Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Next World,” begins with a weeks-long time jump meant to distance us from the rampant carnage of the Battle of Alexandria. You remember the one: Rick watched his own life unravel as Jessie Anderson, his lady love, and her two sons were eaten alive. Rick machete-chopped her arm off. His son promptly got shot in the face and almost died. It was gruesome, traumatic stuff—the kind you’d think would leave a mark on the psyche of even a veteran apocalypse survivor like Rick.
But hey, that was a whole week ago in viewer time! “The Next World” has moved on and Rick has, too. By episode’s end, in fact, Rick and Michonne end up buck-naked in bed together, snoozing soundly in sweet bliss after their first-ever makeout session and passionate, Thin Mints-induced sex which—wait, what?
Rick and Michonne falling in love, in theory, could be a wonderful thing. But almost everything about the way this moment was realized onscreen felt wrong. “Next World” uses the time jump to justify a number of turbo-accelerated character shifts that, in Michonne’s case, include a realization that what she wants for her “whole life,” as Deanna put it, is Rick. (A conversation with Spencer earlier in the episode indicates she’s been working up the nerve to tell him for some time.) We’ve known since at least Season 5 that Michonne’s No. 1 wish is for stability, a home, and a family—but a romance with Rick? That is news.
On Rick’s end, his transformation comes in the form of a newfound willingness to trust strangers and even bring them back to Alexandria over Daryl’s protests—a 180-degree shift from the mentality he’s held all season, which he notes throughout the episode. But apart from his newly optimistic mission statement (“it’s all possible,” he said by Carl’s bedside at the end of the last episode), none of the newly enlightened thoughts he voices pertain directly to Michonne, his platonic co-parenting partner who fulfills a mother-like role for Carl and Judith.
Michonne is comfortable enough with the family these days to linger around the house in her bathrobe. Carl considers her “family.” And she’s proven again and again her loyalty to Rick and his kids, whether it’s by slicing their enemies down for the thousandth time, or knocking Rick unconscious in the middle of a spectacularly embarrassing public meltdown. The two have even shared vaguely tender moments before this (like the group’s first night in Alexandria), fostered by deep trust and companionship—solid foundations for a romantic relationship.
But it was Rick’s apparently spur-of-the-moment decision contrasted with Michonne’s weeks-long yearning that made a line of Rick’s dialogue—uttered while the two are sprawled across a couch, telling each other about their days like an adorable old married couple—hit the wrong note: “I just want to turn my brain off for a minute,” Rick says, moments before busting out the Thin Mints and leaning in for a kiss. “I just want to turn my brain off,” like he’s about to sleep with an ex, a new fling, or a rebound to help him forget his dead girlfriend.
The line was meant as an indicator of loosened inhibitions. And sure, enduring relationships can and do begin in the weirdest of circumstances. But what this scene gave us was an awkward start to what should have felt like a joyous, all-is-right-with-the-world moment. A sex-fueled romance—let alone Richonne!—is a true miracle for this show (just ask the Caryl shippers). Having this moment come a few scant weeks after Rick’s last love interest—whose life he upended, whose husband he murdered, and who died in the execution of a plan he helped hatch—was eaten alive in front of them both? Surely Michonne, a character whose hopes and dreams we’ve been privy to for years, deserves better than that.
Squeamish sexcapades aside, the high point of the episode comes with the introduction of Paul “Jesus” Monroe, a much-anticipated character from Robert Kirkman’s comic books. [Warning: comic book spoilers ahead!] Jesus is a resident of the Hilltop Colony, a key setting under the control of Negan’s sadistic Saviors. In the books, Jesus brings Rick back to the community of about 200 to help free them of Negan—but things go awry once Negan and his barbed-wire baseball bat Lucille show up and kill Glenn in revenge for the slain Saviors that Daryl blew up with an RPG in the TV series.
Whether it will be Glenn on the receiving end of Negan’s rage, or a last-minute TV switch (Daryl and Morgan are rumored to be possible alternates), we’ll likely know by the end of this season. Until then, prepare for a new, sweeping setting—the Hilltop Colony—and new enemies.
And, apparently, new romances.