Spoiler alert: Do not read on unless you've seen 'The Walking Dead' Season 6, Episode 12, titled 'Not Tomorrow Yet.'
Last week's episode of ‘The Walking Dead" may have suffered from a terminal case of telling instead of showing, but episode 612 confidently reversed that trend, recapturing the humour, energy and tension of "The Next World" as if "Knots Untie" was nothing but a pothole on the race towards the finale, and arguably upping the ante even further by taking our characters down a disturbing path from which there may be no return.
Why was the episode so "dark"? In large part because it dug deep into humanity's less honourable impulses, forcing our characters to confront the thorny moral implications of just what each of them was prepared to do to protect their hard-won sanctuary.
What transpired in this episode was murder, no two ways about it -- the only question is whether murder can ever be justifiable, if it means securing safety for you and your loved ones. (We're not even going to touch on Abraham, who basically unloaded a machine gun on Rosita's heart just because he got distracted by a newer, even more damaged model -- and if he's destined for a meeting with Negan's baseball bat, the show's doing a good job of telling us why we shouldn't be sad about it.)
The hour opened with a deceptively jaunty tone, illustrating just how enthusiastically Carol has embraced Alexandria's domesticity after weeks (months?) of playing wolf in sheep's clothing -- to the point where she was actually exasperated over splattering zombie brains over her freshly laundered shirt while she was out collecting acorns. This week, she was no longer baking cookies for show, but because she actually likes her neighbours -- one in particular, judging by her sweet, tentative flirtation with Tobin.
As our survivors have learned time and again, caring about something means that you have something to lose, and Carol seemed more cognisant of that than ever in this week's installment; turns out she's kept a running tally of all the humans she's killed (18 in total, including Termites and Wolves -- remember Ryan, Karen, David and Lizzie?), and despite her previous conflict with Morgan, she didn't seem any more eager to sneak in and slaughter a camp full of sleeping Saviours than he did, electing to stay outside and keep watch with Maggie while the rest of the group went inside to clear out Negan's men. Much like Rosita, Carol has never wanted to kill, or taken joy in it, and a part of her clearly wants to see things from Morgan's perspective, no matter how unrealistic his expectations are given the world they live in.
"You're supposed to be someone else," she told Maggie, as her pregnant friend tried to rush inside and help their group. The Alexandrians might see Carol as a den mother (Tobin incisively notes that she's one of the few people willing to make the tough choices), but it's the next generation of mothers she's striving to protect; she wants to preserve the new world that they're building -- a world that will be populated by people like Glenn and Maggie, who see hope and possibility even in dark places -- in the hope that they won't have to bury any more innocent children like Sam.
A number of characters struggled with the morality of their mission this week -- that tension was best explored in the dynamic between Glenn and Heath (two characters who have both managed to avoid taking a human life thus far), given that Glenn has long been our group's conscience, having somehow managed to keep his hands clean despite numerous human betrayals.
While Rick and Daryl have grown accustomed to compartmentalising the horrendous things they're forced to do for the greater good, others aren't so dispassionate, and the episode gave due deference to each survivor's inner conflict, with Morgan reminding the group that "they come back when they're dead, too -- I don't mean the walkers." Taking a life, even for supposedly "just" reasons, should always take its toll, which was why, in the final moments, we saw Morgan tearfully building what looked like a cage -- much like the one he spent so much time in, after giving in to his own dark impulses after his son died.
While some viewers may have found the scenes of our group mowing down Saviours with machine guns to be excessive (there were segments inside the Saviours' camp that certainly felt more like an '80s action movie or shoot-em-up video game than a cable drama), I chose to interpret those scenes as an apt reminder that while mankind now has the means to take lives in a way that seems easy and impersonal, thanks to weapons of unimaginable brutality, the aftermath is always more painful than the act itself.
Discovering that the Saviours kept Polaroid mementos of the victims they'd brutalised (with a baseball bat?) may have given Heath and Glenn the moral high ground, but it clearly didn't lessen the horror of what Glenn had just done -- killing sleeping men with nothing but a knife. And that was before both were forced to pick up guns and defend themselves, creating unimaginable carnage that will clearly haunt them long after the blood has dried.
That was what made "Not Tomorrow Yet" so potent -- not only did writer Seth Hoffman and director Greg Nicotero ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels when our group broke into the Saviours' compound, they also posed questions to which there are no easy answers -- is taking a life ever "right," even in a world where your enemies are likely to kill you if you don't kill them first? While their actions were in many ways informed by the Wolves' brutal attack on Alexandria, how was what our group did to the Saviours any different from what the Wolves did to them?
Even if the word was never uttered aloud in the hour, the concept of sin hung heavy over the episode -- from Rick standing at the pulpit espousing Old Testament retribution with a stained glass window limning him in the light of righteousness, to Tara making a quiet confession to Father Gabriel and Jesus (no subtlety there), about how much she's always struggled with violence -- it was refreshing to see our heroes wrestle with the essential human dilemmas of right and wrong, even in an episode that was one of the show's bloodiest yet.
Taking a life comes with a cost, as Morgan tried to warn everyone -- and in the episode's closing moments, we discovered exactly what that cost could be: Carol and Maggie. Is one of them heading for a close encounter with Negan? It'll be a long week until we find out.
‘The Walking Dead’ airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.