Be warned! This review will cover aspects of the episode. Spoilers will lurk like groaning walkers.
If last week's mid-season premiere was all sound and fury signifying a very slight something, tonight's was much more of a chance for everyone (at least those few we check in on) to take stock. It's a free weeks since the chaos of Alexandria being invaded by a swarm of walkers, and things are peaceful and calm. Michonne, Rick and his family are downright domestic, and there's a sense of more going on here than has been shown before.
Rick is headed out on a supply run with Daryl, and they meet both Denise (who has a wish list of items including soda that Tara has been mentioning in her sleep) and Eugene, who opens the gate for them and has his own list, that of potential agricultural possibilities that could help make their food more sustainable. It's much more relaxed than anything we've seen on the show for a while, and, as Rick slips a CD that Daryl loathes into their car's stereo, this almost feels like the start of a buddy comedy more than an episode of The Walking Dead.
After the credits, Michonne is seen on the wall, but spots Spencer (Austin Nichols) going walking in the woods outside the town with a shovel. She decides to follow him. Maggie, meanwhile, finds Enid quietly reading - it seems that the younger woman hasn't been able to settle well back into life in the community, despite the relative calm. Maggie hopes she'll open up and talk when she can.
Daryl and Rick think they've hit the jackpot when they spot a building with a warehouse. After a quick check for walkers, they're delighted – it's these two, so we're not talking funny victory dances or anything – to find a truck laden with supplies. They opt to drive the truck back to Alexandria a different way from when they've come, and return for the car. If you had money on this being a trap, you'd have lost this time out, but their latest trip doesn't end there. En route back, they pull up to a seemingly deserted gas station. Using the truck to right an overturned vending machine, Rick is suddenly bumped by a masked man. This long-haired newcomer calls himself Paul Monroe (Tom Payne), or "Jesus", as his friends used to call him thanks to his flowing locks and beard. But this guy definitely isn't heavenly. He's stolen Rick's keys, and, after diverting the pair's attention with firecrackers, drives off. It's a real wonder how these two survived as long as they did, but the interactions between Daryl, Rick and now Paul add a nice layer of comedy to the episode.
The woods around Alexandria are filling with people. Well, Carl and Enid are also wandering around, trying to spend time as kids despite everything they've been through. And Michonne catches up with Spencer, who won't talk about why he's out there. A walker interrupts Carl and Enid as they start back for the town, and Enid is all for killing the zombie, whose face we tellingly don't see.
We're on the road again with the less-than-dynamic duo tracking their missing truck. When they catch up to Paul, he turns out to be slipperier eel than they expected, fighting back when Rick grabs him, and evading them until Daryl knocks him down. They threaten him, and Paul wonders if they even have ammunition in their guns, which they prove by shooting a walker. Poor thing was probably just wandering innocently around and fell victim to their need to prove their level of danger and manly manliness. Leaving Paul tied up, they throw a soda can from the vending machine at his feet and drive off.
But though they think they've shaken the troublesome bloke, and can enjoy the drive home sharing a bar of chocolate like lorry drivers in a Yorkie advert, they're alerted to a sound on the roof. You guessed it! It's Paul! Who somehow untied himself and chased the truck. Seems unlikely, but he's been a resilient one so far. Stopping at a farm, they tangle once more with Paul around a flatbed truck and farm equipment that have walkers tied to them. A sort of detente is reached when Paul saves Daryl from one of the walkers - which have gotten loose – only to be knocked out for his trouble. In the ensuing chaos, however, the truck has backed into a lake. Cue the waa-waa trombone.
Michonne is seemingly no closer to getting Spencer to open up about why he's in the woods. But everything suddenly (and awfully coincidentally) becomes clear when the walker from Rick and Enid's encounter stumbles towards them... It's Deanna. Spencer admits he'd seen his mother as a zombie before, and was looking for her. There's a heartbreaking, intensely personal moment as Spencer ends his mother's undead existence, one of the more resonant kills the show has had in a long time. Michonne and Spencer bury the former leader of Alexandria in a grave and leave her with a "D" carved into a tree.
Rick and Daryl arrive back at the town with an unconscious Paul who keeps flopping against Daryl. They briefly reference talking about finding other people at the quarry earlier this season, and Rick admits he was wrong then - they do need to find more survivors and forge their new world if they can.
Michonne finds Carl stargazing with his young sister and berates him for not killing or simply leaving Deanna. Carl admits he thought someone from her family should do the deed, and that he'd do it for Michonne if it came to it. She says she'd do the same, and it's a testament to the writers and Chandler Riggs that we don't immediately leap out of out seats and shout, "how about NOW??"
After dropping Paul off with Denise for a medical check, Rick returns home, exhausted after what he admits to Michonne was a "crazy" day. She knows what he means and the pair shares a quiet moment on the couch before their hands intertwine and they start to kiss. We fade down on them making out and return to find them sprawled naked (but covered, this isn't HBO) on the bed, asleep. Both jolt awake when Paul enters the room and says they really need to talk... Rude. What if they'd still been in the middle of getting it on?
Family is a big theme of this episode, which manages to explore its ideas more effectively than last week's spectacle, focused as it was more on plot and shock than building in new character moments (besides death and grief). The chance for Rick and Daryl to spend some quality time on a mission was welcome, albeit thrown into second place by the big Rick and Michonne shocker at the end. It's perhaps inevitable that two people who have become so close as fellow fighters and friends would find solace in each other at a deeper level, but it's handled well and hopefully will lead to a broadening of both characters.
Elsewhere, Carl and Enid get their small moments, but mostly come off as serving other stories, but it's fine when one of those stories is Spencer's chance to say goodbye to his mother properly, even if it did mean slicing into her undead flesh with a knife. For those who like their Walking Dead moments played for subtlety over flash, it was a wonderful combination of writing, performance and, of course, the series' usual high standard for zombie effects.
Finally, the introduction of Paul "Jesus" Monroe, who will, if he follows his character's comic book path, go on to be a pivotal part of the story, was well judged and played to perfection by Payne. If only for the Bugs Bunny-like chaos he brought into Rick and Daryl's lives for a short while. You may prefer your Walking Dead full of bombast and crowds of the undead; we'll take the quiet ones with room to breathe and grow.
In the UK, The Walking Dead airs Mondays at 9pm on Fox.
Who the hell is Negan, anyway? Read our definitive guide to the character in the comics.