“They needed someone to follow, so I acted the part. And I made it.”
After last week’s gruelling exercise in emotional endurance, this week’s The Walking Dead was a change of pace, as is the show’s frequent wont. Not immediately following up on the devastating consequences of last week’s events by switching to another plotline is one of the show’s common tactics – it helps keep you in suspense about one group of characters by building up new suspense with others. Though quite frankly, after last time a change of scene was something of a relief.
The new scene in question was another of the show’s increasing number of post-apocalyptic communities trying to rebuild – the Kingdom, which will be instantly familiar to any comics readers out there. And with a Kingdom must come a King; so it proved here, as one of the comics’ most memorable characters made his TV debut.
The self-styled King Ezekiel, with his majestic mane of dreads and (obviously CG) pet tiger cuts a flamboyant figure that might be slightly less than believable in the TV show, had Matthew Negrete’s clever script not directly addressed the issue that the character seemed improbably larger than life. Khary Payton brought the character to life as well as comics fans would have hoped, all cod-Shakespearean dialogue with a fondness for profound, fortune cookie-style aphorisms – “the pessimist looks down, and hits his head; the optimist looks up and loses his footing. The realist looks forward and adjust his path accordingly”.
Our path into the Kingdom was forged by the two major characters lucky enough not to be in Negan’s campsite last week – Morgan and Carol. And if you’re talking realists, no-one fits the bill better than Carol. Confronted with the bizarre theatricality of Ezekiel, she fell back onto her usual tactic – pretending to be an innocent, helpless housewife to lull her hosts into a false sense of security. It was revealing that, by Carol standards, this was the broadest, least believable performance of the role yet, an indication that for once she had seriously underestimated those around her.
But more than introducing Ezekiel and the Kingdom, the ep carried on the profound philosophical disagreements that both divide Carol and Morgan yet somehow bind them together. In Carol’s arc, it was a healing story, of sorts – we know she’s been tormented by the increasing burden of what she’s had to do to protect those she cares about. Here, in a pivotal scene for both characters, she took a suddenly serious Ezekiel at his word, following his suggestion that she “leave and not leave” by setting up camp in a nearby abandoned house for some solitary self-examination.
That scene, some two-thirds of the way through the ep, was pivotal in both advancing Carol’s arc and establishing the flamboyant Ezekiel as a man to be taken seriously. His backstory, of a zookeeper with a flair for amateur dramatics who stepped up to become the Shakespearean king his people needed, was compelling; and made perfect sense. He’s playing a part, still; but this time his playacting might save people’s lives. It’s an interesting take on the sort of thing so many of us do, wearing a mask to fulfil an expected role. Only here, the stakes are much, much higher.
Morgan’s slightly apologetic introduction of Ezekiel showed that he too doesn’t quite get that, but unlike Carol he hasn’t yet had the talk. However, he can see the empirical evidence of how well Ezekiel’s unconventional style works, and it fits with his own philosophy of avoiding killing wherever possible. Yet tellingly, he didn’t object to the imaginative strategy of allowing the community’s livestock to chow down on Walkers before having to grudgingly hand them over to Negan’s less than polite representatives.
Because yes, just as in the comics, the Kingdom is being squeezed by Negan’s Saviors every bit as much as the Hilltop – and now, after last week, Alexandria. As with so many of the show’s threads, this is a familiar trope in post-apocalypse drama; the powerful warlord intimidating the nascent rebuilding communities who learn to band together against him. There’s an element of predictability there, not least from the show this most closely resembles (though without the zombies) – the BBC’s 1970s classic Survivors. But I think Walking Dead can carry off a cliché with aplomb, because of its brutal style and the empathy it’s taken care to build up for its main characters.
It’s also a continuing theme, of protecting your own, that the show does well, asking you to address your own prejudices. Let’s face it, Rick and the gang have been to some very dark places in the name of self-preservation. As comics creator Robert Kirkman said, if we’d been following Negan since episode 1, he might very well have been the “hero”.
Gore of the week
As a character-based piece, there wasn’t much in the way of the show’s trademark grue. Still, the Kingdom’s cavalry, riding to the rescue of Carol and Morgan, got some good Walker-slicing action in the early stages of the ep, and this face-slicing exercise was a standout:
A very different ep to the season opener, this managed to work as a character piece for Carol while also introducing Ezekiel and the concept of yet another community oppressed by Negan that might join together with the two we already know. Slow-paced, yes, but more than filler – this was a crucial element in building this season’s plot. Khary Payton’s flamboyant Ezekiel is both fun and believable, as a man who’s far from self-deluded and knows exactly what he’s doing. Presumably next week will see us back to the rest of the gang weeping and rending their garments after the traumatic cookout with Negan – but this more modest ep was well-placed here as a building block for the season.