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.
I think it’s safe to say that keeping up with The Walking Dead has not been easy these last few episodes. We’re just two weeks away from the mid-season finale, and while the chessboard has been rearranged quite a bit, it feels like none of the pieces have really advanced. Instead, the show has just kept piling on more elements. We’ve seen TWD’s universe expand this season more than it ever has before, with new communities, characters, and storylines laid out in a Game of Thrones-style sprawl.
Unlike that show’s deft interweaving of narrative threads, however, The Walking Dead likes to spend entire episodes focused on a single storyline, leaving main characters sputtering in place and viewers hungry for action. In tonight’s episode, “Swear,” we get another standalone tale starring Tara, another new community, and another break from whatever ultimate showdown this slow burn of a season has been building toward.
It’s certainly refreshing to see a show spotlight its less popular characters with actual airtime instead of offscreen business we hear about after the fact. But I’m just hoping all this setup ultimately pays off. You and I both know from experience that where there’s anticipation, there’s the potential for disappointment — and TWD doesn't have a good track record when it comes to delivering. Count my fingers crossed for now.
Hey, who remembers Tara and Heath?
The last time we saw Tara and Heath was months ago in season six, before the demise of Tara’s girlfriend Denise, and when Heath was still that random secondary character whose name you’d tend to forget. Tara is still the quip-loving source of comic relief the show deploys in hit-or-miss fashion, and Heath is still… that guy whose name you tend to forget. So you’d be forgiven for not remembering exactly where they went off to.
It turns out they were sent on a supplies run before The Saviors took over Alexandria. Instead of hitting viewers over the head with this information, TWD uses a clever sequence of scenes out of chronological order to set up Tara’s circumstance, starting first with her washing up on a beach. She’s discovered by a unnervingly violent young girl that loves stabbing walkers in the head, and her more compassionate adult supervisor Cindy, who’s convinced Tara should be spared.
From there, we jump back to Tara and Heath’s desperate attempt to gather supplies on a bridge full of derelict construction equipment. Fate has it one such piece of equipment is carrying an entire truck bed of zombie-infested sand, which comes crashing down on the two survivors and forces Tara into the river. She wakes after washing ashore and follows Cindy to a village in the woods. The setup may be a way to milk 20 or so more minutes out of an otherwise straightforward plot line, but it helps build the tension for when Tara stumbles on a strange sight.
A world without men
At this point, it’s pretty difficult to make viewers care about yet another new community in the post-apocalyptic Virginia countryside. But TWD, having used a tiger and a man named Jesus to spruce up its standalone threads, pulls out yet another trick to turn Tara’s excursion into a world-building exercise. This time around, it’s a village where little girls are trained to kill on sight, and there’s not a single man or boy to be found.
“Swear” gets about halfway in before Tara asks the question the audience is desperate to see answered. She’s just been shot at by a well-armed militia of women who’re convinced that any being, living or undead, is a threat to the safety of their community. She convinces her captors that that she’s harmless and may in fact be able to establish a mutual partnership with Alexandria, and then Tara asks the big question: where are all the men? She gets a vague answer at first.
The real truth is revealed later, the information used in calculating fashion to make the revelation hit the audience as hard as it hits Tara. After convincing the matriarchal leader of the village to let her lead a convoy back to Alexandria, Tara finds herself running from two renegade women intent on keeping their home a well-kept secret, even if it means defying orders and killing the visitor who might lead the Saviors back.
Tara doesn’t manage to get too far before she’s caught at gunpoint by one of the women, who conveniently explains that the threat that drove them into the woods was in fact The Saviors. All the men in the village — and any boy older than 10 — were killed by Negan’s men to prevent an uprising, forcing the remaining survivors to seek refuge in the forest. When Tara tries to convince her captor that Alexandria took The Saviors out — remember that attack on the satellite station last season, when Glenn notched his first human kill? — Tara learns the truth. Negan’s army is far larger, and Rick’s plan to end the threat must have actually sparked a war.
A moment for Denise and a lesson learned
Because of some last-minute intervention from Cindy, one of the few members of the all-women community capable of trusting outsiders, Tara manages to escape execution and make her way back to Alexandria. She’s met by Eugene, whose heartbroken expression makes it clear that he’s been dreading the moment he’d have to break the news of Denise’s death.
The show doesn’t spend too much time on Tara’s mourning — probably a good move, given her character’s upbeat attitude. Instead, we have Tara reconsidering what it means to take a human life, and whether the world has truly been reduced to a savage Darwinian power struggle. Perhaps there’s a better way, and the village in the forest is an example to both her and the audience of what it looks like when a group refuses to respond in violent kind and simply hides itself from the world, instead. We see this change of heart most evidently when Rosita questions Tara about any firearms they could acquire to fight back against The Saviors. The village had a huge weapons cache, but Tara doesn’t mention it. Maybe violence isn’t the answer, when all it does it beget more violence — and more loved ones dead.
Road to Redemption
On one hand, it’s easy to get fed up with how The Walking Dead has treated this season. We’ve seen numerous separate storylines teased out with no clear endgame in sight or mounting conflict between Negan and Rick, the supposed main character of the show who’s spent maybe 30 minutes on-screen over the last six hours of television. On the other hand, it’s becoming more obvious how the show’s architects plan to combine everything into one cohesive whole.
As much as showrunner Scott Gimple likes to meander, it’s clear these spotlighted communities are a part of a potential network that could lead to the rebuilding of society. If Negan were killed and The Saviors disbanded, we could see all these groups merge into one, perhaps with a trade network and true, lasting peace. If there’s one thing Tara’s story in “Swear” drives home, it’s that the big revenge plot we’ve been expecting might take a different form. Maybe Rick and the Alexandria crew won’t have to become as brutal and unforgiving as Negan to free themselves from The Saviors.
Perhaps all they need is more men — and a village full of women — to stand up and refuse to be subjugated. That doesn’t mean it won’t be violent; I doubt Glenn and Abraham will be the last characters to meet their end by way of a barbed wire baseball bat. But it gives The Walking Dead a rare opportunity to break from its habit of squeezing drama out of its characters’ crises of conscience. If every character we’ve seen thus far joins together to fight Negan, it would mark the most valiant effort these survivors have mustered in all the years they’ve spent wandering the wasteland. That sounds like something every viewer could get behind.