Beware of undead spoilers!
After five seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, it’s easy to feel desensitized to the walkers. While they’re frightening in large numbers, the initial shock of their existence has worn off, despite the ever-increasing gore factor as the undead continue to decompose. In contrast to the in medias res opening of last week’s season premiere, this episode begins with a quieter type of horror sequence as we saw glimpses of Enid’s backstory. The recurring sound of distant thunder, the walkers groaning off-screen, and watching Enid wander silently alone through the world effectively revisit the isolation and dread that made the pilot so gripping.
After we see a traumatized Enid finally reach Alexandria, the opening credits run and we’re back in the present day: most of The Group’s star characters – Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn – are out herding zombies, so the first third of the episode hovers over those remaining at Alexandria. About thirteen minutes in, I started to wonder: where’s the action? After the premiere, which felt essentially like a ninety-minute trailer for the second episode and ended on the blaring-horn cliffhanger, I was expecting to be dropped immediately into zombie-filled chaos this week. Just as I began questioning the episode’s pace, though, we see Shelly cut down by the Wolf with a machete, and the attack on Alexandria begins swiftly.
This is especially not great news for Denise, who has replaced Pete as Alexandria’s doctor. She went to medical school and planned to become a surgeon, but after she started having panic attacks she switched to psychiatry. As she says to Tara and Eugene, “I’m here now, and I only kind of want to throw up.” She jokes about being pretty sure she can’t kill Tara while diagnosing her headache. Obviously, this heightens the dramatic potential when the Wolf attack begins. Surely this will go badly.
Soon enough, Denise, Tara, and Eugene are standing together over an injured woman, Holly, who is dying due to internal bleeding. Denise knows this, but she lacks confidence in her surgery skills and hesitates out of fear. Tara reminds Denise that everyone is there to help each other. “Help her!” she shouts. Eugene steps forward, awkward and emotional, and delivers one of the weightiest lines of the episode: “You don’t want to be a coward. I know.”
It’s a tense and powerful scene. Eugene is now a fan favorite, but no one – least of all Eugene – has forgotten that he became a part of this group by lying in order to save himself and letting others risk (and lose) their own lives for him. When he finally confessed the truth in season five, Tara was one of the first to defend him. Having been given a second chance, Eugene rose above his mistakes, saving Tara after she was injured and knocked unconscious in the warehouse. On that same run, Nicholas’ cowardice got Noah killed, but despite that – and his trying to kill Glenn at the end of season five – our protagonists are cautiously giving him the opportunity to redeem himself, too. As Maggie said in the premiere, Tara was also on the “opposite side of the fence” once, when the Governor attacked the prison and killed Hershel. All of this now informs their short exchange over the dying woman, in which the show forces another character to face the question: how will you choose to respond to your fear? Tara and Eugene are the perfect characters to help Denise in this moment, as they know what it feels like to make the wrong choice.
While the scene in the infirmary is moving and significant for the characters involved, Carol and Morgan are the two characters really showcased in this episode. Many fans and critics spent the summer speculating over a potential ideological face-off between Morgan and Rick. Perhaps that is yet to come, and it was certainly touched upon in the premiere as the two discussed Rick’s executing Pete for being a killer. “I’m a killer, Rick,” Morgan points out. “I am and you are, too.” Yet in this episode, Carol and Morgan’s were the clearly conflicting viewpoints. The contrast of these two is quite interesting, as they seem to stand on two sides of a fine line. Both are skilled fighters and courageously take action whenever necessary, but Carol kills attackers without hesitation while Morgan prefers beating them up to instill fear while letting them live. As characters, they are opposite responses to Enid’s mantra, represented by the recurring “JSS” markings in the beginning: just survive somehow. That is a central question of the show: to what extent are the characters willing to go in the same of survival? Which lines are acceptable to cross, and which are not? Can you be merciful without being weak?
And do Carol and Morgan take their respective approaches too far? Is Carol too quick to kill? Is Morgan too merciful, even in the face of such brutal, senseless killers as the Wolves? Sometimes the show doesn’t allow us the luxury of pondering such questions; certainly, Carol’s grit and willingness to kill without delay has saved The Group before, most notably at Terminus. But Morgan’s character may open up a conversation on the show about what that does to a person, and whether it’s always necessary or worth the cost. Of course, Morgan letting those few Wolves live – and escape with a gun – promises to cause problems in the future. Maybe it will also provide some further exploration of the consequences of Morgan’s no-kill policy. But I have a feeling that next week’s episode will be another walker-palooza. Let’s not forget about the herd now heading straight back toward Alexandria.
- I loved the scene between Maggie and Deanna outside the walls. Maggie demonstrates strength and kindness as she looks steadily at Deanna, reminds her of what matters, and hands her a shovel. “There’ll be some sore backs and tired feet,” Maggie says. “That’s how you know you’ve put in a hard day’s work.” Ah, it’s like Hershel’s still with us.
- Wolf attack = time to kill off all the unnecessary Alexandria extras!
- Hopefully this episode will finally put to rest the “Can we trust Rick’s group?” questions from the Alexandrians. They’re clearly the only ones prepared to respond to such an attack. Well, Aaron can hold his own, but he’s always been one of the few competent (read: least annoying) Alexandrians.
- Why did Carol have to kill the Wolf who was already subdued and bound by Morgan and Fr. Gabriel? Wouldn’t it be useful to keep one for questioning?
- “Maybe we can share the church,” Tara suggests to Eugene when he expresses his desire to use it for a lab or game room. Fr. Gabriel’s easy to hate, but I appreciate Tara’s non-partisan defense. We also got a glimpse into potential redemption for Fr. Gabriel in this episode. I hope they do something interesting with his character.