The DirecTV summary for last night’s episode of The Walking Dead ran as follows: “A new problem arises.” This is technically accurate, although I don’t think it really does “JSS” justice, seeing as it may have been the one of the most violent, disturbing episodes TWD has ever aired.

I’m not sure “JSS” is a great episode, necessarily, but it’s still extraordinarily effective, especially since it starts so… normally. While Rick and the others are on their Great Zombie Drive, everyone else in back in Alexandria, still recovering from the other night and Rick’s new role as leader. We have a new doctor—Denise, who unfortunately switched to psychology in medical school—and Carol is still playing Suzy Homemaker, albeit with more passive-aggressive cunning than usual, as she guilts one woman into smoking outside. We also get a cold open showing Enid’s travels to Alexandria, marked by her writing the letters “J S S” over and over again.

Advertisement

There’s still plenty of drama to be had over the original Alexandrians coming to terms with the new Ricktatorship, so an episode focused on the safe zone’s inhabitants makes perfect narrative sense. Which is why it’s such a surprise when Carol smugly looks out the window at the woman she’s forced to smoke outside… who is suddenly murdered by a man with a machete.

The Wolves haven’t arrived at the gate, they’re inside, and their only goal appears to be “kill as many people as possible.” What appears like dozens of Wolves run maniacally through the streets of what can no longer be called “the safe zone,” killing what appears to be dozens and dozens of inhabitants. They aren’t trying to get weapons or supplies; they seem to be butchering the Alexandrians for no reason other than violence and brutality.

The only reason it seems like anybody survives is that the Wolves—who have Ws marked in blood on the foreheads, just FYI—is because they’re only armed with knives and axes, while the Alexandrians have guns. But only the people in Rick’s group are instantly ready to start taking out the intruders, which means a lot of Alexandrians who don’t (or don’t have time to) hide are simply cut down in the street. Once the violence and chaos begins, it doesn’t stop until mere minutes before the episode’s credits roll. It is intense.

Advertisement

And the only reason any native Alexandrians manage to live is because of Carol (although there are a few exceptions; Jessie has a life-or-death battle with a Wolf who breaks into her house, and kills her in a way that is horrific and would likely make Rick proud). Carol is at her most badass in “JSS,” instantly turning into a lethal machine, offing Wolves left and right, even disguising herself as one (complete with bloody W on her forehead) to more efficiently take them out.

That said, I don’t think anyone is supposed to unequivocally cheer Carol’s killing spree. Let me put it this way: It’s not really a coincidence that Carol is the one who disguises herself as one of the Wolves. Her slaughter is as cold-blooded, and as merciless, as any of the intruders, and thanks to many, many shots of the Wolves killing the Alexandrians, the disguised Carol looks nearly identical to what she’s fighting. It’s not exactly subtle, but it is effective.

Also not subtle but extremely effective: Morgan, who arrives halfway through the episode as Carol’s mirror. Where Carol is merely trying to eliminate the enemy, Morgan has come to save people. When he first meets up with her, she isn’t even trying to help the townspeople; Morgan abandons her immediately to save Gabriel from a Wolf. Even more importantly, Morgan ties the unconscious Wolf’s hands up, taking him prisoner. He is bound and absolutely defenseless when Carol wanders by and shoots him in the head without a thought. Morgan is horrified; I imagine Gabriel is too, although he probably isn’t that surprised.

While I’m sure there were more than a few viewers who pumped their fists in delight at Carol’s coldly efficient threat removal—or, to put it another way, her negation of Morgan’s attempt to be merciful—I doubt The Walking Dead really wants us to cheer her execution of a defenseless enemy, especially after it went out of its way to posit Carol as a Wolf of sorts herself. Certainly some characters in The Walking Dead consider mercy a weakness; certainly Rick, having faced major repercussions from his attempts to be humane, has a zero tolerance policy for screw-ups (although even he can back down sometimes, as he does initially with Ethan Embry last episode).

