dead,” was the most gruesome and spellbinding episode of this show yet. It came out of nowhere — viewers get no more warning of the coming attack than the Alexandrians — and the unrelenting violence and horror of it is so exceptional It is actually kind of mesmerizing. This one may immediately move into our top-five all-time list. It was a gripping installment, directed by Jennifer Lynch, featuring a raw, terrifying story written by Seth Hoffman. It was everything you want from this show, and it didn’t even have one scene with Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, Abraham, or Sasha. (Anybody who thinks any of those characters are essential and can’t be killed off better reassess that thought. Carol and Morgan carried the show this week, more than capably.) I’ll say this, too: it was harder to keep my mouth shut about this episode than for any other. I never, ever, say a word about the show to anybody, and I’m not just saying that for AMC’s sake. I really want my friends to see the show with their own eyes. I don’t talk about details, I don’t talk plot, I don’t even say if I liked the episode or not. This week, that resolve was sorely tested. This was a powerful chapter.Vulture’s Richard Rys bores in on the growing divide between Morgan and Rick’s group:
We soon learn how far the key survivors are willing to go to defend the town. Deanna and Spencer don’t have the stomach for it; the former Alexandria leader is so paralyzed, she hides out in the truck while her people are butchered. Surprisingly, Gabriel wants to help — if not for the Wolf raid, he would have had a sweet 3 p.m. machete lesson with Carl. But it’s Morgan who, like last week, refuses to bend his moral code and kill people. His pacifism doesn’t sit well with Carol, who is, when the Wolf shit hits the fan, a total boss. (A bloodthirsty one, but a boss nonetheless.) Cloaked in a Wolf’s hoodie, bloody W on her forehead, she’s got a simple plan we’ll call Operation: Teen Spirit — get to the armory, load up on guns, bring her friends. At one point, she’s running down the street blasting Wolves, then takes out one at close range as blood splatters across the camera lens. There’s a moment of dark comedy when Carol finds one of her cooking buddies in the armory closet and gives her a quick gun-toting tutorial (“Squeeze and you don’t stop until they’re on the ground.” Easy!). Clearly none of the Alexandrians expected to see Betty Crocker turn into the Punisher. Carol wins the body count (and props to Carl for his crack shot at a running Wolf in pursuit of mopey Ron). But it’s Morgan who wins the all-around badass award. His showdown with a bearded, ax-wielding Wolf — sort of a poor man’s Khal Drogo — looked epic, until Carol runs up and guts the Wolf like a carp. Morgan swiftly disarms another invader to save Gabriel, and once again, Carol plays executioner. Also pretty sure Morgan wasn’t too psyched to play the role of Carol’s captive. But all along, he sticks to his principles while still being the coolest dude to rock a staff since Gandalf. He even, rather improbably, talks a lead Wolf leader — one he’d met last season, out in the woods — into fleeing (but not before the Wolf engages in a gross bit of lip-smacking). Of course, while lecturing, Morgan beats the snot out of four Wolf-pack punks. Lest anyone start feeling optimistic for the future, the episode ends on a series of downers. After being talked into duty, Denise, the panic-attack-prone-psychiatrist-cum-surgeon, loses her patient. Tara’s only parting words: “Get her brain.” Aaron finds the knapsack he lost with those photos — detailed pictures of Alexandria he’d once shown to Rick’s gang. He starts to shake. Aaron knows he gave the Wolves a blueprint for staging their assault. After spending most of the episode in a closet, Jessie finds her inner savage and brutally stabs a Ladywolf to death with a pair of scissors, much to Ron’s horror. Even Morgan seems to give up on peace during his tussle with one final, old familiar Wolf. “I’m sorry,” he says, before delivering what looks like a fatal blow.Zack Handlen of The A.V. Club follows on:
The hour’s centerpieces are the reflecting arcs of Morgan and Carol, both demonstrating the extent of their worldviews and the limitations therein. Carol is her awesomely pragmatic self, shifting from undercover homemaker (who offers to teach one of the locals how to make pasta, provided the local not smoke in the house because it’s a filthy habit that will get her killed) to undercover warrior almost as soon as the crisis hits. Her shift is marked by a terrific perspective shot of the Wolves’ arrival in town: Carol’s watching the local woman smoking outside, and then someone comes in behind the woman, cutting her down with a machete. It’s fast and mean and there’s no warning whatsoever, and as much as anything in the episode, sells how unprepared anyone was for the attack. Carol then proceeds to dress up like a Wolf herself, shooting any of them foolish enough to get close, and showing absolutely no mercy. This in distinct contrast to Morgan, who treats mercy the way a drowning man treats air: