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: With just four episodes left to go in the season, The Walking Dead is shaping up for what feels like another fateful finale in which some big names will die, Negan will do some bad stuff, and the chess board will be reshuffled yet again. Last week, Bryan, we got a grab bag of strong (and weird) moments that further set the stage for Rick’s eventual act of defiance. Alexandria is stockpiling firearms, making allies, and preparing for war. Meanwhile, Rosita and Sasha have plans of their own and that could shake things up.
But my biggest gripe now is that everything important feels rushed while everything inconsequential gets too much screen time. Characters once vaunted for their complexity and awarded much-needed screen time feel sidelined. We haven’t seen a real moment with Carl since Negan brought him back in the half-season finale, Maggie and Jesus are nowhere to be found, and Carol and Daryl are treated too much like props with a single dimension.
Bryan Bishop: It’s hard to disagree with any of that. The Walking Dead show has never been very good about juggling multiple character arcs, instead opting for bottle episodes that focus on just a handful of characters or a group. Granted, there are some benefits to this approach — how satisfying was it when Carol finally returned a few episodes back, after she’d disappeared for so long? — but it also becomes hard to get any kind of momentum going. When there’s no continuity in terms of emotional engagement week to week because the focus keeps changing, it’s hard for the show to work up any momentum.
Granted, that’s not just a Walking Dead problem. Other sprawling ensembles like Game of Thrones have had similar problems, but now that it’s getting time for a proper show-down, it’s easy to see the duct tape and bailing wire that sometimes holds this show together. This week I’m hoping the show can regain that rhythm it’s sometimes missing, because we’re going to need it for the season climax to satisfy in the way I think even wary fans are hoping for.
CAROL COMES OUT OF HIDING
Nick: The Walking Dead has never been great at subtlety. It tends to favor beating viewers over the head either with blatant foreshadowing or overt metaphors than presenting a scene that’s too challenging or cryptic. So when Carol makes her way back to the Kingdom in the opening of “Bury Me Here,” that tells us quite a few things about where this episode might be headed.
On her way there, she expertly dispatches a number of walkers, earning the admiration of Kingdom dwellers, especially young Morgan-in-training, Benjamin. Carol has a mission here: she wants Morgan to tell her what happened with Rick and the Saviors, and whether Daryl was lying. But Morgan refuses, telling her to take up it up with Daryl. On her way out, Benjamin asks Carol to show him the ropes of zombie-killing, and she tells him to instead stay with the group doing the Saviors weekly supply drop.
Every single one of these fast-moving plot machinations very clearly serves a purpose. Benjamin might be in trouble in this episode, Carol might found out the truth, and Morgan will have to reckon with both. It’s not subtle, sure, but at least the story is moving.
BURN THE GARDEN TO THE GROUND
Bryan: I remember watching The Love Boat as a kid, when I realized the way that show linked together its paired storylines was by using a common theme to unite them. Granted, it was a terrible show (and a very long time ago), but that narrative trick has stood out to me ever since, and this week we got a big one courtesy of the Kingdom.
As King Ezekiel surveys his domain, one of the people that works with him comes in to deliver some bad news. Weevils have infected the Royal Garden, it turns out, and they’re a threat to the main crops. The only option, Ezekiel is told, is for them to slash and burn everything in the Royal Garden. It’s a place that is particularly important to Ezekiel because of what it represents, but he’s cautioned against worrying too much.
“Here’s the beautiful thing, your majesty,” he’s told. “You can tear it out, and cut it down. You can burn it, and throw it all away. But if you want, it can all grow back.” It’s a moment that’s given such a standalone treatment that it may as well have been underlined and in italics, but the meaning is clear: sometimes things don’t go the way we want, and hard work has to be sacrificed. But things don’t end there. If you don’t give up, you can bring back that which you’ve had to destroy.
At this particular moment in the episode, it’s unclear what exactly the scene is hinting at. Civilization? Order? Baseline humanity in a world gone mad? Much like my younger self and that episode of The Love Boat, it would take until later in the episode to see how the pieces fit, but savvy Walking Dead viewers know a call to put on their Thematic Detective hats when they hear one.
THE SAVIORS ARE JERKS… AGAIN
Bryan: The clues start to fall into place just one scene later. Ezekiel and a group from the Kingdom head out to make their regular donation to the Saviors, but they run into trouble: somebody has lined up a series of shopping carts to block the path. As the group clears the mess and sees who might be responsible, they come across a sobering sight: a freshly dug grave, with a makeshift headstone that just reads “Bury me here.” Ezekiel opines on the sad state of the world now, and how it’s a miracle they haven’t all gone crazy, but Benjamin — the young member of the Kingdom that Morgan began training — lends Ezekiel solace. They haven’t gone mad, he says, because the Kingdom has given them another potential future to believe in, and that’s thanks to Ezekiel.
