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.
Bryan Bishop: This half-season of The Walking Dead got off to a promising start. The first two episodes gave us a glimpse at a show with a slightly tweaked tone — and perhaps most importantly, no Negan. It was almost like an unsaid apology: Yeah, we know we messed up, but just check this out — we still got it! And you know? They did still have it, and I was excited to see where things went from there.
Last week, however, Negan came back, and it was hard for me to walk away from the episode without thinking that he was actually the problem. He’s obviously a huge character in the comics, but that doesn’t make him a slam dunk for the show — and I think we’ve seen how a broadly written caricature, seemingly created only to pander to comics fans, can crater a TV show when everything is upended simply to put him in the spotlight. This week, I’m obviously wondering if Negan is going to show up — but also if TWD can reclaim the momentum it gave up last week.
Nick Statt: I think I’m slightly more tolerant of Negan than you, Bryan, but that’s because I know what happens in the comics and am rather senselessly holding onto faith that The Walking Dead can make its big, bad villain a worthwhile character. But even putting Negan aside, the show has proved its strongest when it stops wasting viewers’ time with five or six inconsequential vignettes and actually dedicates an episode to moving the plot along and changing up the characters’ circumstances. I’m holding out hope that Rick’s rebellion starts soon and lasts long, but each episode feels more and more like a toss-up as the season drags on.
One other important thing to note here is that viewers, us included, are growing less and less interested with where The Walking Dead is going and what it’s trying to say. We’ve talked a lot about ratings in the past, and it’s important to highlight that last week’s episode basically tied the season’s worst-performing one from back in November, at 10.4 million viewers. That’s still a massive viewership, but if the slide continues, “Say Yes” could be the first TWD episode to drop down to single-digit viewership since season three back in 2012. That’s a telling sign for the future of the show, which may get bold, gimmicky, or a mix of both in an attempt to boost those numbers.
BONNIE & CLYDE
Bryan: The Walking Dead loves teeing up its audience with a loaded opening montage, and this episode doesn’t waste a beat. The sun is shining, almost as if there is nothing wrong in the world — and in a way, there isn’t — not for Rick and Michonne, at least. The pair is busy breaking into abandoned homes looking for supplies and guns, and taking every moment possible to make out, get naked, and otherwise do what they can’t really do when surrounded by Carl, Judith, and the threat of impending death at every turn. “We gonna win today?” Michonne asks, sounding more happy and upbeat than… well, pretty much ever.
Of course, Michonne is also the one that wants to head back to Alexandria, thinking that their multi-day excursion has probably gone on long enough. But Rick just wants a day or two more — we can tell he’s avoiding going home, but what could possibly go wrong? In the world of The Walking Dead, however, that’s the best sign that pretty soon everything will go wrong, and as their van speeds down the road, you can practically hear the dun-dun-dun! in the background.
ROSITA THE GROUCH
Nick: I’m going to come right out and say that I actually appreciate what The Walking Dead is attempting to do with Rosita’s character. Throughout this season, dating back to Abraham’s death in the premiere, Rosita has grown more and more bitter over Alexandria’s inaction. She went so far as to try and shoot Negan, missing him and striking Lucille instead (which miraculously did not get her killed). In “Say Yes,” we see Rosita at perhaps her most disgruntled, refusing treatment from Tara and pledging to find guns on her own that Rick and crew can use to accelerate the war with the Saviors.
Her anger feels a bit forced in some of these situations — even Tara points out that maybe Rosita should “save some of this for them,” as in maybe direct her anger at the people actually extorting them for food and supplies and bludgeoning people to death with baseball bats. Still, it makes sense that at least one person doesn’t want to fall in line and act according to Rick’s careful playbook. It’s only realistic that certain personalities, especially in the context of a lawless society, would rather die fighting than let someone subjugate them.
