Here's some good news: After abusing AMC's "Go ahead make the episode as long as you want" privilege last year, The Walking Dead's been refreshingly concise so far this season. The premiere sprawled just a little bit past its hourlong time-slot, but the past two episodes have ended right on the dot. And thank the zombie gods for that, because, bloody hell, has this show ever been an all-out-chore to watch lately.
Last week's episode at least offered some edge-of-the-seat action, punctuated by our heroes questioning whether they're doing the right thing. This week's dire installment – titled, generically, "Monsters" – flips that formula. It covers roughly half a day, picking up where the previous Walking Dead left off. Almost no narrative progress is made, given that everyone's too stymied by their internal conflicts – which they talk about. Out loud. At length.
To be fair, the issues these folks are dealing with are pretty divisive. The biggest philosophical split is between Jesus and Morgan, with the killer-turned-pacifist-turned-killer-again taking Tara's side and questioning their ally's willingness to show leniency to their prisoners of war. Meanwhile, the former is leading dozens of these evil creeps down the highway to the Hilltop Colony, in hopes they'll eventually become productive members of the new society he wants to build. But what happens when Negan inevitably attacks? The good guys may ultimately be warehousing their enemy's reinforcements.
If Jesus was having this kind of strategic argument with Morgan and Tara, this episode would be a lot more interesting. Instead, we get more of the "What kind of humans are we going to be?" mush this show's been chewing on for way too long. The hair-splitting over what it means to "kill" versus "execute" is so tedious that it's actually a relief when a small horde of zombies comes rolling down an embankment next to the road, ready to start treating the chained-up prisoners like rotisserie chickens.
The drama doesn't exactly intensify at the Hilltop, where Maggie greets the turncoat Gregory at the gate, and patiently listens to him explain that he only sold out his own constituents to protect them from the Saviors. He makes a fair point, noting that it's because of his past shrewdness – none of which the Alexandrians witnessed firsthand – that the Colony even exists. But again, what Gregory deserves due to his past actions isn't really what's up for debate here. Instead, the disgraced leader challenges Maggie to prove she has "mercy," to which she shrugs and says she'll keep him alive because, "He's not worth killin'." Both of them are speaking mostly in abstracts, ignoring the practical matters of the war they're supposed to be fighting.
Sick of over-generalized soul-searching yet? Then steer clear of the Sanctuary, where at the start of the episode Rick and his old Atlanta acquaintance Morales are still catching up with each other at gunpoint. The Savior tries to get the sheriff to acknowledge that they've both changed over the years – they're just making the hard choices in order to survive. Then Rick tries to appeal to Morales' humanity by telling him about how Negan killed their mutual friend Glenn, and before that line of persuasion can get very far, Daryl pops in and shoots his old buddy dead, muttering, "I know who it was. It don't matter."
Later, outside the compound, while cleaning up after the battle, Rick pledges to keep one of the surviving Saviors alive, in exchange for information about missing guns. But as soon as the captive spills what he knows, Dwight kills him. He doesn't talk about it after, but the stricken look in Rick's eyes again suggests that he's wondering if this war is worth it, or if they're just pissing away their righteousness. So we're back to this. More dithering.
In the past, whenever The Walking Dead has hit a particularly bleak stretch, fans could hold out hope for an episode introducing some new location, or one that might feature one of the minor characters off on a side adventure. But because pretty much everyone we know is engaged in this scrap, there's no relief on the horizon. Even the one relatively upbeat subplot in "Monsters" – tracking King Ezekiel and Carol's remarkable run of luck out in the field – ends with an ambush, and a huge chunk of their party getting machine-gunned.
The drudgery of this hour is so pervasive that it undercuts what's supposed to be a heartbreaking moment: Aaron seeing his boyfriend Eric die for a cause he only half-heartedly supported in the first place. Perhaps the show's writers are planning to do more with Aaron and his grief as they follow his upcoming journey to the Hilltop (carrying with him the baby that Rick found inside the Sanctuary). But for now, the lack of emotional impact to his life partner becoming becoming a zombie underlines how clumsy the storytelling has been these past two weeks. We've been getting a lot of mayhem and moralizing, presented without the sense of purposeful structure that would give a tragedy meaning.
Worse, the characters seem to be going in circles, right along with the plot. Morgan had a spiritual awakening a few seasons back. Now he's regressed. Rick assumed the mantle of inspirational leadership in the season premiere. Now regrets it. And who knows what's up with the series' mood-swing champion Carol, who's mostly just been along for the ride since she decided to take up arms again. These people don't have arcs. They have loops.
At one point in this episode, Morgan refers to his damaged psyche, and tells Jesus, "I'm not right, but that doesn't make me wrong." The line's meant to be kind of profound, but in the context of everything else going on, it comes out as vague. It'd be nice if in the weeks ahead The Walking Dead took a break from the Big Issues and got back to sweating the small stuff – even if it takes a few extra minutes. Otherwise, we are in for one long all-out-bore.
Previously: Village of the Damned