But a nice moment can’t stay nice for long, and when Team Kingdom meets Team Saviors, it turns out they are one cantaloupe short of the promised tribute. Having counted them himself, Ezekiel can’t understand the problem, but the situation quickly escalates as the Saviors collect guns from Ezekiel, Richard, Morgan, and the others. Jared, the long-haired tough guy that took Morgan’s stick a few episodes ago, looks like he’s going to shoot Richard to even out the score. Richard seems all too happy to die for the Kingdom — but instead Jared fires off a casual shot toward Benjamin, hitting him in the leg.
The gunplay has terrible consequences, however, as the bullet hits an artery and Benjamin quickly starts to bleed out. Richard seems shell-shocked by the turn of events, and Ezekiel and the rest of his men quickly carry Benjamin to the truck. He won’t make it all the way back to the Kingdom, so they bring him to Carol’s house instead, hoping they’ll be able to save his life. But it’s too late and he’s lost too much blood. Benjamin tells them that it’s okay, “to injure an opponent is to injure yourself.” And then he’s gone.
A LIFE-THREATENING CANTALOUPE
Nick: When we discover that Benjamin perished from his gunshot wound, Morgan proceeds to have a bit of a meltdown, wandering the streets and contemplating his personal responsibility and whether his virtuous way of life is in fact the wrong move. Just when we think he’s about to totally lose it, he kicks a bucket to reveal the hidden grapefruit that started the whole messy showdown in the first place. As is made abundantly clear by a somewhat unnecessary three-second flashback to 15 minutes prior, this was Richard’s doing.
When Morgan confronts the man about it, we get an impassioned story about how Richard lost both his wife and his kid in the aftermath of society’s collapse. It was in part because of circumstance — you know, zombies and all that — but also because Richard feels he wasn’t strong enough and convicted enough to do the dirty work it takes to survive.
All of this made me feel sympathetic toward Richard. I understand his plight as a character, and I can relate to feeling how he feels here. His methods may be wrong, sure, and he might have been better off fleeing the Kingdom than attempting to get himself shot in the face for the greater cause. But his logic is sound and his heart is in the right place. What I don’t understand is Morgan. As a non-violence advocate, he strangely seems not all that bothered with the Saviors for nonsensically shooting Benjamin over a single piece of fruit. No, the real problem is Richard for some reason, who is desperately trying to convince everyone around him that they’re a single transgression away from being murdered.
MORGAN BREAKS HIS VOW
Nick: As Ezekiel and his crew of Kingdom dwellers pull into the parking lot for the second Saviors handoff, we’re treated with the full-circle repeat of the episode’s opening scene showing a lone cantaloupe in the truck bed. What happens next is indeed a bit of a surprise: as Richard hands over the offering, Morgan strikes him down with his staff, and proceeds to strangle him to death while everyone looks on and does nothing. Morgan reveals Richard’s transgression — trying to instigate a war and getting Benjamin killed — and it’s a bit unclear at first how the audience is supposed to feel, especially after Morgan mistakenly uses his own deceased son Duane’s name when referring to Benjamin in the aftermath.
Was Morgan getting revenge, while at the same time acknowledging that Richard had a point? Was Richard wrong to want to fight back at all costs, and did he deserve his fate? Instead of dabble in the gray area here, The Walking Dead tells viewers how to feel. It falls back on a common trend in lazy TV writing — the “do the right thing for the wrong reason” trope — where the viewer is urged to feel one way about a character’s seemingly illogical and morally driven choice, only to be shown at the last minute that the character’s choice is justified because of the eventual outcome it yields. In this case, we have Morgan, an unlikable and somewhat unhinged character who thinks pacifism is a viable strategy in the post-apocalypse, earning redemption because his actions inadvertently convince Ezekiel that it’s time to fight back. And yet… neither Richard nor Benjamin would have had to die had Morgan arrived at that destination a few episodes ago.
You can see where TWD might be trying to come off as clever here. Richard, who admittedly tried the wrong things for the right reasons, wanted to lull the Saviors into a false sense of security and to jumpstart the war. He also told Morgan that he would have to inevitably kill in the process. And so Morgan lulls the Saviors into a false sense of security, lays the foundation for the Kingdom’s resistance, and breaks his no-kill vow all in one go. Yet instead of artful irony, this just feels like massive waste of our time — a convoluted pretzel knot of character development toward what feels like such an obvious conclusion that it’s exhausting to even watch these characters pretend otherwise.