CARNIVAL OF SOUL(DIER)S
Bryan: Rick and Michonne’s romantic pillaging getaway takes a surreal turn when they run across a military soldier-turned-walker carrying some heavy artillery. Collecting guns is their main goal at this point, given the task the leader of the Junkyard Dwellers gave Rick in the last episode, so they decide to explore further. What they find is an actual abandoned carnival, complete with a broken-down ferris wheel that is overrun by a combination of soldier zombies and ordinary people zombies. There was a big firefight here, they surmise, but that could also make the carnival the answer to their weapons-collecting prayers.
That’s when the roof of the building they’re surveying the situation from caves in, but rather than leading to a horrific zombie attack, this time it’s all played for comedy. Rick and Michonne just can’t stop laughing and smiling, no matter what they do. It’s nice to see some different emotional colors thrown into the mix, but at times their childlike glee feels so out of place it felt like I was watching a different show entirely. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was yet another moment designed to diffuse the overbearing darkness that’s been hanging over the show since Negan killed Glenn.
Of course, they do find a ton of ready-to-eat food, so they do what anybody would do in the zombie apocalypse: have a candlelit dinner while they chow down on chili and mac and cheese. (Apparently they also found a lot of candles; don’t ask me, I just write here.) As they ponder their future, Michonne tells Rick that when they vanquish Negan, people will need a leader to show them the way, and it should be Rick. But he doesn’t want to bring order to the world with the band of survivors; he wants to order the world with her, which is about the most Walking Dead-ian way to say “I want to start a family with you” that I’ve ever heard. But you know what? It’s pretty darn sweet, and it made me root for Rick and Michonne that much more.
THAT HEAD FAKE THO!
Nick: I have to say that for one very brief moment, I contemplated the remote possibility that The Walking Dead would kill off its main character, unceremoniously in the middle of a relatively inconsequential episode. The fleeting, ludicrous thought entered my head when Michonne comes upon what she thinks is Rick being consumed by a horde of carnival zombies during the weapon-collecting fest. With Michonne’s expression turning to despair and time slowing down on-screen, I grew wide-eyed and tense for a good five seconds before realizing how silly it would be. And naturally, Rick comes bursting out of a random hiding spot just as the scene begins dragging on a little too long.
Of course, any reasonable viewer saw right through this. The Walking Dead has taught its audience over the years to never trust anything daring it tries to do unless we can see the messy aftermath and move on. The Glenn Headfake of 2015 was one of showrunner Scott Gimple and crew’s worst and most manipulative creative decisions, if you can even call that, and comes second only to the cliffhanger ending of last season. The point being that these types of tricks are par for the course, but that makes them no less cheap.
Now, TWD is not the first, nor will it be the last, show to trick viewers into thinking something grave and terrible just happened — even if the trick is technically happening to an on-screen character for the purpose of a moral epiphany later on. But maybe, from here on out, the show should probably do anything and everything it can to salvage what little respect the audience has for storytelling prowess. Fake character deaths do nothing but further diminish that.
RICK, THE ONE-MAN PEP SQUAD
Bryan: Rick Grimes is many things: fighter, protector, father, former would-be sociopathic leader. What he’s not is someone who dwells on the sunny side of life. And while that’s partially why the romantic comedy road trip in this episode felt so tone-deaf at times, it’s also why he doesn’t bother lying to Michonne when she confesses to him that she was traumatized when she thought he’d died.
He tells her that he’s been having a hard time sleeping, thinking about Glenn and the other friends that had saved him that he wasn’t able to save in return, and that, in the fight to come with the Saviors, other friends of theirs will die. She might die. He might die. “Even then, it’d be worth it,” he says. Giving up and surrendering to Negan in the name of survival wasn’t a life. “What we’re doing now, making a future for Judith, for Glenn and Maggie’s baby, fighting the fight? That’s living. You showed me that.”
He goes on to tell Michonne that should he fall in battle, somebody will need to take the mantle of leadership, and that person should be Michonne.
