Last year, AMC’s The Walking Dead sparked an outrage. The gory season 7 premiere threw away beloved characters in the name of archvillain Negan, and audiences followed suit: by the time the midseason finale rolled around, ratings had dropped 40 percent.
Now the show has returned for the second half of the season. It’s an opportunity 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: If last week’s episode was any indication, The Waking Dead is now going to reel in all of the various storylines it cast out in the first half of the season to prepare for the finale. We know Tara is likely going to bring Rick to Oceanside to shore up some more support for the rebellion against the Saviors, and that will likely take up a whole episode between now and the season finale on April 2nd. Tonight it looks like we’re finally returning to the Hilltop with Maggie, Sasha, and Daryl, with Rosita’s Negan assassination plot hanging over the whole affair.
It shouldn’t be surprising at this point that the show’s formula is a slow, season-long build-up toward a big, bloody showdown. Way back in seasons 3 and 4, it did the very same thing, with its eventual confrontations with the Governor. What’s more telling to me is that viewers have this all pretty figured out. The show hit 2012 viewership levels with “Say Yes” two weeks ago, and last week’s excursion at the Kingdom saw the show’s first rise in ratings since the back half of the season started in February. It wasn’t by much, but it tells me that viewers would much rather watch The Walking Dead when it’s nearing a beginning or an end, instead of all the filler we get in between. I’m just hoping the show has learned from its cliffhanger mistakes.
Bryan Bishop: I know we were pretty split on aspects of last week’s episode, but I think we’ll always agree that The Walking Dead works best when there’s some urgency behind the whole thing. The show’s been derided as The Talking Dead since… well, honestly, since the first season, but that just underscores the fact that the show has a whole lot of potential upside in these last few episodes.
What’s going to happen with Rosita and Sasha? Is Eugene an ingenious schemer, or a cowardly turncoat? Does Negan have even more dad jokes he’s ready to unleash before killing somebody off? Let’s get past this preamble and move on to the show itself!
Bryan: I don’t think I realized just how much I missed Lauren Cohan as Maggie in this show until the opening shot of last night’s episode. She walks into focus, taking up the frame, as the show not-so-subtly reminds viewers that Yes, Maggie is alive, and Yes, Maggie is a character you love, and Yes, we’re finally going to give Maggie something to do. Sorry it took so long.
The opening montage then goes on to show what a difference she’s making. She may be carrying Glenn’s healthy and happy baby, but that doesn’t stop her from teaching Enid and the people of the Hilltop how to throw knives, or working so hard planning that she falls asleep at the kitchen table. More importantly, it doesn’t stop her from trying to reach out to Daryl — who can’t bring himself to say two words to her, even though that makes Maggie wipe away tears as she quietly walks away.
It’s all just setting the stage for what’s to come in the episode, but it’s also a reminder — just like Daryl’s interactions with Carol last week — that Negan’s murder of Glenn and Abraham brought incredible emotional consequences with it, and it’s something the show has yet to fully grapple with. I don’t know how soon it will get down to dealing with that aspect of things, but I’m always enamored by The Walking Dead when its characters act like actual human beings with complicated, fragile feelings rather than plot devices.
THE WALKING DEAD’S BEST ACTOR RETURNS
Nick: It wouldn’t be an episode set at the Hilltop without a requisite visit from the Saviors, as the only depth to Gregory is his all-too-cozy relationship with Negan. Of course, this also means Maggie and Daryl have to go into hiding, and Sasha and Rosita have to move quickly to put their plan into action. More than anything, however, this turn of events provides the episode a chance to bring back Simon, played by the excellent Stephen Ogg. Between his witty one-liners and his menacing unpredictability, every scene with Simon is fun to watch, mostly because he knows exactly how to torment Gregory.
It’s a rare treat to get great acting on The Walking Dead. Now, I have nothing against Andrew Lincoln or Norman Reedus, who play Rick and Daryl with enough dynamism to pass muster in most situations. And Melissa McBride as Carol is always excellent. But there are few moments where I notice the acting above all else, enough for it to steal my attention away from everything else in a scene. Yet Ogg does truly stand a world apart whenever he gets screen time, if only because he doesn’t feel like a cardboard cutout of a comic book character, but an actual human being with a dark sense of humor, twisted motives, and — apparently — an ever-changing affinity for stiff drinks.
