“I ain’t no king! I ain’t nothing! I’m just some guy!”
After several weeks of uninspiring episodes full of sound and fury signifying tedium, The Walking Dead made an unexpected (at least partial) recovery this week, with the most satisfying ep of the season so far. The show’s usually at its best when striking a good balance between character work and action; recent episodes have failed at this because they’ve told us nothing new about the characters, and not presented us with any action the likes of which we haven’t seen a hundred times.
This week’s ep did better on both counts, focusing on just a couple of the characters rather than trying to show us the ongoing war from every angle. It was much the stronger for it. The characters in question here were Ezekiel and Carol, and each one’s plot thread satisfied in a different way.
The show’s never borne a stronger resemblance to a war movie than this season, though it’s done better at that before; this week, it wasn’t just any war movie, it was specifically The Guns of Navarone. For those unfamiliar with this classic, it depicts a small group of Allied commandoes on a perilous mission to knock out two Nazi superguns mounted in a Greek cliff face that have the potential to decimate the Royal Navy’s rescue attempts of a besieged Allied expeditionary force. Sound familiar?
The lion’s share of the ep’s actual action was given to Carol, and boy, did she deliver. Melissa McBride remains one of the show’s strongest assets, and you couldn’t have asked for a more effective commando as she took on the Saviors’ heavy artillery squad single-handed.
It would be fair to say we didn’t actually learn anything new about Carol during all this, but it was certainly fun to watch. And let’s face it, we never really thought she was in any jeopardy here. When the ep revealed her entirely unsurprising survival of the previous week’s slaughter, I almost found myself feeling sorry for the hapless Saviors manning the guns. As soon as I saw Carol, it was obvious they hadn’t a chance.
Really, the only tension generated by Carol’s one-woman hit squad was whether she would decide to finish off the remaining Saviors, capturing the guns, or let them go to save the Walker-besieged Ezekiel. That she took the latter course could be seen as pragmatism rather than sentiment – Rick’s Rabble need the inspiring figurehead of the self-styled “King”.
That might be a bit of a mixed blessing though, for the Ezekiel we saw at the end of this ep was a far cry from the flamboyant, cod-Shakespeare spouting figure in the cold open. While Carol provided the action, it was down to Ezekiel to provide the drama – and this was where old hand David Leslie Johnson’s script really excelled.
Much like Michonne initially was, Ezekiel is a harder character to pull off on TV than in a comic. Khary Payton has been pretty good in the part, but he’s been just a bit too confident, a bit too cartoonish to wholly convince, especially given the setting. This ep took the chance to really put him through the wringer, and he emerged as a far more believable character as a result.
Indeed, it felt like much of the point of the ep was to demolish the façade we’ve only briefly glimpsed behind before of this am-dram embracing former zookeeper. From the very beginning, we (and he) were confronted with the clash between his inspirational pre-battle speeches and the bloody reality of conflict. Payton really sold the despair, his face ashen as he staggered through the field of his former troops’ bloodied, still corpses.
And of course, this being The Walking Dead, the corpses didn’t stay still for long. I’ve moaned before when the show, whose raison d’etre is to show us zombies, stints on the onscreen undead; but the result of them being around pretty much all the time is that you get inured to the horror of them. This sequence, eerily directed by Dan Liu, returned some of that horror as the Kingdom’s felled soldiers slowly stirred, rose up, and started after the tasty meal that was their king.
It was blackly comical the way he found himself constantly being rescued only to be plunged back into danger – devoted follower Alvaro rescued him from the Walkers, only to be slain by slimy Savior Gunther, who was just about to relieve Ezekiel of his head before he too was slain by devoted follower Jerry, before the Walkers closed in again. Quite the rollercoaster ride, but it also served to underline how helpless Ezekiel found himself – a realisation that ultimately caused him to abandon all his dramatic trappings and shatter his ego.
In the end, it was a much-chastened, much quieter King Ezekiel who returned to the Kingdom, barely able to face the “subjects” he’d promised a bloodless victory at the start of the ep. Not only has he lost his mojo, he’s even lost his tiger – possibly the only death of a major character so far this season that’s had any emotional impact. Even if she was less than convincing CG.
He may have taken some consolation in the knowledge that the mission to knock out the guns was ultimately successful, thanks to an excitingly choreographed car chase between America’s two most iconic military vehicles in which Rick got to play Indiana Jones. But to judge by the look on his face, it felt like a pretty hollow victory. That’s The Walking Dead we all know and love – spending an hour a week plunging its characters into existential despair.
Gore of the week
A surprisingly large amount, and not all of it to do with the Walkers. Those were some pretty heavy-calibre bullets being sprayed into the King’s helpless subjects at the beginning, and it showed in the horrific wounds shown in loving detail on the corpses:
But undoubtedly the ep’s best gore moment was the even more unexpected bisection of the slimy Gunther, courtesy of Jerry and his trusty battleaxe. You didn’t even have to see it in long shot to gasp:
A great improvement on the so far lacklustre season, this was a pretty good ep that showed the virtue of focusing on a smaller roster of characters and actually doing something interesting with them. It’s a long way from the dark heights of classics like The Grove, but a massive step up from what we’ve seen so far. And (spoiler alert), the next ep is actually even better. Perhaps the show’s regaining that elusive mojo, and perhaps I’ll start taking less than a week to write about it…