The Law of Averages
The Walking Dead
Season 6, Episode 10 - "The Next World"
Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Melissa McBride
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 21 Feb 2016
In this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Next World”, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Daryl (Norman Reedua) play with the phrase, “law of averages”. Rick insists on looking to the bright side of their current situation, arguing that, despite the fact that they’ve had a dry spell lately in finding supplies, the “law of averages” says their luck is bound to change. While Daryl remains skeptical, Rick does seem to be proven right when they come across a truckload full of supplies.
The problem is, the law of averages, it turns out, can be somewhat fickle. In an unusual, though welcome bit of humor in this post-apocalyptic world, Rick and Daryl wind up losing the truck, only to get it back again, only to lose it again, get it back again, and finally lose it once and for all, watching helplessly as it sinks to the bottom of a lake. All of which works well as a metaphor for the balanced back and forth structure the episode as a whole offers.
I think a number of fans may be disappointed in this episode (the same sorts of fans who complained about the season spent on Herschel’s farm) and in many ways, that’s a shame. “The Next World” doesn’t have the high-octane action of the previous episode (“No Way Out”), or even the slow boil of a non-action episode like the Morgan-centric “Here’s Not Here” from earlier this season.
Complaints about a lack of action, however, miss a number of the important elements in an episode like this one. If nothing else, it’s worth remembering a line from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Come near, come near, come near – Ah, leave me still/ A little space for the rose-breath to fill!” (“To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time”). In short, if we get nothing but action, action ceases to mean much. We need moments, episodes, of reflection, time to catch our breath, consider where we are, and prepare for what’s to come.
In truth, important events do occur in this episode, even if they don’t bring us to the edge of our seats: moments that force us to consider this post-apocalyptic situation from new perspectives. To begin with, the very fact that our band of survivors has experienced a few months of relative safety and peace matters. We’ve seen very little of these sorts of moments in the course of the series, but if for no other reason than the sake of realism, it makes sense that they would happen eventually (the law of averages again).
Again, not only do we get moments of calm, but we get moments of real humor—the back and forth between Rick and Daryl over what music to play on the car’s radio; the way the stranger “Jesus” (Tom Payne) manages to con them and steal the truck; the physical comedy that plays out as Daryl and Rick try to tackle a particularly wily Jesus; the long slow way in which the truck seeps below the lake’s surface. Even in a world full of zombies, life can’t be unremittingly bleak.
I would suggest though that, more than anything else, this episode offers a kind of structural beauty. In the early- to mid-twentieth century, “structuralism” was one of the most important buzzwords of literary analysis. Critics based their praise on how well a work achieved balance in its construction, how well the various pieces fit together.
Structuralism eventually lost its cachet, and post-structuralism took its place. In his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton ridiculed structuralism as too mechanical: “What a structuralist critic would do [with a story] would be to schematize the story in diagrammatic form […] Flushed with triumph, the structuralist rearranges his rulers and reaches for the next story” (82-83).
Yet a well-structured plot, like that in “The Next World”, does offer its own pleasures. In this case, the writers create a nice symmetry by dividing the plot line into three pieces, each one involving a pair of characters: Rick and Daryl, Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Enid (Katelyn Nacon), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Spencer (Austin Nichols). In each case, the characters struggle to understand one another.
Both Carl and Enid and Spencer and Michonne, wander the woods around the town (in fact, the two sets of pairs cross paths), but the plotlines mirror one another in several ways. Michonne discovers Spencer roaming with a shovel, and though he initially wants to be left alone, she follows anyway and the two develop a friendship. In contrast, Carl and Enid start out together, exploring and eventually winding up at a sort of clubhouse they’ve built, where they eat candy and read comic books. Where Spencer and Michonne draw closer together though, Carl and Enid have a falling out, and Enid heads back to town alone. In this case, Daryl and Rick serve as a fulcrum point: they bicker almost like an old married couple over the radio, but ultimately it’s all in good fun.
Other parallels develop as well, and the three plot lines intersect at interesting angles. So, for example, Carl—normally eager to kill walkers—hesitates and decides ultimately not to kill a turned Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh). In contrast, Spencer, Deanna’s son and a character who has been hesitant to kill in the past, overcomes his emotional hesitation and succeeds in killing his mother, a kill for love as opposed to most of the defensive killing in the show. There’s also the obverse duality of one familiar character’s death at the same time the new character, Jesus, arrives.
Finally, though, there’s the intersection of these plotlines at the end, when we discover a relationship between Rick and Michonne (the mirror image of their black and white skin as they lie next to one another in bed a bit like a yin-yang symbol), one that is interrupted by Jesus at episode’s end. All the threads of these plotlines come together neatly in other words, but finally open up into an entirely new direction: plotlines resolved and plotlines begun. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that this coming week’s episode is titled “Knots Untie”. After all, the law of averages tells us the show can’t avoid chaos forever.