Josh Jackson and Jim Vorel review each week’s episode of The Walking Dead in a series of letters
I feel like The Walking Dead is rarely, if ever, at its best while an episode is bouncing around between half a dozen threads at once. It’s a classic case of too many cooks—pursue a bunch of miniature stories at once and they all come off as half-assed, and none of them feel real. Unfortunately, that was The Walking Dead tonight, in the oddly named “Dead Or Alive Or.”
The heart of the story was arguably the meandering journey of Father Gabriel and Dr. Carson—two characters that no one at home could possibly care very much about—trying to make their way back to The Hilltop after being freed from The Sanctuary by the constantly flip-flopping Eugene. One would think that Eugene probably would have thought twice about that decision if he knew that neither Carson nor Gabriel has the directional sense to get back to The Hilltop, where they’ve both lived for months. We are officially at a point in this show when one of the leading obstacles of an episode was “the characters don’t have good directions.”
The true purpose of this little story was a heavy-handed, painfully naive spiritual one, as an ailing (and now practically blind) Gabriel keeps insisting, in his infuriating way, that everything happens according to God’s will. That will sees them stumble upon a series of increasingly convenient and unbelievable boons—first antibiotics for Gabriel’s infection, then car keys hidden in a piggybank, and then the Lord physically guiding Gabriel’s hand to shoot a gun without the aid of his eyes. Although things eventually turn sour as the two are re-apprehended by The Saviors, and Carson is apparently killed in a poorly edited scuffle, I’m still unable to stomach the events that came before it. The Walking Dead is attempting to make a very basic, nihilistic sort of point, but its philosophy is like something a junior high student would find profound. And they couldn’t even leave it until the end of the episode before presenting another guy with medical training who can help Maggie have her baby—thanks for saving Siddiq, Carl.
Elsewhere, we get a procession of scenes that mostly don’t matter to the story going forward. Maggie agonizes over whether to feed prisoners and allow “exercise time.” Negan does his smily-snarly thing while intimidating Eugene, then sends him off to make more bullets. Tara champs at the bit with desire to kill Dwight in revenge for her dead beau, poor old Dr. Oatmeal (remember Denise?). None of it really means anything, except for allowing Dwight to get back inside the Saviors organization, where he can soon betray them again. So with that said, and a general tone of bored disappointment, I’ll leave you with a few stray observations:
— The Hilltop is repeatedly said to be running low on food and supplies here. Given that The Hilltop was basically the breadbasket of these communities—they had food to trade, but basically no guns—if they’re out of food and haven’t been making food deliveries, then shouldn’t everyone be pretty much out of food?
— Negan makes reference to the Savior plan from the comic books to “gunk up” their weapons with walker guts, in order to make them infectious—chemical warfare of the zombie apocalypse, basically. Not a bad idea, but come on, wouldn’t everyone be doing this from the start? And how much could this possibly matter when your primary weapons are freaking assault rifles?
— When you’re yelling at someone to prevent them from blundering into a bear trap, be sure to include their full honorary title. Example: “Dr. Carson, look out! Bear trap!” Anything less, though it may be faster and more effective, will be insulting to the years they spent in med school.
— Would you agree with me that the most intriguing thing to appear on the TV screen during this hour were the promos for AMC’s upcoming historical horror mini-series, The Terror? Is this what it feels like when you actually want to be watching something on TV? I’ve apparently forgotten.
One of the things that made the The Walking Dead so great in those first seasons is how a zombie show could actually be about the essence of what it means to be human when humanity is pushed to its limits. So theoretically, I can applaud the writers for trying to tackle deeper theological issues. But as you said, Father Gabriel’s faith is not a particularly mature one, and the coincidences he’s faced with seem as ham-fisted as his spiritual platitudes—particularly that God is somehow working all things together for some specific worldly good when tragedy has surrounded him at every turn. This is not Gabriel as Job, trusting God through all his troubles. This is Gabriel trusting God to deliver practical items like keys and map when he knocks over a piggy bank so that Gabriel and Dr. Carson can escape. Or trusting that God will blindly guide his bullet to shoot a walker in the head.
Instead of making the viewer question what we believe about God’s involvement in the specifics of our lives, we see the Writers’ heavy hands guiding Gabriel before pulling the prayer rug right out from under him. Neither the power of faith that they tease nor the nihilism that they land on feel particularly earned or even fully explored since this was just a small plot thread in this episode.
Dwight and Tara’s story was marginally more engaging, thanks to Tara’s pent-up rage at Dwight killing her girlfriend, and also the presence of swamp zombies. Dwight’s redemption story has been refreshingly believable and well-told.
