This terrifying episode of The Walking Dead raises the bar for what this final season has to offer, taking all the previously established scares—the stumbling hoards of walkers and questionable acts against other humans—and successfully raising the stakes to create an environment and narrative so tense that, despite being given some resolution, there’s no choice but count the days until the next episode to see just how worse things can get; the previous five episodes had succeeded due to their narratives and character dynamics, but this one succeeded through primal fear.
It was revealed in the last episode that Connie (Lauren Ridloff, Eternals) had been spotted trying to get back home with Virgil (Kevin Carroll, Snowfall), a former antagonist of Season 10 who had run into a near-unconscious Connie after she survived a cave collapse and hoard attack in the penultimate episode of Season 10’s main storyline, five bonus episodes notwithstanding. With that confirmation, it only made sense that everyone would go after her, and it was no surprise when Kelly (Angel Theory, Kinderfänger) went out on her own to find her missing sister; if anything, the real surprise was that no one had prepared for that to catch her before she went solo.
Either way, Kelly was right to be worried for her sister as her situation went from bad to worse when she and Virgil went to hide in an abandoned home to escape whatever they had been hiding from—it had been implied to be walkers, but Virgil later said they had been led to the group, which may have meant they were being hunted by the group from the very beginning.
The group in question being cannibal Tarzan wannabes’ who were by far more terrifying than a close-up of any walker, no matter how decomposed and grotesque. The visceral experience of seeing part of a back scuttle just out of Connie’s view in the corner of the screen was already enough to send hackles rising, but the way the episode used silence to showcase Connie’s experience and raise tension—the hearing audience was already privy to the sounds of the predators, so to be deprived of that causes more panic than the sounds of the intruder getting closer.
Connie and Virgil’s story carried this episode—not just because it was the main storyline—and seeing their dynamic as they try to communicate in such dire straits added to the conflict, as well as revealed more about each character and how they’ve each been faring since they were last seen. Seeing Virgil’s selfless care for Connie—as selfless as someone can be when they see their actions as a means of atonement for prior wrongs—when he insisted she leave without him if she must, and Connie’s unwavering loyalty as she kept him safe and carried him out, even after he was stabbed, made them the most compelling characters this episode and promise even more great scenes for the future.
In contrast to the mature and familial love between Connie and Virgil, Daryl’s (Norman Reedus, The Boondock Saints) experience with his new “family” was anything but loving, and his relationship with his new “brother” Carver (Alex Meraz, Animal Kingdom) was, as Leah (Lynn Collins, Bosch) put it, “toddler bullshit.” And while it’s always fun to see little kids fight over nothing, it’s far less entertaining when it’s two grown men in the midst of the zombie apocalypse.
Rather than justifiable suspicion, Carver’s hostility towards Daryl felt more like a jealous child who doesn’t want the new kid to steal his playground girlfriend. It seemed that whenever Daryl so much as breathed, Carver was demanding to know what he was planning and why he was there, even in the middle of a search for supposed enemies.
While he was right that Daryl knew more than he let on, as he was protecting the group of four until they were able to narrowly escape detection—that series of events was a cumulative ten minute rollercoaster of panic and short-term relief—most of his attacks didn’t make sense; most of the time, Daryl was just standing and doing whatever Pope (Ritchie Coster, Happy!) or Leah told him to, and while it would make sense if he had actively done something to slow down or ruin their search, but all he did was give a suggestion and Carver was suspicious; yes, he was right in Daryl having ulterior motives, but he had no actual reason to suspect that other than being jealous and, after Daryl literally cut off Frost’s (Glenn Stanton, The Son), it stopped being interesting and started being tedious, save for when he almost caught Maggie (Lauren Cohan, The Vampire Diaries) and co.
Speaking of Frost, the end of the episode did nothing to quell the concerns about Pope and The Reapers. The “interrogation”—read: torture—methods they seem to use so freely was already concerning—the fact that they’re former soldiers only raises more concerns about whether they’ll take their disregard for human life even further—but while seeing a zombified Frost was disconcerting enough, the fear of not knowing what it was he said about Daryl is the question that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats until the next episode.
Despite those concerns, the main storyline ended on a more positive note, one well earned considering all that led up to it. It hadn’t been fully clear, to begin with, but when the singular cannibal that attacked Virgil and Connie turned out to be one of many, things only got worse. These are the most terrifying antagonists this season, and while it seemed as though that group was taken out entirely, there could still be a chance that a few escaped, or there are more out there like them. Either way, it would be great to see them moving forward—maybe even going after Maggie’s group and The Reapers at different points—because of how different they are from The Reapers and The Commonwealth. While those two show the dangers and justifications of humans trying to survive—as is required in dystopian media—and what ways they choose, this new group shows the same, but rather than evolving with the times this group devolved, honing into their base instincts and regressing into beings more akin to starving carnivores than starving people.
While the terror of The Reapers is in the brutality of Pope and his actions against those he deems enemies and those he deems family—preying on the fear of having no one to trust, not even the supposed father figure—and the terror of The Commonwealth is the fascism and bureaucratic indifference to human rights in a place that claims to be as close to the time before the fall—which preys on the fear of just how close Western society is to this type of system—the terror of the Tarzan cannibals is their very existence, as they have no system except the basic pack mentality and need to eat and survive—it taps into the fear of how similar humans are with animals and just how quickly people can devolve if given the proper motivation. There’s a reason why there’s such a twisted fascination over The Donner Party and other cannibal stories; even to those who find it revolting, there is a lingering question of what it must be like.
Fortunately, Connie and Virgil didn’t have to learn the hard way what it’s like to be predator or prey, as Connie’s quick thinking and Kelly’s surprise appearance kept them safe. The emotional reunion between the sisters was a strong end to the episode, a good foil to Daryl’s bleak situation in his own group, and while there are so many questions lingering about what will happen when Daryl steps back into camp, there are an equal amount of questions about what will happen when Connie and Virgil do the same.
Overall, this episode was strong in all aspects: narrative, visual, and auditory. The music was just as successful at establishing tone and rising tension, but the use of silence was arguably even more successful, especially when it came to fear. The character dynamics were compelling and, other than Carver’s jealous streak and the budding love angle between him, Daryl, and Leah—although, Leah isn’t even interested in Carver, so it really seems like a Twilight situation where Carver is Jacob and treats Leah horribly because he thinks he’s owed a relationship because he’s her best friend—everything was enjoyable to watch. Hopefully, the season continues on in this way, as this was one of the better episodes, and viewers should expect no less from the final season.