THE STRANGE CASE OF THE REALLY OBVIOUS FORESHADOWING
Bryan: As it turns out, Simon’s there to steal the Hilltop’s doctor, Harlan — who, by the way, has been seeing Maggie through her pregnancy — because Negan accidentally threw his last doctor into an oven. Making matters even more awkward is that the dead doctor was Doc Hilltop’s brother. But Simon tries to skate right past that issue by telling Harlan that Negan’s got ice cream. (To be fair, in the post-apocalypse ice cream would probably be a pretty big deal.)
Gregory realizes that losing his one and only doctor is going to make his people pretty fed up, and it’s not like his leadership abilities have ever been beloved in the first place. So he takes Simon aside and tries to level with him, but of course Simon doesn’t care. Instead, he tells Gregory to just come see him personally if he ever has issues of that sort. And to ensure Gregory is able to come visit? He’s going to make sure that the guards at the Saviors’ compound know to let Gregory in automatically, no questions asked.
Now, I don’t want to get too tinfoil hat here, but it just seems awfully convenient that Simon would set up such a deal, particularly when everybody watching the show is expecting some sort of showdown between Team Rick and the Saviors. Is Simon setting Gregory up for a scenario in which he’ll be immediately killed by the Saviors if he comes to complain? Is it a plot device that Team Rick will use to infiltrate Saviors HQ? Who knows, but this odd bit of side business is clearly going to pay off in some fashion. The only question is how — and when.
MAGGIE AND DARYL MAKE UP
Nick: While Gregory is off losing his doctor to Simon and the Saviors, Daryl and Maggie are hiding in an underground food storage locker, having run of out of time to make it to the same secret passageway Sasha and Rosita used to escape. One of Simon’s henchmen has a very tense exchange with Enid, who tries and fails to prevent him from searching the room, and the subsequent scene involves Daryl coming all but five feet away from murdering the man and sealing their fates. Because not even Gregory seems to have enough hard liquor to bribe his way out of a dead Savior on the premises.
Luckily, Maggie stops Daryl at the last second, and it turns out her guess was correct: the Savior was just looking for some extra grub to help himself to. This provides The Walking Dead a moment to bring Daryl and Maggie together on camera for what feels like the first time since the season premiere, when Daryl’s senseless act of defiance seemingly prompted Negan to pick Glenn at random for his second Lucille kill. What ensues is actually a touching and grave exchange, where Daryl apologizes for what’s been tormenting him since the moment he was hauled away by the Saviors in episode one. Maggie, it seems, has long since come to peace with what transpired, and the two settle perhaps the show’s most understated but pivotal character conflict.
THEN ROSITA AND SASHA MAKE UP
Nick: Instead of sending Rosita and Sasha offscreen to await another episode, The Walking Dead decides it’s going to resolve their Negan assassination side plot here and now. So we get a short excursion to find a car that can be hot-wired and then we’re off to the vantage point for Sasha to pull the trigger. All the while, Rosita emanates unneeded hostility and continues to talk of the plan as if it’s a suicide mission, despite the situation being predicated on her finding a sniper rifle for Sasha to… snipe Negan from a distance. But alas, there’s a purpose to all this: while they wait for the villain to show himself, the two swap stories and discover some common ground, presumably because they both seem ready and willing to die if they have to.
I’ve never quite bought the beef between Sasha and Rosita. While the unspoken tension between Daryl and Maggie has felt real and powerful, Rosita's animosity toward Sasha over whole Abraham love triangle feels like a secondary plot device that matters only to these secondary characters. So seeing the two of them make up here felt a bit too mechanical, as if the plot required there to be some conflict to fill the screen time between when they debark Alexandria and when Sasha looks down the scope. Of course, it’d be all too easy if Sasha could kill Negan with one clean shot. So after missing a brief window to take a shot, the duo decide to wait until nightfall to get inside.
