“You’re supposed to be someone else!” ~ Carol
“If it wasn’t us, it was gonna be you.” ~ Aaron
“This is the next world.” ~ Jesus
“Amen.” ~ Father Gabriel
We don’t normally open a review by quoting a bunch of characters, but The Walking Dead rarely provides such poignant dialogue that also happens to hit the major themes of the episode on the head. This was some good stuff – and it’s been a long time coming for those of us who’ve been frustrated with the show for so long. We didn’t get a chance to review last week’s episode because of the Oscars and all the subsequent red carpet work we had to do, but for us, it was the long-awaited moment; the one thing the show needed to do to keep us engaged with such a nihilistic and occasionally depressing tale: it opened up the world. Even better, it did so without sacrificing the “truth” of the show.
See, we’ve long had a serious problem with the nihilism that defines this show; not because we don’t believe the world can (and has in the past) gone to complete shit, with vast swathes of the population leading lives of sickness, violence, and all-around hopelessness. We had a problem with it because it was literally the only thing the creators of the show were willing to show us. Everyone was a rapist, murderer or cannibal. People are so fundamentally fucked up that the best they can manage when things fall apart is to knife each other in the mud for scraps of food. It’s true we lauded the show whenever it turned toward the idea of hope and proved, over the course of many episodes, that Rick and his group, while incredibly damaged and violent people, are the heroes of this story because despite everything, they still hope for a better world. In other words, the show established very firmly that the act of surviving in a world like this is an active choice; one that’s born out of a latent hope for better things around the corner.
But with the introduction of Hilltop and the subsequent defining and showcasing of Negan’s group, all of these characters were thrust immediately into a brave new world for them: civilization. And as this episode showed, they may just be too damaged to know what to do with it. It’s one thing to hope for a better world; it’s quite another to be faced with the real prospect of it and doing the right thing. All of the main characters are feeling the weight of this newness upon them as they make the kind of political deal with Hilltop that started wars in the old world.
Most of them, but especially Glen, seem to understand instinctively that attacking Negan’s compound as a pre-emptive strike means that the second civilization arrived on their doorstep, they immediately defaulted to the most destructive and violent aspects of it. Don’t get us wrong “We have to get them before they get us” is perhaps an arguable stance in the case of something like a discussion of the U.S. invading Iraq (which seems to us to be a deliberate callback here) but it’s entirely something else when you’re standing over a sleeping person and trying to decide if you have what it takes to murder them. Make no mistake, a HUGE line was crossed in this episode and everyone knew it. The polaroids of the bashed-in heads made it perhaps a little easier to accept, but we still watched our heroes murder a whole bunch of strangers in cold blood. As the not-Jesus guy from Hilltop noted (we don’t learn their names until they speak in a half-dozen successive episodes), Rick is no less frightening than Negan.
Carol and Father Gabriel are basically asking themselves the same question: Can I still be who I fundamentally am in a world full of violence? The former seems to think he can, and spent a long time getting to that point, but the latter, having long ago decided that she couldn’t, is now questioning just about everything about herself. Carol is reacting to the impending changes by retreating into domesticity and flirting; two things that are so unnatural to her at this point in time that it took us most of the episode to realize she wasn’t playing some sort of long con. Instead, she was dealing with the idea of who she is now (a person who has killed enough people to be considered a serial killer, based on her bedside table book of kills) and trying to understand if there was any bit of her old self left insider her. She stayed with Maggie and refused to let her get involved in the massacre because she sees her own choices and mistakes when she looks at her and doesn’t want to see her become like her. In Carol’s eyes, Maggie’s marriage and pregnancy are the line in the sand. Knowing how much she herself has lost and sacrificed, she can’t bear to see Maggie go through the same thing. But this is both her undoing and Maggie’s, since their fighting in the woods got them captured. We hate to say it, but we’ve watched this show a long time and written tens of thousands of words on it. Our death sense is tingling and right now, Carol reeks of it. Everything about her actions here read “end of the road” to us. We’ll be happy to be wrong about that, but we suspect the show will kill her off before they kill of Maggie.
Meanwhile, Abraham breaks up with Rosita in quite possibly the cruelest way possible. “I thought you were the last woman in the world. You’re not.” We like the guy, but we’re kind of rooting for a bullet to the head after that line. Also, Tara reflects not only on the lie she told Denise (and to be honest, we’re still not sure why that lie is being told at all) but also the fact that this is the second time she got talked into raiding a compound of people she doesn’t know. She spent a lot of time fretting and upset this episode, but it wasn’t until she alluded to the Governor’s attack on the prison that we realized how much she understands what it is they’re trying to do. If anything, she seems to be among the more self-aware of the characters right now.
It’s all very up-in-the-air right now, which is a good thing for a show that has gotten extremely predictable at times. Clearly, the Alexandrians in general and Rick’s inner core in particular are going to suffer terribly for what they just did. It wouldn’t be The Walking Dead if they didn’t. But as long as the show can give us incredibly tense action sequences (which they did in spades this week) while giving the core characters arcs and actions that make sense for them (something they’ve mastered in the last season or so), we’re okay with the death and mayhem that will no doubt follow. After all, as Jesus noted to Tara, they have something to fight for now. People banding together to find common cause – and then attacking the outsiders. That’s both the good and the bad side of civilization in a nutshell.
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[Photo Credit: AMC Television]