After over a decade, multiple spin-offs shows with more in the works, and so many deaths, The Walking Dead has finally reached the beginning of the end. Picking up from the events of the previous seasons, the episode switches between two major groups with their major plot threads: Daryl (Norman Reedus, The Boondock Saints) and crew at an overpopulated and under-resourced Alexandria, and the four being held prisoner by a fascist organization called “The Commonwealth” while they look for Eugene’s (Josh McDermitt, The Loudest Voice) elusive radio girlfriend Stephanie.
This episode wasn’t groundbreaking, but it set up a solid foundation for the rest of the season, as well as intrigued as to how they will resolve certain plot threads by the end of the show. Rather than focusing on scares and tension, the episode fulfilled the criteria of apocalyptic horror through the references of the time before the fall and familiar, if impractical, humanity. The most overt instances of these were the trash and graffiti found in the subway tunnels by the Alexandria crew, and the two interrogators from The Commonwealth.
In the subway, there was a fallen poster that reads, “America doesn’t tolerate racism,” which not only calls to modern times and current issues, but also shows just how much things have changed after the fall; though it can be argued that racism and bigotry would flourish more during a time when people feel the most helpless and out of control, but that is a different conversation.
There was also the graffiti that read, “If there is a God, he will have to beg for my forgiveness,” which is a grim reminder of just how helpless and terrifying the world was when everything began to deteriorate; after a decade of survival mode and seeing more walkers than files, even simple graffiti from people less capable and successful than the main characters is enough to chill audiences to the bone.
But it’s The Commonwealth interrogators and their lines of questioning that carried the weight of fulfilling the franchise theme of apocalyptic horror, and when set against the series and its past horrors, it succeeded in its goal with more than enough set up for more to be seen.
The most jarring aspect of the interrogation scenes was the palpable desperation on the part of the interrogators. While not present in their words, the visuals of them dressed in business attire, sitting at a desk writing on clipboards and stacks of paper using literal fountain pens are the first indicator of how desperate they are for the society lost after the fall.
But while the visuals were more than enough, it was their questions that elevated the horror and desperation from present to overbearing. With irrelevant questions such as their zip codes and where they were educated, it was more than clear that they wanted to create an atmosphere in line with what could have been found in another bureaucratic questioning.
With a subtle connection to the anti-racism poster from the metro, the interrogations contrasted from each other greatly, especially when shown how Eugene, the only white member of the four, received less scrutiny than the others, which was in part to his answers to the questions, but that in of itself says a lot about what kind of modern society The Commonwealth are trying to return to. The questions were also elitist, as per their treatment of Ezekiel (Khan Payton, Invincible) when he began to explain why he didn’t finish college, and it is the elitism that is the most horrifying part of the interrogations in that it’s laughable. It’s the zombie apocalypse but these people will still judge someone for not finishing college, not even bothering to hear the reasons why. Similar to the questions about zip code, the absurdity bridges the lines of hilarity and horror.
When contrasted with the franchise-typical walkers, The Commonwealth symbolizes the dangers that come when people try to reestablish order after a complete disaster, the fear they incite more foreboding and looming, whereas the walkers symbolize the still real dangers of the disaster itself and how nothing can truly go back to the way they were before, the fear they prey on being visceral, latching onto the primal need to survive. Together, these two main antagonists have set themselves up to be the perfect storm for the end of the series, as society attempts to rebuild amongst the still real dangers of the world they are trying to reclaim.
When it came to the walkers themselves, the fight sequences felt low stakes due to the methodical nature of the kills and just how slow the walkers moved. It felt as though, rather than trying to elicit fear or suspense, the scenes were meant to show just how capable the characters are, but with the reminder that things can still go wrong and there can still be close calls with even the most competent of groups and characters, as seen when Daryl caught the falling bag and dripped blood onto the walkers, as well as the close call with Carol (Melissa McBride, The Mist). Her choice to go back to the ammo also referenced the past season where she went her own way, even at the expense of the rest of the crew.
The most terrifying shots of the walkers were the overhead or wide shots of them as a large hoard, as that was when they felt overwhelming. When they were still shuffling forward, even if they were relatively close, the methodical way everyone took them out made the walkers seem less menacing and more like a nuisance; they felt more like a pest infestation rather than a slasher villain, but it felt, at times, as though that was the point, though that wasn’t entirely clear, which did affect the scenes overall.
Another powerful use of the walkers was through the mass grave in the metro tunnels. Of course, there was the obligatory child’s toy to emphasize the gruesome and heartless nature of the death and destruction (if Daryl, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Watchmen), and Gabe (Seth Gilliam, Teen Wolf) sang “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” this would’ve been a dead ringer for Mulan). But while the mass graves of vacuum-sealed walkers was an experience in itself, it was the petty arguing of the crew amongst the hoards of bodies that won the award for humanity being the true apocalyptic terror.
While completely justified, the constant bickering between Negan and the rest of the group began to drag after the fifth one-liner about why he should shut up. It wouldn’t have been an issue if they were all back at Alexandria and were having another meeting as to whether he should be executed, but when people are exerting their energy into shoving him as they walk past and making passive-aggressive comments, it begs the question of just how much energy it takes to walk multiple miles to take down walkers and elusive settlement-stealers because they don’t seem to be interested in conserving what they have. It was also frustrating when no one listened to Negan and, to quote Gage (Jackson Pace, Homeland), “He’s a dick, but he makes sense.”
This episode would have thrived with less arguing over the still bodies of the undead and more Hershel (Kien Michael Spiller) in his Glenn hat playing with Dog; it would have been far more entertaining and done wonders for the various adults’ character arcs if Hershel wound up talking to Negan, but instead, Negan was told off exactly eight times, and the only entertaining one was when Negan said the creaking pipes were a sign from God to turn around and Gabe said, “I’m pretty sure he would have ran that past me first.”
However, all the good points Negan had made about the safety of the journey and how everyone should be listening and communicating were all for naught, as he completely killed his argument by bringing up Glenn. It felt as though he wanted no one to listen to him, and despite the perfect set-up for a late run-time twist to reveal that Maggie (Lauren Cohan, The Vampire Diaries) was, in fact, pulling a Carol and putting everyone else in danger out of vengeance, it seemed this was all a set-up to make Negan all them more difficult to like than he already was; and to think, his season ten bonus episode origin story had worked so hard to make him sympathetic, yet here we are now.
With the cliffhanger being Negan leaving Maggie to be taken by the walkers, there is a 99.9% chance that she will actually survive, because Daryl and Dog are still on the tracks with her, and she will live to butt heads with Negan another day. That being said, if Dog sacrifices himself to save Maggie, there will be no saving this season.
As for the scenes with the other four, they were far more compelling, and there was even a scene when Eugene listened to his friends after initially arguing with them to not try and break out; it’s almost as if communication and being level-headed keeps people alive. Princess (Paola Lázaro, Lethal Weapon), once again, proved herself to not only be entertaining, but also crucial in her crew’s plans and survival, and was also the catalyst for the new plot thread about Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura, Into the Badlands) and her sibling. This plotline had far more content with far less frustration, and it’s these scenes that carried the episode to success.
With part two just over the horizon, it’ll be interesting to see who stays, who goes, and who’s so inconsequential no one would even care if they died. But one thing’s for sure, this season will definitely be interesting.