EUGENE IS THE WORST
Bryan: A few weeks ago, when Eugene decided to join forces with Negan, I wondered if the show was setting up a clever fake-out: if Eugene was actually playing along, scared as he may be, so he could actually undermine Negan when the time came. So I guess I would say I was throwing-things-at-the-TV mad when Rosita and Sasha scrap their Negan murder operation in order to break Eugene out — and the guy actually cowers and runs back inside away from them instead.
Look, I get that Eugene is an oddball and a coward, but if he’s going to be this obnoxious, I really wish somebody would just go all Lucille on him. He’s not a character that’s so weird that he’s adorable, and he’s not somebody I love to hate either. He’s just endlessly annoying — but he did get a reaction out of me, so I guess the scene served its purpose in that regard.
But after Sasha and Rosita made peace, there had to be some sort of tragic turn. In this case, it’s Sasha heading into the Saviors’ compound solo, ready to die in a blaze of glory, and preventing Rosita from following her. Frustrated and mad, Rosita runs… and runs… and runs… until she sees a silhouette in the dark. It’s Daryl. And that’s when we realize things are about to get very, very real.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Bryan: This won’t go down in my list of favorite Walking Dead episodes, and it’s not one of my most-hated, either. It’s a water-treading episode, but it’s bolstered by the interplay between Daryl and Maggie and the interactions between Sasha and Rosita (even though I agree with you, Nick, that the latter interactions come across as quite clunky).
It’s funny, but after watching this episode I just kept thinking about how many strong characters and dynamics exist in this show, but have just been ignored for one reason or another. There’s a roadmap for The Walking Dead in the comics, and it’s a tried-and-true path. But just imagine if the show had the freedom to really go off-script, and instead of playing to the comic, it could play to what actually worked best for its story?
What could this season have been like if it was about Maggie and Daryl dealing with their incredible grief over Glenn’s death, rather than simply shoving that into a couple of scenes? What could it have done with Rick and Michonne if it had the time to really delve into their evolving relationship, rather than disappearing for the bulk of the season only to have it surface for a one-off appearance while they visit the carnival?
What I’m getting at is that every single time a character or relationship dynamic that was set up early in the show’s history appears, it is almost always the most fascinating and engaging thing in an episode. Whenever the show feels the need to slavishly hew to the comics, it gets lost if not downright bad. Comic fans will not like to hear this, but at this point I am much more interested in what The Walking Dead can do as a TV show than I am in it mimicking its source material.
I can’t help but think back to Game of Thrones, which has had its struggles trying to juggle the endless characters and storylines from the books. But when the showrunners of that program started to get into territory that George R.R. Martin hadn’t yet covered in published material, the on-screen storytelling got leaner. Basically, they could just write the best television show possible because they weren’t trapped by expectations from book fans. Wouldn’t The Walking Dead benefit from the same approach?
Nick: I think about this a lot when watching The Walking Dead, about how constrained it is as a TV show that just follows the big beats of its comic book counterpart and leaves so much wasted material hung out to dry. You can easily find round-ups and lists online that chart the ways the show and the book differ and how they’re the same. It’s hard not to read those and feel that the entire series is just a scoreboard of who dies when and how.
In the comics, Daryl doesn’t even exist, Carol is long dead, Carl is a more hardened survivor, and Rick had his hand chopped off years back by the Governor. Like you mentioned Bryan, it feels like every element the show did to cement its own identity — lifting up Daryl and Carol, pushing Rick and Michonne into a relationship — has felt under-explored and misused in light of how much of a departure it is from the comics. Every time it does feel like The Walking Dead might throw out something unexpected, it ends up proving itself to be in service of the greater “who dies next” narrative that has always been dictated by the source material.
For instance, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Abraham died in the comics the same way as Denise, with an arrow through the eye courtesy of Dwight. It’s the fact the show created a watered down version of a character, sacrificed her so Abraham could live, and then killed Abraham anyway in service of its big Glenn revel in the premiere that it starts to get exhausting caring about any of these characters or the tired way the plot tries to make us care about them. The Walking Dead could have been the deep, complex, and expansive zombie show everyone wanted it to one. Instead, it time and again proves it’s just a adaptation stuck between what it thinks it’s doing and where it knows it will inevitably go.