Last year, AMC’s The Walking Dead betrayed its audience by throwing away beloved characters and coherent storytelling, all in the name of Negan. After the gory season 7 premiere sparked an outrage, viewers began leaving the show in droves, and by the time the midseason finale rolled around, ratings had dropped 40 percent.
Now, after two months to rethink and retool, The Walking Dead has returned for the second half of the season. It’s an opportunity for the show to chart a new course, to correct the mistakes it’s made, and convince viewers that the story of Rick Grimes is still worth following. The only question is whether the series can pull it off.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Nick Statt: I left the first half of The Walking Dead’s latest season feeling more let down than when the gory, sadistic premiere smashed open Glenn’s head. I set out to try and find the silver lining in each episode, seeking evidence that the declining ratings and audience dissatisfaction with cheap character deaths could result in the gritty post-apocalyptic commentary TWD served up in the past. Instead, I found myself lamenting the often-aimless plot, confused as to what story it was trying to tell and how it wanted to tell it. What we ended up with was a boring, foot-dragging half-season that felt more like a eight-hour setup than a narrative. It jumped around, gave lesser characters far too much screen time, and spun its wheels.
The show spent eight episodes jumping around locations saying the same thing — “the Saviors are bad and need to go” — only to spend the last 20 minutes of the midseason finale telling viewers what they’d been waiting to hear all along: that Alexandria was finally ready to fight back. Now, with the chess board delicately constructed for a valiant resistance effort, the show feels ready to start moving at full speed again. Here’s to hoping it picks up the pace.
Bryan Bishop: I was outraged by what TWD pulled in its premiere last year. And while I was able to catch up with the show’s events thanks to your recaps, Nick, I can say with utter sincerity that I didn’t miss the show at all when I quit watching. If anything, removing the weekly frustration of TWD felt like a positive development in my life, and when I did watch that midseason finale… well, it seemed nothing had really changed at all.
But I won’t pretend I’m not curious to see where things go from here. The Walking Dead is AMC’s flagship show, and the network cannot be happy with the cataclysmic ratings drop. That creates a fascinating scenario: showrunner Scott Gimple and his team have the rest of the season to right the ship, and (hopefully) wrap up the Negan storyline for good. If they pull it off, great; all will be right with the world. If the show’s ratings continue to slide, however, who knows what may happen, or what changes the show may face. That makes these next eight episodes perhaps some of the most interesting in the show’s history, because for the first time in a long time, The Walking Dead has something to prove.
THE WALKING DEAD: THE SITCOM
Bryan: If there were any doubts that the show’s creators would be trying to lighten the mood in this next set of episodes, they were dispelled about five minutes into last night’s episode. Rick and the gang are talking to Gregory, trying to convince him that the community of Hilltop is vital to taking out Negan and the Saviors. Which on a plot level: sure, of course. But what stood out was the way the scene was handled tonally.
Xander Berkeley’s performance as the Hilltop leader has never exactly been the stuff of gritty dramas, but he’s beyond comical here, mugging and pantomiming like Don Knotts in an old Three’s Company episode. The scene eventually does what it needs to do — a splinter faction of Hilltop residents decide to join Rick — but it plants a flag early on. These episodes will not all be drenched in dread as they were last year, the show is saying, and that statement only amplifies the inherent ridiculousness when Rick and the gang meet King Ezekiel and ask for help a few scenes later. (The King declines.)
For the record, that doesn’t mean the comedy stuff actually works all that well, but hey; it’s certainly different.
The Highway Clothesline of Death
Nick: The Walking Dead hasn’t given us a set piece moment like this in ages, and it felt great to watch. After sudden dynamite expert Rosita has everyone dismantle a Saviors-made zombie trap on the highway, Rick and Michonne are left to buy some time for a getaway. And what better way to do so than by driving two beat-up cars at top speed while clotheslining an army of zombies with a metal cable?