With staff in hand, he begs the attackers he finds to leave town and never come back, not to protect himself but to save their lives. At one point, he even ties a Wolf up instead of killing him, only to have Carol walk up and shoot the prone figure in the head without hesitation. It doesn’t get much starker than that. That starkness is what makes this so good. (The great way the episode is directed and edited, too: There’s a cut in the cold open, from Enid listening to her parents arguing about a car battery, to Enid trapped in the car with blood covering the window, that’s one of the best this show has ever done.) But what makes it great is that the starkness is modulated. Carol lectured the other woman about cigarettes, but at the end of the attack, Carol finds a pack next to the woman’s corpse, and takes one out; not smoking it, but considering, even as she tries to wipe the bloody W from her forehead. (Noting the red Alexandrian “A” on the stair railing.) Carol is one of the most efficient realists on the show, but she isn’t a machine. Even she has her softer moments. And Morgan, who tries so hard to keep his hands clean—well, he can’t manage that forever, no matter how hard he tries. After staring down a group of Wolves and forcing them to leave town without killing one of them (although he does kick a few asses), Morgan gets ambushed by a lone assailant. They fight, and Morgan ends up killing him. Weirdly, this makes Morgan’s philosophical approach to life, his seemingly quixotic need to avoid killing, more tenable. It’s not that Morgan won’t kill. It’s just that, unlike Carol or so many others, he still thinks it’s worth trying not to. Odds are this won’t save him in the long run, but it’s good enough to make him worth rooting for now.
Todd VanDerWerff of Vox loved the episode’s cold open:
I have essentially no idea why “JSS” turned over its opening scenes to a lengthy depiction of Enid making her way through the early days of the zombie apocalypse to arrive at Alexandria’s doorstep, but it was easily the best part of the episode, an arresting glimpse into a character we know barely anything about. It was like a Lost flashback in miniature, complete with interesting stylistic and filmmaking choices. In particular, I loved the way the sequence built up to a point of extreme, graphic violence, then immediately cut from it to the violence’s aftermath. Enid watches zombies dine on her parents, then later kills a turtle so she’ll have something to eat. She comes upon a zombie hanging out of a car she wants to weather a rainstorm in, and we cut to her sitting out the rain. At all times, the gore is elided, in favor of the ultimate result of that gore. It nicely underlines the rest of the episode, which suggests that in this world, violence is often necessary if you want to create a world where safety and security actually exist. It’s one of the essential paradoxes of building a society, and it’s fun to watch the show tease it out. Plus, it helps with character development, a frequent problem for the show. As we watch Enid dig deep to “just survive somehow” (the letters that give the episode its title), she slowly but surely becomes something more than “that girl Carl might have a crush on.” It’s yet another sign of the show’s writers loosening up and having fun with the storytelling. The show introduces lots of characters, and has the bad habit of mostly making them zombie chow. By utilizing this technique, it might be able to make Enid’s inevitable death sting a bit more.
And Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray likes where things are headed:
Unlike the premiere, “JSS” doesn’t cohesively integrate its white-knuckle action with its philosophical musings. When the Wolves are rampaging through Alexandria, the episode’s fairly nerve-wracking, because it’s obvious from the start that our heroes are under-prepared and their invaders unreasonable. This is raw, violent survival, and at times it’s boldly unrelenting. But not all the time. The episode’s credited screenwriter Seth Hoffman and director Jennifer Lynch skip between scenes of life-or-death urgency and folks having awkward conversations about what it means to live in such a fallen world as their friends are being hacked to pieces a block away. This is primarily meant to set up some potential conflict between Carol and Morgan, who interrupts the mayhem to tell her that she doesn’t have to kill people. That’s a debate worth having, but the timing seems…oh, let’s call it “inopportune.” Nevertheless, when the pulsing synthesizer score is cranked up, John Carpenter-style, and the Wolves are encroaching from every corner — it carries over the barreling narrative momentum of last week’s Great Zombie Roundup. And the breathlessness suggests this season of The Walking Dead isn’t going to slow up any time soon. With Carol and Morgan’s help (and also Aaron, back on duty after some time on the sidelines), the intruders do get driven away, though not before they make some idle comments about humanity’s proper place, implying a dangerous zealotry that’s unlikely to flame out. Creepy times are ahead.