The Hilltop plot could barely be called a plot. They’re low on food, and Maggie is low on patience with her prisoners. And Henry is creeping all of us out.
In response to your questions:
If the Hilltop is out of food, and the Kingdom and Alexandria are in ruins, everyone is going to be out of food soon. I guess I can believe, though, that the Sanctuary has been hoarding supplies for their mysteriously defined number of troops.
Using zombies as biological weapons is indeed a pretty obvious tactic, and one that I thought Negan was already using with Lucille. Unless he’s been sanitizing that barbed wire, I wouldn’t have wanted a pin-prick from his bat. But it sounds like next week we’ll see this concept taken to the next gory level (and maybe a Dukes of Hazard-style car chase).
And yes, that trailer for The Terror looks awesome. Can we watch that now?
As everyone converges at the Hilltop, they make themselves a target for a zombie-parts siege with food low and the Saviors making their own bullets. Does that mean the Saviors have the tactical advantage right now? Or is Maggie right thinking “How can we lose?”
Also, Negan has three traitors in his midst right now: Dwight, Eugene and Simon. Whose lack of loyalty is going to cost him the most?
It’s funny to think that we already know of three different traitors of varying degrees of seriousness among the Saviors. Of the three, I think it’s safe to say that Dwight has already had by far the biggest impact, and he at least STRIVES to have the greatest impact—his goal is nothing short of the destruction of Negan and most of the Saviors. It would seem that Dwight is probably ready to live in Carl’s peaceful, post-war existence. You’re probably right that I haven’t given quite enough credit to how well Dwight’s story has been told, even if he’s a minor character.
Eugene, on the other hand, has been completely inconsistent in his loyalties, which has frustrated me to no end. Sometimes, he’s loyal to Negan and seems very much onboard with the philosophy of “saving people” that the Saviors represent. Other times, he’s sticking his neck out for no reason in order to help members of his former group, before going right back to his previous attitude immediately after doing so. He’s haunted by guilt and drinks medicated doses of “giggle juice” to get to sleep at night. As I have from the very beginning, I still expect him to ultimately betray Negan in the end, not because he’s been written in such a way where that makes sense, but because of TV inevitability. We want to see Eugene be a good guy, so he will be one. Eventually.
Simon, on the other hand, is cuckoo bananas, as we saw last week when he massacred the remaining Trash People. Even if he does try to turn on Negan, he would also have to die himself for karmic justice to carry through. I’d say there’s a small chance—say 10% or so—that he actually gets to be the one to deliver the killing blow to Negan in an attempt to take over the Saviors for himself, but I would expect him to die immediately afterward if this happened. All in all, though, he’s the one of the three whose motivations are the most opaque. I still don’t know what he was trying to achieve in killing the Trash People, and I don’t really understand if we’re supposed to assume he’s running a scam on the side. Do you really think Simon wants to be in charge, or thinks he would do a better job than Negan?
As for the upcoming battle at The Hilltop, I have to always assume that The Saviors have the tactical advantage. When you’re able to warp anywhere as they seemingly can, and all of your faceless mooks respawn as quickly as theirs do, you’re well-outfitted to fight a major battle. Their only weakness is a lack of characters whose names we know at this point, given that the show has made it pretty clear right now that only the main characters matter. Case in point: Who went to clear the swamp of submerged walkers? Daryl, Tara, Tobin, and everyone else we can name who’s still alive from Alexandria. Who stayed behind? All of the nameless extras—plus Tara, of course.
So, whadd’ya think for next week? Another 60 minutes of bouncing around as the pieces move on the chessboard and the Saviors build medieval catapults? Will Eugene have time to complete the cafeteria/recreational cubby of his dreams in his bullet factory? How many episodes before the big fight commences?
I don’t know if you watched the preview for next week that played during Talking Dead, but I wasn’t kidding about the car chase. Spoiler alert: Rick is going to somehow isolate Negan from his convoy and speed through the lonely streets of the apocalypse. I know how absurd that sounds, but I’m 99% sure I didn’t just dream it last night. So, no, I guess it won’t just be more dull side stories. But I’d guess it also won’t really resolve much. Eugene’s bullet factory will look like a Brooklyn tech start-up with foosball table, nap lounge and on-site chef specializing in scrambled eggs (not omelets) before the war comes. The slow progress on bullets and Negan’s plan to use terrorize the Hilltop with zombie guts sound mostly like excuses to delay any meaningful battles that might bring the war to a close.
But next week we’ll get an episode that’s sure to spawn The Walking Dead: Nascar Edition mobile game.
Please don’t die Daryl Dixon. But please kill some Saviors soon.