During the first half of season six, The Walking Dead devoted most of its screen time to an extended plot involving rounding up a dangerous accumulation of walkers located at a nearby quarry and herding them away from Alexandria. That plotline made for some edge-of-your seat moments, including Glenn’s (Steven Yeun) faux death and an unplanned backwash of walkers that, in the fall finale threatened to overwhelm the town.
But that plotline was also significant as a symbolic turning point. Despite the trouble caused and lives lost during the effort, moving these walkers down the road helped set us up for an important shift in emphasis in the series: from fighting walkers to fighting other bands of humans. As if to reinforce that transition, Alexandria was forced to fight both walkers and the “wolves” in the fall, and although both were ultimately fought off in a glorious backs-to-the-wall battle, The Walking Dead was letting us know a change in tone was coming: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was coming.
In keeping with that change, the spring season, which came to an end with an episode entitled “Last Day on Earth”, has featured a decided lack of walkers, and certainly no episodes that revolved around them. In fact, Deanna’s (Tovah Feldshuh) return as a walker and her death at son Spencer’s (Austin Nichols) hands seemed to put a final exclamation point, at least for now, on the walkers’ “defeat”. New character Jesus (Tom Payne) let Rick (Andrew Lincoln) know in “The Next World” that their world was about to “get a lot bigger”. That turned out to be true in a very specific sense: as the walkers have retreated, Alexandria has discovered they’re surrounded by communities of other humans, all of whom they must now deal with to decide how this new world will be governed.
In short, the show has taken on an entirely new approach to thinking about this post-apocalyptic landscape and the realities that come with it. A whole new set of issues is now at stake: social contract issues about how society should work in this situation, questions about how to deal with an enemy far more cunning and dangerous than the walkers, and most importantly, a deep debate with many different sides about the “values” and the “costs” of killing other humans.
As might be expected, the season finalé put those questions squarely at the forefront, crystallizing these thematic build-ups. This happens on an individual level, as Morgan (Lennie James), trying to convince Carol (Melissa McBride) to return to Alexandria, finds himself for the first time in a situation where non-violent tactics simply won’t work. In order to save Carol’s life, he must shoot the man about to shoot her.
The moment reminds us that humans are simply far more dangerous enemies than the walkers ever were, and in their cunning they’ll create situations that are far less easily resolved. Fighting the walkers was mostly about battling overwhelming numbers and finding innovative solutions to being trapped, skills most of our survivors have mastered; fighting humans is an entirely different sort of battle.
In fact, on the episode’s larger level, we see this fact play out with an ever-increasing sense of dread. As they head towards Hilltop in an RV, desperate to get help for Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Rick and the gang run into a roadblock of Saviors. As they would’ve done in the face of a pack of walkers, they simply reverse course (though they’re clearly more rattled at this encounter than they would’ve been had they simply faced a pack of walkers) and take another path.
Negan’s men are not walkers, though, and can’t simply be skirted. In fact, as our survivors try one new direction after another, they find each cut off, a trap slowly closing in on them until, having finally abandoned the RV and taken off on foot, they find themselves completely surrounded by Negan’s forces with nowhere to turn. In the process, they do try one feeble attempt to outwit the Saviors, by sending Eugene (Josh McDermitt) off alone in the RV, to offer himself as a sacrificial decoy.
Again, this is the kind of approach that might have worked against the walkers; in fact, we’ve seen versions of it play out several times over the course of the series, beginning with Glenn’s horn blasting distraction speeding out of Atlanta in episode two, and including, more recently, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Daryl (Norman Reedus) leading a slow march of walkers away from Alexandria.
Then again, this season has always felt as though our survivors never quite understood the gravity of the situation, never quite recognized that the situation has changed. After an action-packed opening episode this spring, the series jumped several months in time, to a moment of calm and peace, a moment that seemed to suggest life had reached some kind of stability. This fact, of course, is immediately suspicious to any television viewer, given that we know something must ultimately drive the plot, some conflict must always be around the corner. There have even been episodes laced with humor, as when Rick and Daryl first encounter the wily Jesus and wind up sinking their own van full of supplies. But, the situation seemed somehow too easy.
Ultimately, however, it’s their tactics that reveal their naïve sense of superiority and their complete misreading of the new situation. Rick’s boast when he decides to help Hilltop fight the Saviors smacks of the most obvious sort of hubris: “It’s what we do.” In fact, though it requires a new sort of mental fortitude, killing a compound full of saviors while they sleep does turn out to be relatively easy. Yet this victory’s a gross underestimation of the Savior’s size, strength, and tactical superiority, something we don’t fully realize until this final episode, when Rick, Abraham, Michonne (Danai Gurira), and the rest find themselves easy prey.
We’re left with several cliffhangers of course, the most obvious of which is how Rick and the rest will manage to escape from the situation (I predict a fall season that sets up much like the New Caprica season of Battlestar Galactica, with the Alexandria survivors under the rule of Negan for an extended story arc). It’s the complicated thematic issues that remain that are most intriguing, though. We’ve come to respect Morgan’s non-violent approach to dealing with other humans, particularly after “He’s Not Here”, an episode that fully fleshed out how he came to adopt this position. Indeed, in the previous episode, he seems almost to have convinced Rick of the value of his way of thinking.
Yet by the episode’s end, Rick’s group find themselves entirely at the mercy of a group with no qualms about killing humans, and even Morgan is forced into killing. The pendulum continues to swing between the need for violence and the desire for non-violence. For now, that swinging promises to give the series thematic lifeblood for some time to come.