For seasons, The Walking Dead has agonized over the nature of leadership and how far a man will go to protect himself and his family before he loses his own humanity. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has driven himself (and, sometimes, the audience) half-insane during his tortured transitions from mild-mannered sheriff to ruthless dictator to pacifistic farmer and back.And yet, through all this, another natural leader has flourished under the pressures of the apocalypse, gracefully growing into a decisive killer and a symbol of tough, maternal love. Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), as a soon-to-be-dead character coos early in Sunday night’s episode, is “an honest-to-goodness hero,” and the main reason Alexandria is left standing after tonight.When the show utilizes Carol to her full potential, she’s an effective foil to Rick’s constant inner turmoil. Where he hesitates, she goes for the kill; when he is absent, she takes the lead (Carol in killer-leader mode is such a thrill to watch, you can’t help but wish Rick was absent a bit more often). Together, they often represent two opposite approaches to the show’s “hunt or be hunted” philosophy—but now, it seems, we have a third option: Morgan.“JSS” mercifully—or, depending on your loyalties, tragically—cut Rick out of the picture entirely in order to focus on Carol, queen of the zombie apocalypse, and Morgan (Lennie James), who returned at the end of Season 5 with a bo-staff and a new, no-kill attitude. Morgan seems to represent a balanced ideal of what a post-apocalyptic survivor can be: deadly, but merciful, skilled, yet gentle.But when it’s crunch time and a pack of deranged murderers are pouring over the walls and hacking everyone in sight to pieces, Morgan is also the guy wasting a lot of damn time tying unconscious enemies up rather than shooting them, or scaring them off with his (lovely, theatrical) voice and the threat of guns rather than actual bullets. Thanks to him, Father Gabriel lives on (a debatable victory, really) and at least one attacker got away with a gun (totally not the sort of thing that ever comes back to bite anyone in the ass on this show, right?).
The Wolves, a group of mysterious murderers with Ws carved into their foreheads, finally found their way to Alexandria based on Aaron’s (Ross Marquand) photographs. The first murder we see—cleverly framed through and silenced by Carol’s window—comes so abruptly after a relatively pleasant first 15 minutes that it takes a moment for the gravity of the situation to sink in.Suddenly Wolves are everywhere, swinging axes and scythes, killing indiscriminately and speaking in strange, half-delirious sentences. One of their big rigs has crashed into a wall, its driver’s corpse stuck on the horn we heard blaring at the end of the last episode, attracting 10,000 quarry walkers to the community’s weakened walls. Dozens of Alexandrians perish, but with the help of Morgan, Carl, and Jessie, Carol eventually runs the Wolves out of town.And all in the time it takes to make a casserole.The casserole gag was the episode’s most brilliant touch. Just before the attacks begin, Carol, still in cardigan mode, serenely places the dish in the oven and sets a timer. By the time the last Wolf is run out of town and Carol’s bloodstained, trembling hands are picking up her dead friend’s cigarettes, the timer goes off and Carl—absurdly, given the circumstances—is left to take it out of the oven. It was a darkly comedic reminder of the two extremes of Carol’s character, just as the gravity of the murders she’s committed begin to weigh down on her.The mystery of who the Wolves follow—and if that’s little ol’ Negan—and what one of them meant when he said he didn’t choose this life remains to be solved. But we do know that the group is full of unredeemable characters, the type who’d trick a teenager like Carl into showing them mercy, only to turn around and attack as soon as they’re given the chance. Morgan may see his mercy as another tool for survival, but that pack he let go is inevitably coming back. If there’s a reason to spare their lives, we haven’t seen it yet.