“No-one gets to clock out today. And hell – this is a story they’re going to tell.”
As I caught up on the return of The Walking Dead after my usual sojourn to LA this year, it occurred to me that I never did get round to writing a review of last year’s mid-season finale. Not that there was anything wrong with it, particularly; there were some tense set pieces, and some good character action. But basically, it was the third act of every zombie movie ever made – the inevitable bit where the hordes of hungry undead break into our heroes’ sanctuary, and carnage ensues.
However, after a mid-season cliffhanger that was low-key at best, the show’s return served as a far more interesting second half to the story. Where the mid-season finale was frontloaded with action, then bogged down with a lot of talking, this much more satisfyingly interspersed the character beats with the tension and gore.
Back when I reviewed ep7, I made a few predictions as to which major characters might die. In truth, that was more than informed guesswork, as once again the show was faithfully recreating a well-remembered set piece from the comics; but I couldn’t be sure writer Seth Hoffman wouldn’t misdirect comics readers once again with a different outcome.
Perhaps bravely, he didn’t. So while the only major casualty of the previous episode was Deanna, going out in a blaze of glory rather than sensibly saving a bullet for herself, this week saw the deaths of Sam, Ron, and crucially, Jessie. Since the show had followed the comics in portraying Jessie as a love interest for Rick, the faithful recreation of her rather horrible demise had quite an impact. After all, it’s a staple of both comic and show that Rick should be put through the wringer time and again; so, as in the source material, it wasn’t enough for him to watch helplessly as she was torn apart. No, he also had to chop off her unyielding hand with an axe to break free of her.
While there was a lot going on plotwise in this ep, that scene was pretty much the centre of all the action. It was no surprise that surly teenager Ron, having just watched his mother and brother get eaten, returned to his “let’s kill Rick” mode – and no surprise either that Michonne swiftly put an end to him with a sword through the back. Thing is, though, Ron did sort of have a point. Rick, or his group, had by that point been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of Ron’s whole family. Still, at least they finished the job by getting rid of Ron too.
Not, unfortunately, before his stray gunshot blasted poor Carl in the head. In the original comic, turning the page to see the splash image of young Master Grimes with a hole in his head was one of the most shocking moments, and I’d wondered if the show would be ruthless enough to follow through on that. As if I needed to ask. It looks like, as in the comics, Carl isn’t going to actually die; but Chandler Riggs is going to have to use an eyepatch, presumably. Unless they go straight to the later, defiant Carl in the comics, who insists on not covering up the gruesome scarred hole in his face.
Aside from Rick and co’s sly sneak through the Walker hordes, the show also had to catch us up on what had happened when Morgan’s erstwhile captive Wolf grabbed Dr Denise and made a run for it. Aussie actor Benedict Samuel has been a reliably sinister baddie throughout Morgan’s seemingly doomed attempts to rehabilitate him; here, we didn’t know which way he’d jump as he crouched in the shadows with Denise, awaiting a handy gap in the Walker hordes to rush through with his hostage.
It was a nicely underplayed bit of character development that he then unthinkingly sacrificed himself to save Denise, getting a Walker bite for his trouble. For all that he pragmatically stated it was because he needed her as a doctor, plainly Morgan’s words had had more of an effect than ne realised. It was enough for you to almost feel sympathy for him when Carol finally got her way and shot him. Morgan too then got a moment of sympathy (from me at least) for finally having to end his former captive – but at least the Wolf was already undead by then.
Having so successfully boxed in the Alexandrians with a seemingly huge multitude of Walkers, I’d wondered how the showrunners were going to get rid of them. Would they have the regulars abandon Alexandria altogether, just as it’s shaping up to be a new home? Or would they follow the pattern of the first half season and spend many episodes chronicling the next day or so as everyone crouched in their hidey holes?
Thankfully, they did neither. As so often before, the ep had more than a tinge of classic Western to it – specifically The Magnificent Seven, in which Yul Brynner’s hardened crew of gunslingers teach the townsfolk to stand up for themselves against the ruthless bandido gang. That was recreated here as Rick, having Finally Had Enough, went on a frenzied slash fest through the undead hordes; and one by one, the Alexandrians emerged from their hiding places and pitched in to help. Even habitual cowards Spencer and Eugene, and conscientious objector Father Gabriel, waded in. As if to complete the Western feel, the cavalry then arrived in the form of Abraham, Sasha and Daryl, complete with machine guns and a rocket launcher.
So, after all Rick’s elaborate planning of “Operation Get Them Somewhere Else”, the horde ended up being dealt with by the simple expedient of everyone hacking their heads with machetes. Left unmentioned was the fact that this success did rather make Rick’s doomed plans seem ridiculously overcomplex in hindsight (not to mention having got any number of people killed). Still, Hoffman’s script did have Rick finally realise he’d underestimated his new allies. Paradoxically, it seems like he’s less likely to stand apart from his new community than when he actually had a love interest in it.
Not everything in the ep worked as well, mind – the scenes of Glenn and Enid pontificating in that church felt like padding, their portentous dialogue little more than a repeat of what they’d said to each other in the previous episode. Still, we did get to see Glenn once again improbably escape a near-certain death, with Abraham’s well-timed machine gun burst. That really did seem improbable – automatic rifles are far from precision weapons, and the way all the Walkers had accurate headshots while Glenn was left standing unharmed was actually a little hilarious.
Gore of the week
A fair bit, obviously, what with all that hacking and slashing of the Walker horde. But the most upsetting gore was surely the deaths of Sam and Jessie. It’s worth noting that, had Carol not thoroughly traumatised little Sam in an earlier ep, this might not have happened:
And neither, as a consequence, would this:
Again, for emotional impact, Carl’s gunshot wound was gruesomely staged, as was the mass of blood welling up in the hole where his eye used to be in the hospital:
A very satisfying return then, this ep, with some excellent direction from old hand Greg Nicotero and sterling performances all round. If the mid-season finale was the standard zombie movie third act, this subverted it by having comparatively few people die, and the undead dealt with. I’m glad about that, as it clears the slate for some new plotlines, which were telegraphed in a tense pre-credit confrontation with some genially psychopathic bikers, who mentioned their boss Negan before Daryl used the rocket launcher on them in a spectacular example of overkill. Another well-remembered character from the comics, if you thought the Governor was bad, wait till you meet Negan…