But Morgan isn’t some naïve Alexandrian who doesn’t know how the new world works. He’s seen as much shit as anybody, and was as messed up as any non-cannibal when Rick ran across him in “Clear” back in season 3. Somehow, since then, Morgan has transcended the “kill them before they kill you” mentality that dominates the zombie apocalypse to the point he actually values life. This doesn’t make him afraid to kill when he has no choice, such as his fight with the Wolf in the house; but he will avoid it whenever possible. Carol would argue that this makes Morgan weak, but I also don’t think Morgan felt the emotional anguish after the battle that Carol clearly did. But at the same time, Morgan allowed several of the Wolves to flee (after kicking the asses of five of them simultaneously, in true Donatello style). On the way out, one of the Wolves manages to grab a gun. There’s no way that ends up not coming back to have some sort of terrible repercussion for everyone.

Which leads back to one of the most important aspects of “JSS”: it seemingly proves everything Rick has been saying—often screaming, sometimes while covered in blood—is correct. The Alexandrians aren’t at all prepared to live in the new world, and they’ve been incredibly lucky to have survived this long. If they’re not able to kill themselves, then they need people like Rick and Carol who will do it for them. This is a devastatingly nihilistic take, and one that would eventually be unbearable if it weren’t for characters like Morgan, who bring some kind of hope for a better world than the one the Wolves (and Carol, and Rick) currently live in.

Advertisement

At the end of “JSS,” Enid takes off leaving Carl a note which reveals what the letters stand for: “Just Survive Somehow.” It’s easy to see how such a mantra would be essential when she as wandering through the zombie-infested world on her own. It’s a philosophy Rick has been adhering to ever since he left the prison, and one Carol has been following even longer, since she killed those two sick people (and was banished for it).

But there’s something Rosita tells Deanna’s son Spencer in what seems to be a throwaway scene between two not-particularly-important characters that I found striking: When Spencer asks how Rosita and the gang can live in a world this brutal, she replies, “Make sure you have something worth dying for.”

Morgan is willing to risk his life to save others. Carl is shown willing to protect Judith at any cost. Jessie kills to protect her son. While Rick certainly would die for his family, he’s been so involved in the bigger Alexandria issue that we haven’t seen him make that connection, that sense of something more important than his own survival in a while. And Carol… well, Carol has plenty worth killing for. But is there anything for which she’d sacrifice herself? I don’t know. I doubt Carol knows, either.

Advertisement

What I do know is that after this attack, Alexandria will never be the same. The peace has been broken, and the safe zone is no longer safe. The Wolves have fled, but they’ll be back. But based on the last shot of the episode, the real conflict may be between Morgan and Carol. They walk past each other without speaking, their silence deafening. But it’s Carol who walks into the mist, and Morgan who walks away.

Assorted Musings:

• The cold open revealed Enid’s story, which was incredibly well done, with some fantastic editing especially. Admittedly, I always think TWD is its best when its dialogue-free.

Advertisement

• The horn that blared in the premiere was a truck the Wolves ran into Alexandria’s wall. It didn’t knock the wall down, and Morgan managed to turn off the horn, but I assume we’ll see next week how badly it messed up the Great Zombie Drive.

• Jessie joins Team Death when a Wolf enters her house, and she’s kills the intruder in what may be the most graphic murder The Walking Dead has ever shown. Look at the goddamn photo above. This is an official still from the episode, for goodness’ sake.

• Morgan learned his bo staff skills from “a cheese-maker.” Huh.

• Carol is forced to prematurely kill one dying woman so her screams don’t give away her position, echoing Rick’s murder of Ethan Embry in the premiere.

Advertisement

• It was a bit silly, but it was also kind of devastating when the timer went off and Carl just casually pulled Carol’s casserole out of the oven after the battle. Life-and-death situations are so common for Carl that he still has the complete wherewithal to casually take care of these mundane matters immediately afterwards. It’s supremely depressing, from a certain point of view.

• Line o’ the episode, courtesy of Eugene, of course: “It hams my biscuits, is all.”


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.