“You’re not the good guys. You ought to know that.”
After a Western ep and a war movie ep, two things the show does repeatedly, this week’s out of format The Walking Dead took on a new genre. This was a taut, claustrophobic hostage thriller, told almost in real time, and with only two of the regular cast present for most of it. If you were wanting gut-ripping Walker action, or firefights with the latest group of psychos, you were out of luck. But if you wanted an intriguing, character-driven story, you came to the right place.
Chief among the characters, even more so than last week, was Carol. Melissa McBride is one of the show’s strongest assets, practically owning the screen every time she’s on, and Angela Kang’s script wisely took advantage of that. I have to say, the moment we saw her and Maggie’s capture by the Savior stragglers, my first instinct was almost one of sympathy. They couldn’t have chosen a more dangerous person to hold hostage. I was reminded of the imprisoned Rorschach’s classic line in Alan Moore’s Watchmen – “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.”
And of course, Carol fell back on her now established ‘helpless mom’ masquerade, always guaranteed to lull the unsuspecting into a false sense of security. She added a new wrinkle this time, with the handy rosary beads she found on the floor and used to convince their captors that she was a devout Catholic. Luckily the rosary also had a nice sharp edge…
Not that Maggie was any slouch either. Lauren Cohan had perhaps the easier job, as Maggie is far more straightforward than Carol. As ever, she was initially the voice of reason; but when pushed exhibited far more conscience-free violent tendencies than Carol did. Her extended head-smashing of the chainsmoking Molly even made Carol grimace. Maggie may be more reasonable than Carol, but she’s no less dangerous.
Ranged against them were an intentionally similar array of characters – which, incidentally, made this an almost exclusively female cast. The sole male Savior, terminally injured Donnie, got knocked unconscious early on and never woke up – except as a Walker. That made this perhaps the most female-dominated episode yet in a show that has (eventually) wound up with a stronger cast of female characters than other horror shows (I’m looking at you, Supernatural).
Star guest turn was undoubtedly Paula, played by the excellent Alicia Witt. Witt, a veteran of David Lynch movies all the way back to 1984’s Dune, made her character a compelling mirror of Carol, and once again a warning of how the more familiar character could have turned out. Traumatised by your wife-beating husband, Carol? Try Paula’s sexually harassing boss. Grieving for your lost daughter, Carol? Paula’s lost four.
The script took pains to place each of our heroes with their respective mirror from the Saviors; while Carol chewed the fat with Paula, Maggie was interrogated by Michelle (Jeananne Goossen), who ended up being the one to impart all the information. Michelle had been pregnant too – and lost it. She’d also lost her boyfriend, as it turned out in Daryl’s RPG inferno.
Again, the implication was that, with a little worse luck, these were the people Carol and Maggie would have been. We’ve seen Carol starting to agonise over all the people she’s killed; Paula casually mentioned that she’s lost count and stopped caring. Her ‘inspirational email’ about the three things in boiling water was an instructive little metaphor – you may be “supposed to want to be the coffee beans”, but for both her and Carol, they’ve ended up being the egg, going in soft and coming out hard.
I’m really intrigued by Carol’s character arc right now. After miserably proclaiming last season that her conscience was one of the things that had been “burned away”, it seem to be coming back with a vengeance, and it’s agonising to watch. Just look at how she clutched the rosary so tightly her hand bled, when Rick casually shot Primo.
The question repeatedly posed to her this ep was, “what are you so afraid of?”; and we knew it wasn’t her own death. She finally answered honestly when Paula sarcastically asked, “are you going to kill me?”, to which the response was obvious – “I hope not”. That’s what Carol’s afraid of.
And yet she seems doomed to have to carry on killing, for the sake of the people she cares about. With the sole exception of Maggie’s head-smashing, Carol pretty much single-handedly killed all the Saviors in the building, ultimately burning alive the unfortunate scout crew on the aptly named Kill Floor. Having the ep set in a slaughterhouse was a masterstroke – you knew there’d be a slaughter eventually, and it was no surprise that it was Carol who carried it out. The question is, where does she go from here?
There was some nice direction from old hand Billy Gierhart, who’s previously directed many other eps of this and other shows (let’s try and forget Torchwood: Miracle Day). Such a confined setting could easily have been tedious and theatrical, but he kept it exciting throughout with a constantly moving camera. I loved the poignant/gruesome little touch of the dead Paula ending up frozen in a virtual embrace with the Walker who killed her before Carol put them both out of their misery. Little touches like that are part of why I love the show.
Gore of the week
As a character-driven episode, you mightn’t have expected much gore, but actually this ep didn’t do too badly there. It’s just that most of it was kept to the climactic escape. Early on, there was the jump-making extreme close up, from Maggie’s PoV, of a Walker being knifed through the skull:
But most of it was in the ep’s last few minutes, with the aforementioned head-smashing of Mollie followed by Paula’s ultimate demise at the jaws of an impaled Walker:
I really enjoyed this ep. Its close, incisive focus on the characters, particularly Carol, was rich and rewarding. It also dropped ominous hints about the still-unseen Negan – what are we to make of Molly’s cryptic statement, “we are all Negan”, or Primo’s plainly untrue “I’m Negan”? Has the comic book villain been reinvented as some kind of non-existent religious figure? Well, it’s been widely reported that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s going to be playing him, so probably not. But in a show that often takes fascinating diversions from its source material, it’ll be interesting to see if and how they do ‘re-imagine’ him.