“Your world’s about to get a whole lot bigger.”
I frequently bang on on this blog about how The Walking Dead tends to appropriate the tropes of both war movies and Westerns (outside of its obvious genre of post-apocalyptic horror). It was at it again this week, and like a couple of weeks ago, the most obvious source of inspiration was The Magnificent Seven.
Not that this is anything to do with the showrunners – the direction the plot is currently going is faithfully adapted from Robert Kirkman’s original comics. Here, as there, the now settled Alexandrians (which now definitely includes Rick’s gang) are introduced to another community by recent arrival Jesus – only to find that it’s beset by a ruthless gang of bandits who demand half the supplies as a protection racket. Rick’s group, more hardened to dealing with that sort of thing, offer to help – for a price. As I said, The Magnificent Seven.
Of course, the ‘untamed frontier’ setting of classic Westerns is essentially what the modern, civilised world becomes when society falls apart. Newly introduced community the Hilltop even resembles a 19th century frontier fort, with its walls of upright, pointed logs and its centrepiece of an antebellum plantation house.
If any post-apocalyptic story covers a long enough period of time, these fortified communities are a fairly standard trope – logically it’s how things would develop. After the initial shock of civilisation’s collapse, and a few false starts, properly sustainable communities would likely spring up, make contact, and begin trading. That’s basically the plot of most of the second season of 70s BBC classic Survivors, though those guys didn’t have to cope with swarms of ravenous walking corpses on top of the standard post-apocalyptic thugs, bandits and warlords.
Said warlord is the previously mentioned Negan, yet to make a personal appearance but already developing a fearsome reputation by dint of his reported crimes. Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell’s script developed this further with the desperate actions of the Hilltop’s scouts, trying to assassinate their own leader to free Negan’s hostages.
And yet, who wouldn’t want to assassinate Gregory? Just as in the comic, he’s quickly established as an utter douchebag, telling the newcomers to have a wash and putting the moves on Maggie while not even remembering her name, which he was told all of five minutes previously. Just in case you didn’t get that he’s an asshole, Gregory is played by Xander Berkeley, a fine character actor who seems to get no other kind of role.
At least that gave Maggie a chance to demonstrate yet again that, when it comes to her and Greg, she’s the hardass. Lauren Cohan was believably determined in her ‘negotiations’ with Gregory, in a way that Rick acknowledged he probably couldn’t have been. Let’s face it, the rest of the gang with Maggie would probably just have thumped the sleazy Hilltop leader, who even Jesus felt the need to apologise for.
As with last week, this ep was more of a scene-setter for forthcoming plots than anything else, though there was at least a bit of action as Rick and the gang rescued a group of stranded Hilltop scouts on the journey. There was also more of that welcome humour as we saw the outcome of Jesus’ apologetic intrusion on Rick and Michonne – the guilty look on Andrew Lincoln’s face as Carl saw Michonne emerge from the bedroom behind him was perfect.
The scene setting wasn’t all about Negan, or Rick and Michonne’s burgeoning relationship, though. Before the mid-season break, when Abraham admitted his feelings for Sasha, I speculated that this might not entirely please his current squeeze Rosita. This week, blithely unaware, Rosita presented him with a nice necklace as a present, which he promptly lost in the fight at the Hilltop.
Director Michael Satrazemis gave the necklace a lot of ominous significance with the camera direction – I wonder if Rosita’s bound for tragedy? If so, I’d hardly be heartbroken; through no fault of actor Christian Serratos, who does well in the part, she’s never been written with any kind of depth. Instead she functions as a foil to the other characters – I expect that if/when tragedy strikes, it will mainly be an excuse to let Abraham get even more angsty and guilt-riddled.
A lot of this smacks rather of the show becoming something more akin to a soap opera than the depressing, nihilistic portrayal of a dead world we’ve got used to. But I can’t say that really bothers me – there’s only so far you can take the characters into bleak despair before they inevitably decide that death would be preferable. Besides, the show’s been doing ‘bleak’ for years now, and it needs to develop if it’s not going to become formulaic. Fun though gore and Walkers are, it’s the characters that keep us coming back for more, and they need to do more to keep us interested than just constantly stabbing Walkers in the head.
Gore of the week
As another scene-setting episode like last week’s, this one too was pretty light on the gore. That said, the gang’s heroic rescue of the Hilltop scouts was this week’s justification for this week’s requisite head-pulping, though it was hard to tell exactly what was happening in those darkened corridors. At least the still-writhing burnt corpses in the car wreck were a nicely ghoulish touch.
Rick, meanwhile, got to shed the most blood with a well-aimed throat slashing of Gregory’s would-be assassin. There was even a comedy moment when he stood up, covered in blood and responded to the shocked faces of the Hilltoppers with a surly, “what?”
After the frenetic pacing of the first half season, these last couple of eps have been a welcome change, though it’s running a risk of yet again frontloading the season with all the action. Having said that, the soap opera plotlines and careful plot-building are still intertwined with enough action and intrigue to keep the requisite amount of Christians thrown to the lions. I have a feeling that we’re looking at a slow burn for the rest of the season, possibly with the confrontation with Negan not coming till right at the end. Could be interesting…