“You set this course, Rick. Who’s next?”
Well, at the risk of contradicting my recent posts on The Walking Dead’s steady decline, this week’s ep surprised me by being a marked improvement on the deliberately heavy (even excessive) drama of the last. Sure, it was a bit all over the place – an inevitable consequence of the show’s rather overused device of multi-stranded, non-linear narratives. But I was surprised to find that there was some stuff in here that I found (whisper it) good…
After last week’s tight focus on just two plot strands, which didn’t have enough meat to fill the unnecessarily extended runtime, this ep was perhaps a mite overfull, with scenes that caught us up on almost every ongoing aspect of the All Out War arc. But it didn’t feel the need to clobber you over the head with its Big Dramatic Significance, and some of the character work here was actually great.
Old hand Angela Kang, on scriptwriting duties this week, used the well-worn device of prefixing each narrative strand with a caption. In this case, a caption of a particular character’s name, which seemed to indicate the strand would be about them specifically. In the event, this seemed somewhat unrepresentative. Michonne’s bit was every bit as much about Rick as it was about her, and Negan’s included an electric scene with Simon that showcased the Sanctuary’s Brutus as much as its Caesar.
Not that I minded, since the escalating conflict between Negan and Simon was one of the episode’s key plot points, across several of the narratives. And it worked brilliantly – as so frequently in these stories, the machinations of the bad guys are so much more interesting than the heroes. Steven Ogg, as the perma-smiling Simon, is actually shaping up to be an even more interesting character than Negan; his desire to be in charge so evident that his fixed, cheery grin might as well be screaming, “I WILL DEPOSE AND KILL YOU!!”
Negan is written as cunning but overconfident, giving this plotline some nice uncertainty. On balance, I think he knows full well what a threat Simon is, and is just biding his time until it’s good to take him out (and not for lunch). But there’s still the possibility that his very strong belief in himself is blinding him to the fact that Simon is just waiting for the right moment to take over. It’s a plot thread that wasn’t in the comic, and with Carl dead, comic knowledge seems so much less of a reliable predictor of events. I’ll enjoy seeing how this one plays out.
Simon’s key betrayal this week (I’m sure it won’t be the last) was his perhaps… overzealous approach to dealing with the Scavengers, and it was here that my favourite plot thread of the ep played out, across several of the vignettes. This came as a genuine surprise; I’ve never found the Scavengers to be all that convincing up until now. Their peculiar, stilted speech patterns and odd lifestyle are typical tropes of a devolved, post-apocalyptic society, but one many decades further on from The End than this show is set.
This week both explained that and turned it on its head by showing it as an affectation, presumably on Jadis’ part, and presumably based on that very trope. In the aftermath of her entire community’s massacre, courtesy of Simon, she was revealed as the sort of pretentious hipster artist that normally makes me sneer with derision; but actually Pollyanna McIntosh’s performance gave her more sympathy than I expected. Shorn of her pretension, and weeping at the turn of fate that had befallen her, she was at once a pathetic and a poignant figure.
So much so that I actually found it ghoulishly moving as she lured the undead corpses of her former followers into an industrial shredder, crying all the while. The only real surprise, for me, was that she didn’t follow them in there, but evidently she has plotlines yet to come. It was the sort of mixture of poignancy and genuine horror that the show used to do in its sleep; nice to see it hasn’t entirely lost its mojo.
But of course the emotional heart of the ep had to be the fallout from Carl’s death; and this actually seemed more affecting than the event itself. Rick and Negan’s radio conversation was a bit of a tour de force for both actors, Jeffrey Dean Morgan again revealing there’s more to Negan than just a brutal thug. He’s a sentimental thug too. It was fitting that the ep climaxed not with a cliffhanger, but an emotional whammy, courtesy of the Big Bad himself: “you’ve failed, Rick, as a leader but most of all as a father”. Ouch. It may not have left us panting for next week’s resolution, but it was a devastating ending.
Gore of the week
Well… the industrial shredder, of course.
It was a well done sequence, and the gore so shocking, because it had an emotional heft to it, more so than the weekly head-squelchings we’re all so used to. I can’t think of a gore scene that’s had so much dramatic resonance since the reveal of Walker-Merle, way back in season 3.
So, after the anticlimax of last week’s Very Special Episode, this one surprised me by being the most enjoyable in a while. And it didn’t need masses of gunfire, hand to hand combat, or explosions to do it. Just some well-written characters, dealing with some really, really bad shit. Sure, it had its weak points; the narrative structure was all over the place, and that bit with Enid and Aaron at Oceanside reeked of filler. But overall, this was a pleasant surprise.