The spectacle was marvelous — a true special effects stunner, straight out of an action movie, that laid out a sea of undead in mere seconds. We don’t get these moments very much in TWD anymore, what with all the dialogue-heavy, “Will Negan kill somebody?” setups that have characters mostly standing around, looking distraught. That makes the clothesline the standout scene from last night’s episode, and a refreshing addition to the show’s history of creative zombie kills.
The Saviors Come Knocking
Bryan: Rick gets back to Alexandria just in time to meet up with Simon and a group of Saviors who have come looking for Daryl. They’re there to kill him, of course, and basically trash the entire community in their search. (In a convenient turn of events, Rick had forced Daryl to stay back at the Kingdom earlier in the episode in the hopes of getting King Ezekiel to change his mind and support their rebellion.)
The moment serves as the requisite reminder that Negan and the Saviors are bad people that want to do bad things, and that everyone should be very afraid of them. Given how they’re mostly talked about in this episode rather than seen, it’s understandable why the Saviors are given a brief moment to show up and act like the despicable villains they are. And while no violence occurs during this trip, Simon does go out of his way to remind Rick of how Negan almost made him chop off Carl’s arm back in the season opener. Just hearing him threaten Rick in that way was enough to bring me back to how angry I was at the show last year. This episode may be trying to inject some levity, but the threats of casual violence are still all too real.
The Father Gabriel Mysteries
Nick: Father Gabriel has had an fascinating, albeit understated, arc over these past few seasons. Once a cowardly and conflicted man of the church, Gabriel remade himself into a more resilient and capable survivor who’s reconciled his faith with the necessity of violence in the post-apocalypse. In last night’s episode, we started to see the rumblings of contradiction — or perhaps ambition — in Gabriel, who started the episode by packing up a car with supplies and leaving Alexandria in the middle of the night.
It’s not clear where he’s going, or if this is the moment Gabriel’s old tendencies resurface and he’s jumping ship before the war with the Saviors really heats up. Although, as Rick quickly discovers after Simon and the Saviors leave, Gabriel didn’t exactly hide the fact that he’d left. A clue hidden in a discarded bible appears to signal his intentions to be followed and found.
Rick Finds His Army
Bryan: Following Gabriel’s clue, Rick and friends stumble upon a lone figure in a hooded sweatshirt… who is then joined by dozens of armed characters, all of whom close in on Rick, Michonne, and the rest of the crew.
If you remember back to the midseason finale, a mysterious character with a hooded sweatshirt was shown watching Gabriel through a pair of binoculars. This is no doubt whatever group that mystery watcher belongs to. There are men. There are women. They are old. They are young. But most importantly, they are armed, and even though Rick is essentially ambushed, he can’t help but smile. Why? Because this is the army he’s been looking for.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Bryan: You have to give credit where credit is due. I didn’t expect much from this episode of The Walking Dead, but the show cleanly set up the building blocks of the conflict to come without ever falling back on its regular habits of stalling and manipulation. That’s not to say the episode was perfect by any means. The opening felt tonally out of place, and while the clothesline set piece was fantastic, it was clearly shoehorned in to give an episode of walking and talking some sort of dynamism.
But in terms of setting the stage, the episode nailed it. Ezekiel vs. Daryl — and whether the King will ever take the step of getting involved. Gregory vs. the conscience of the residents of Hilltop. Rick vs. the Saviors — and whoever this new mystery group turns out to be. Even the human stakes of being part of Rick’s group were explored, with Aaron’s boyfriend pleading for him to not join Rick’s party, because he doesn’t want him to get hurt. (That latter moment was particularly welcome, since most of the other characters in Rick’s group have essentially just become background players that take up space in various scenes.)
Of course, this episode of The Walking Dead also left out the show’s biggest weakness: Negan himself. Eventually the big bad will have to return, but for the moment, the second half of the season is off to a promising start. It’s a long way from redemption — and who knows what the midseason premiere’s ratings will look like — but so far, so good.
One episode down; seven to go.