TARA MAKIN’ MOVES
Nick: It was a rather controversial decision in the first half of the season to dedicate an entire episode to Tara and the discovery of Oceanside, an all-female camp of survivors that live reclusively in the woods with heavy-duty firearms. But the move comes back in a big way in “Say Yes,” as Tara spends all of her screen time mulling over whether to tell Rick about the group and break her promise to the group’s leader. Tara decides it must be done and we can only assume Rick is now eager to reach out, even if it means taking on the risk of being shot by the stranger-adverse denizens of Oceanside.
Tara isn’t the greatest character. Like much of The Walking Dead’s secondary roster, she’s mostly there as a narrative tool to fulfill certain plot requirements and for the occasional moment of comic relief. Her outing in Oceanside caused a stir mostly because it seemed like an entire episode was being wasted on someone most viewers didn’t care much for, instead of moving the plot forward and building a richer dynamic between Rick and Negan.
I still find the original Oceanside episode, and many of the other sporadic standalone stories this season, to have been time wasters. But now at least we know Tara’s solo excursion might have been worth the narrative drudgery, so long as Rick can convince the group to take up arms and fight with him.
MEET THE NEW SUICIDE SQUAD
Bryan: All episode long, Rosita has been fuming about inaction on Rick’s part, and trying (unsuccessfully) to rustle up any guns on her own. After the negotiation with the Junkyard Dwellers, you’d think that would be over… but not so fast. As Sasha tends to Abraham’s grave, Rosita approaches, and at first we think there’s going to be conflict. But it turns out Rosita wants Sasha’s help: she’s planning on attacking the Saviors to take out Negan herself, but she’ll need help.
Sasha has just one condition: she’s the one that gets to take the killshot. Rosita agrees, and pulls out a sniper rifle she pilfered from the Alexandria weapons cache. Both women then agree that they can’t be taken alive by the Saviors.
No matter what.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Bryan: Overall, last night’s episode was a grab bag for me. We got some character moments I did appreciate — the payoff with Michonne and Rick at the end was lovely — but yet again, the devil’s in the details: the way the episode had to awkwardly force their relationship storyline to the forefront because the show had pretty much forgotten it even existed. The forced, goofy tone with the pair smiling and giggling like high school lovebirds, seemingly placed there just to create contrast with the darkness to come. And don’t even get me started on the Rick death fake-out. If there’s one thing The Walking Dead has proven it isn’t responsible enough to handle, it’s a death fake-out. The show gave up its privileges on that the minute Glenn miraculously hid beneath a dumpster. Every time it pulls this gimmick, it’s going to remind people of the show’s cheapest, dirtiest tricks.
This may sound silly in the context of a show about the zombie apocalypse, but what I’m personally missing is the nuance. The Walking Dead has been subtle and clever before. It’s why the show has succeeded. But these kinds of episodes are the storytelling equivalent of a dump truck barreling through a nitroglycerin plant. The audience can see the seams and the dramatic levers before the show even pulls them. On the plus side, this episode seems to be establishing stakes for the battle to soon come, and there are some more elegant plot threads currently running that just didn’t surface in this episode. Here’s to hoping they show up next week, and things can get back on track.
Nick: It really did feel like a made-for-TV movie excursion for The Walking Dead, which I have mixed feelings about. A lot of the show’s attempts at showing both the boring and the wonderful minutiae of life in a post-apocalyptic society have felt disjointed. Like you mentioned earlier, it tends to come off like a different TV show took over for a week and then handed the reins back to the zombie folks. I understand the point is to highlight how these moments of character growth don’t always have to involve some fireworks display or a bloody showdown with the enemy.
But I just can’t help but feel like the show’s worst qualities were still on display last night. We had a goofy injection of romantic comedy elements to distract us from Negan, and then, of course, a fake death scene to force Rick and Michonne to acknowledge their hopes and their fears for one another. All the while, some blurry rumblings of action took place on the periphery with our secondary characters, whose significance is so diminished at this point that it might as well happen offscreen. (Where’s Maggie, and what about Carol? Are either of them going to do anything this season?) Then again, what TWD knows how to do best is stall. And with the finale still four weeks away, stall it did.