"The New World," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, featured a pair of parallel stories that, in more sensitive hands, could have been outright great. In the hands of TWD's creators, they proved to be dull, dumb, uninteresting and sappy.
Weeks have passed since the previous ep and the Alexandrian safe zone has been cleaned up, repaired and looks just as it did before the chaos of this season had occurred (including being largely devoid of any Alexandrians). Rick and Daryl are going on a supply run. The inclusion of Rick in this adventure seems very arbitrary--while Daryl has made regular treks into the outside world since arriving in town, we've never seen Rick do so. Rick is feeling optimistic and--wouldn't you know it?--at the first place they stop, they find a big truck loaded with food and supplies. And then at their next stop, they immediately lose it. Trying to retrieve a Coke from a machine, our heroes encounter a guy who looks like a popular artistic depiction of Jesus and even goes by the name. Jesus, it turns out, has ninja skills and confounding our heroes with a Bugs Bunny gag, easily jacks the truck. This starts a cat-and-mouse chase that runs for most of the rest of the ep.
If TWD wasn't so uncomfortable with full-bodied humor, this could have been an amusing tale. The ep makes a few stabs at jokes but it mostly just ends up looking like the usual overbearing TWD. Jesus proves quite the adversary. He can boost one's keys right out of one's pocket, fights like a human hurricane and when he's trussed up and left by the side of the road, he frees himself with the speed of thought. When, ultimately, Jesus is injured, the writers decide to have Rick act as though he's learned absolutely nothing and opt to tie up the slippery ninja and cart the fellow back to the safe zone for medical attention. Rick had previously denied to Jesus that he and Daryl had any camp--a wise safety measure--but as he's driving home with Jesus apparently unconscious in the back seat, he's blabbering on and on about the safe zone, all the people in it, etc. Good job, Rick. In context, our heroes are aware of the existence of at least two groups of armed hostiles somewhere in the area. Earlier in the season, the Wolves infiltrated the town and killed large numbers of people. The bikers from last week's ep announced they were going to take everything Daryl and co. had then force Daryl to drive them back to his camp where it, too, would be theirs. Straight pirates who make a joke of killing. Rick notes that Jesus is clean and has a well-trimmed beard, evidence that he's been living somewhere, not just roaming the bush. So Rick has a persistent, thieving ninja they can't contain who obviously comes from some other camp, he knows two group of hostiles are out there somewhere and in this context, he decides to take Jesus back to town.
The other story of the evening involves Spencer hiking around in the forest outside the walls of the town on some mysterious mission. Michonne sees him and follows him. He's carrying a shovel but won't tell her why he out there. After much running-time is eaten up (following both Spencer/Michonne and Carl and Enid who are also in the forest), it's revealed that Spencer is hunting for the zombie of his mother Deanna. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of her in the melee from the previous episode. Deanna really shouldn't be a zombie or wandering around like this; when last seen, a large number of the creatures were closing in on her inside a house. That many would have torn her to pieces and if she'd manage to close the door and keep them out, she would have been trapped inside. The creators knew, when they put together that earlier scene that they were going to do this story two eps later. Mark down their handling of it to poor staging. Carl finds zombie Deanna and covertly leads her to Spencer, who kills the critter and buries it.
Again, a basic story that, handled with some sensitivity, could have probably been whipped into a haunting little subplot. Here, it's just flat and entirely uninteresting. The series writers had done nothing to give it any emotional impact. Offered as it is, it just sits there, cold, lifeless, uninteresting and played out via TWD's usual godawful soap dialogue. One watches it wishing the focus would move to something more interesting.
By the end of the ep, Rick and Michonne have a romantic interlude. Their snoozing in its aftermath is interrupted by ninja Jesus, who again easily escapes being tied up and locked up and seems to have something to tell them. Readers of the comic know where that's going. Everyone else will just have to stay turned.
"The New World" comes after a run of absolutely godawful eps this season and while its wasted potential runs through its every frame, it's a marginal step up from what we've been getting simply by virtue of it's being far less an active insult to viewers. It's more a run-of-the-mill mediocrity. If the past is any precedent, the next six eps are going to be very slow-going.
 I've frequently written about how the soap melodrama format of TWD
means you don't really have "characters," just figures who are arbitrarily changed at every turn to suit temporary
plot needs. This makes any assertion that the "characters" are acting
out-of-character a tricky charge but this was Rick acting as
out-of-character as anyone on TWD can be said to be out-of-character. I doubt this is the
beginning of a new Rick; I think it's probably just another arbitrary alteration made in the service of a poorly constructed plot.
UPDATE (23 Feb.) - Lebeau, over at Le Blog, has offered a more extensive deconstruction of this ep than I did above and his piece is a good compliment to my own. He goes into more detail about the contrived nature of the ep, how Daryl and Rick abandon their car for an entirely untested truck, how this was done solely so that Jesus could later swipe their truck and they'd be forced to pursue on foot, how Jesus ends up back at the safe zone merely because the writers want him there and fundamentally alter Rick's character in order to accomplish this. Worth a read.
On an unrelated matter, I'll also note that Michonne's hook-up with Rick at the end of the ep doesn't look good for her future. But if the writers are planning her demise, it will be apparent long before it happens.