AMC’s The Walking Dead has an uncanny knack for manipulating its audience, but this year’s hyper-violent season premiere went too far. So far that we canceled our ongoing series The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club, and co-author Bryan Bishop swore off the show entirely.
Now, Nick Statt is trying to change his mind. Instead of tearing the show down, he’ll be finding something to highlight. It might be a subtle change in character, a great action scene, or a new development in a narrative arc. But every week, he’ll be seeking out things that remind us of the very best of The Walking Dead — the moments that might just give viewers a reason to come back.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Last week’s episode brought us back to Alexandria and, as I feared, the narrative threads of season seven are starting to fray. The Walking Dead tends to bounce back from its big premiere and finale moments by taking things slow, chopping up its narrative into big, location-based chunks and dragging the viewer around its many destinations in 45-minute increments. Sometimes it works, like Carol’s time in The Kingdom, but more often it falls flat, like last week’s slow-burn visit from Negan.
Tonight’s excursion is a welcome change, if only because we’re seeing interesting moments of dissent at both Alexandria and the Hilltop. Yes, yes, it sounds like Stockholm syndrome at work — I’m praising the show for actually pushing two narrative threads simultaneously, instead of just one! But The Walking Dead has never tried to be as complex as Game of Thrones or other sprawling cable dramas. At the end of the day, this season is transparently building toward a war between Rick and Negan, and this week’s episode makes clear that the eventual battle might start far sooner than we think.
Maggie mystery? What Maggie mystery?
The first shot of “Go Getters” features Maggie waking up, realizing her baby is still alive, and immediately pushing Gregory to let her and Sasha stay at the Hilltop Colony. Not only does this clear up last week’s pseudo-mystery, in which Rick lied to Negan by claiming Maggie had passed away, but it removes the threat of a drawn-out reveal.
I think pretty much every viewer was confident that showrunner Scott Gimple wouldn’t keep Maggie’s fate from viewers, as it did with her late husband Glenn last season (if you watched the episode five preview last week, you’d have already known Maggie was alive as well). Still, it’s a huge sigh of relief to see TWD artfully using a bit of mystery for dramatic effect and clearing out the smoke right away.
The show could have also kept the fate of Maggie’s child up in the air. Yet within the first minute of the episode, the good news is delivered by the Hilltop’s in-house doctor in a much-appreciated matter-of-fact manner. That gives Maggie the freedom to challenge the Hilltop leader, Gregory, and his decision to capitulate completely to The Saviors.
Carl and Enid’s roller skate date
While Maggie, Sasha, and Jesus are arguing with Gregory over Rick’s rather poor handling of The Saviors, we get an interesting subplot between Carl and Enid. Watching his father relinquish control over to Negan has brought out Carl’s rebellious teenage angst in a big way, and he’s plotting how he might be able to deal with the threat in the way his father refuses to. Enid, on the other hand, is sick of Alexandria and worried about Maggie. When she decides to dip out, Carl follows.
The following scenes between the two offer the brilliant post-apocalyptic whiplash the show rarely revels in anymore, where moments of normality are juxtaposed with the desolation of an undead wasteland. The two teenagers stumble upon a duffel bag containing two pairs of roller skates, and turn it into a kind of throwback date, locking hands as they skate down the abandoned highway.
Now let’s set aside the impracticality for a second — I mean, who in their right mind would leave perfectly good roller skates on the side of the road? But what follows is a genuine sense of intimacy between two characters that have worked through awful circumstances to craft a relationship built on trust and tragedy. The scene ultimately ends with the two sharing their first kiss, Enid pleading with Carl to stay with her at the Hilltop. Alas, Carl has other plans, opting to sneak his way onto a Savior supply truck as Negan’s crew makes its weekly visit to collect from Gregory.
Refuses to kneel
The crux of “Go Getters” was The Savior's visit to the Hilltop. We didn’t get a Negan scene — thankfully, as his schtick got quite tiresome last week — but rather some tense moments between the servile Gregory and Simon, a member of Negan’s inner circle played by the excellent Stephen Ogg. (You may recognize him as a host on Westworld, or Trevor from Grand Theft Auto 5.) As seems to The Saviors’ signature move, Simon rolls up on the Hilltop with what appears to be about 30 well-armed and completely forgettable-looking henchmen. Where do these men come from? They’re essentially fascist death squads, and yet none of them seem to have any feeling one way or the other about how they spend their time. Perhaps thoughts for another episode.
What we do get is a scene in which Hilltop leader Gregory willfully gives up Maggie and Sasha — or so he thinks. Negan isn’t buying Rick and crew’s stories about Maggie’s death, and sends Simon to look for any Alexandria runaways. When Gregory cracks under the pressure, he approaches the closet he thinks Maggie and Sasha are hiding in — only to find out he’s merely giving away the location of his coveted bourbon stash. Jesus, it turns out, has hid the two Alexandrians safely somewhere else in the house.
This is the first of what will undoubtedly be many rifts between Maggie and Gregory, who is fashioned as such a weak-willed aristocrat that it’s hard to not feel his comic book origins bleed through the TV screen. What is refreshing, however, is that Maggie is clearly being built up as his replacement. For TWD to not waste any time on whether Maggie is alive or dead, and to instead instantly switch gears into her vying for power, is an electrifying move, both in what it leaves behind and what it portends for the future.
No one wants to see Maggie mourn any further; she (and viewers) have done enough of that. Now she’s emerging as the resilient Hilltop leader Gregory refuses to be. Even better, she and Sasha have Jesus on their side, who is sent on a reconnaissance mission hidden aboard one of the Savior trucks. Where, wouldn’t you know it, he runs into none other than Carl Grimes.
The Road to Redemption
I’ll admit that “Go Getters” didn’t feature any fireworks, but it was a strong episode for overlooked characters and underdeveloped plotlines. We saw Enid and Carl make strides toward a real relationship, and Maggie recover from a life-threatening injury and make significant steps forward after her tragic loss.
I’m starting to think the least interesting part of the show is the one we skipped over this week: Rick’s spiral of submissive despair. TWD has built up and torn down his sanity so many times that it’s hard to tell what kind of character he’s supposed to be anymore. Is he a deranged power-hungry maniac, no better than Negan in the absence of the people he loves and vows to protect? Or is he a redeemed man, having come back from the brink of madness to assume a nonviolent leadership role?
At this point, I don’t think it matters much. Rick’s true nature has gone from the show’s core conceit to its laziest fallback, and it doesn’t feel like TWD has any more of an answer than us audience members. Right now the show seems more interested in laying out its chess board with secondary characters, the ones who have survived all this time in the shadow of more popular players. That’s more than good enough, though; it’s welcome. TWD could use more of Jesus’ crafty antics, Carl’s revenge plot, and Maggie’s comeback. And even if these are just sideshows until the big showdown, perhaps the added depth and nuance will do the near-impossible: make those inevitable, inescapable character deaths actually mean something again.