Let's begin with the ending, both of this latest The Walking Dead and the one before it. As it turns out, that Daryl-shaped figure who showed up in the closing seconds of last week's installment was in fact the show's other scraggly-haired, crossbow-wielding badass: Dwight. And in the final minutes of this week's episode – "Something They Need" – Rosita reveals that Negan's reluctant lieutenant saved her from the shootout at the Sanctuary at some point after the closing credits. He then apparently volunteered to be imprisoned in Alexandria, just to prove to Rick that he's serious about helping him with the coming war. Whether or not the Daryl/Dwight visual similarities were an intentional fake-out by the TWD creative team, the image did provide an apt segue into this season's penultimate episode, where heroes and villains look directly at each other over and over. It's as though they're both staring into mirrors.
Ever since the mid-season break, the series has moved swiftly to get to the confrontation that might (or might not, given showrunner Scott M. Gimple's recent cryptic utterings) commence next week. We're talking about the inevitable moment where the combined forces of Alexandria, the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and the Scavengers – armed with the Oceanside commnity's newly "borrowed" arsenal – will start launching coordinated assaults on the Saviors in their scattered outposts. As for Negan's side, they may be more braced for the attack regardless of when it happens, thanks to Hilltop "leader" Gregory all but becoming the Saviors' mole. It would appear that a messy melee awaits both sides.
So it's less about whether next week's finale will contain the entirety of what the comic books spent a dozen-ish issues covering (under the we're-not-going-to-undersell-this narrative-arc title "All Out War") then whether the conflict starts up at all. But if the show's recent trends continue, we can expect Season Seven to end very differently than it began. Expect less whimpering and wallowing. And brace for more meaningful action.
"Something They Need" (credited to writer Corey Reed and director Michael Slovis) is a good example of how The Walking Dead has rebounded in 2017 by taking advantage of its resources. About two-thirds of the episode consists of the kind of long, dialectical scenes this show relies on far too often, as a way of killing time instead of walkers and creating the illusion of thematic depth. But here, these pieces serve more of a narrative purpose. And because they're divided across two locations, and broken up by some actually thrilling sequences elsewhere, the overall experience is more satisfying.
It helps that the performances are so strong as well. The often-underutilized and soon-to-be-Trekkie-fan-favorite Sonequa Martin-Green has been taking full advantage of her increased screen-time over the past two weeks; she does some of her best TWD work to date when Sasha – who didn't die in her suicide raid – sits locked in a Sanctuary cell, pondering her next move. After fending off a rape with Negan's help, and then using the knife he leaves behind to finish off her attacker's undead corpse, she gets the usual sales pitch about how the Saviors are "not monsters" and how she should let go of her hard feelings about Abraham's death. (Why? "We all got shit to get over.") Her former cohort Eugene also tries to persuade her that joining the enemy is a matter of evolutionary necessity.
What's so remarkable about these interactions are the layers of emotions and motivations that Sasha cycles through, from fear and despair to a sense of hope when she realizes she can manipulate the mulleted gent into slipping her a weapon to "kill herself" – which she hopes to use on the big man in charge. In a clever reversal, her old friend gives her the suicide pill he concocted several weeks ago (see "Hostiles and Calamaties"), proving once again how the characters on this show can scheme and strategize and make all the right moves ... and still end up with the wrong outcome.
Another case-in-point: Maggie, who on the Hilltop is helping people become self-sufficient with their farming and fighting skills, and who even saves Gregory's life when he fails to kill the first zombie he's ever confronted on his own. He loses even more face in front of his former followers – and in the process, she apparently hastens his betrayal. Throughout, we get some entertainingly awkward exchanges between the two characters, perfectly played by Lauren Cohan and Xander Berkeley.
The heart of the episode, however – and the primary explanation for the title– is in Rick's shock-and-awe raid on Oceanside, executed after a too-brief warning from the community's former guest, Tara. With Michonne serving as a tree-stationed sniper, and explosive devices designed both to startle and to create an imminent walker-based threat, the Alexandrians get the guns they need with minimal damage, Oceanside leader Natania's brusied pride being the exception. They even almost win over some recruits thanks to their pitch that, "The world can belong to fair people if we're brave enough to try."
Still, it's worth noting that even the newbies who consider joining the cause are doing so on the other end of a gun barrel. No matter how Rick tries to sell their armed robbery, the fact remains that from the perspective of these women, they were invaded by another group of survivors – ones who intentionally terrified them and then left them defenseless. Not a good start.
This is all something to keep in mind as we head into the finale. The Alexandrians and their allies are not the bad guys, true. But Negan doesn't think he or his tribe are either. Ultimately, they're all going to be judged by what happens during the skirmish to come, as well as whatever lies beyond it. From a distance, the intent of a person holding a weapon is hard to make out. We react to the silhouette.
Previously: Over the Hill