WE WILL FIGHT, BUT NOT TODAY
Bryan: After taking care of Richard’s body, Morgan ends up back at Carol’s, and asks her if she really wants to know what happened to her friends in Alexandria. She says she does, and he reveals it all: Glenn, Abraham, and everything that’s transpired. And with the air finally cleared, Morgan heads off, telling Carol that he’s going to go out into the wilderness to kill the Saviors for what they’ve done.
Knowing what’s really gone on, Carol decides to rejoin the living world, and goes back to the Kingdom. She finds Ezekiel replanting what remains of the Royal Garden, and tells him that they have to get ready. He admits that they do need to fight, “but not today.” With that he goes back to replanting, and Carol soon joins in.
If you put your Thematic Detective hat on earlier, this should all make sense. The whole bit about tearing gardens down wasn’t just about weevils and foliage. It was about building up a world where people could believe they didn’t have to be violent and wouldn’t have to fight, and having all of that work torn away when circumstances pushed them to violence. It was about Morgan carefully holding onto his vow of pacifism month after month, only to rip it apart in fury as he wrapped his hands around Richard’s throat. But despite slashing and burning the garden, the larger message was also about replanting and rebirth.
Just because the garden was destroyed didn’t mean it couldn’t rise again, and just because the Kingdom now has to fight doesn’t mean they have to leave their utopian vision behind. The struggle becomes about persistence, and holding onto one’s ideals even if events push you off course. Ezekiel and Carol may have decided to prepare for the bloodshed ahead, but they also recognize they need to sew seeds for the garden that will be needed after.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Nick: I found “Bury Me Here” to be one of the most intolerable episodes of the season — and the entire series. It wasn’t just that everything that happened could have been an aside covered in 10 minutes with a poignant Carol and Ezekiel scene. Nor was it that the episode featured another poorly orchestrated character death of someone insignificant. No, it was the moral grandstanding around Morgan, and the idea that The Walking Dead needed to commit to a safe, please-everyone position on what’s right and wrong.
The episode’s overall arc suggests that Morgan’s flawed idealism is somehow admirable, and that having finally been driven to kill because of Richard’s botched plan was a tragedy. And Carol, too — tortured by the thought of being skilled at dispatching her enemies — is also lionized for her refusal to fight back. For a show that used to be adept at maneuvering moral complexities, the way Morgan and Carol have been transformed into representative examples of guilt and shame feels like self-righteous indulgence. TWD has made the audience painfully aware that the Saviors have to be fought, so why does it keep wasting our time on a pitifully unlikable character’s journey toward that same, tired conclusion?
Sure, “Bury Me Here” attempts some nuance by portraying Richard in a sympathetic light, and having Morgan briefly wrestle with how to handle the man’s admittedly ill-advised scheme. Carol too miraculously comes around to the realization that she needs to help Ezekiel fight with Rick. But TWD puts in so little effort to show the gray area of these characters’ moral positions, instead having them flip back and forth between extremes to serve the script and learning seemingly nothing in the process. (Because what did Carol really take away from her extended timeout, or Morgan from his pledge not to kill?) Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly clear that Morgan is more of a plot instrument to “redeem” the violent characters on the show, so we’ll likely have to suffer more of him in the future.
Bryan: This actually marks one of my favorite episodes this season — mainly because we’re not in agreement! This episode really worked for me, and it was Morgan’s arc that was the key to it. I’ve grown endlessly frustrated with him as a character over the last couple of years, but last night I finally understood what makes him tick. His impotent rage when he realized what Richard had done, the murderous impulse it later transformed into, and the strange, one-off mention of his dead son afterward finally brought Morgan into focus.
We know he went mad after his son died, but I don’t think I truly appreciated how insane he’d gone, and how important the safe, structured morality of his pledge was. It seems like it had been the only thing letting him keep his tenuous grip on reality, and in that sense his stubborn, sometimes infuriating, insistence on staying above the fray suddenly becomes not just understandable — it’s relatable. And when the cognitive dissonance became too much, and Richard’s actions forced Morgan to take a stand, he started to come apart, the memories of his son bursting forth.
I don’t quite know where Morgan will go from here, and for the first time in a long time, that makes him dangerous. Will he be able to go the garden route, replanting and rebuilding is sanity? Or is he now a force unleashed, ready to wreak havoc? We’ll see where it goes from here, but with nearly all of the show’s primary characters now in play, the battle is brewing.