By now, Walking Dead fans (Dead-heads?) are hip to Carol's "golly gee whiz" routine, and in this week's episode — "The Same Boat" — our heroine is being held by a group of Saviors in a zombie-infested "safe house." When she reaches for a rosary, she' mocked by her captors for being pathetic — which is an illusion she encourages, because it gives her a strategic advantage. Really, she's surreptitiously sharpening up the cross to cut herself free. We knew that all along. And yet, there's something different in her eyes this time, even though she's clearly faking everybody out. When she played the Resident Happy Homemaker last season, she did it with a detectable note of scorn. Here, with the Saviors, it's more like she really wants to be a sap.
The past two installments have formed a kind of mini-arc, designed to answer the question: "What has Carol Peletier become?" After spending the better part of six seasons turning an abused housewife and mother into a remorseless killing machine, the show's writers have abruptly pulled back, suggesting that maybe — just maybe — the darkest of their heroes is starting to realize that she's moved too far into the shadow. In the opening scenes of last week's episode, she seemed shaken when saw herself through the eyes of Tobin, a man she admires. And now she's rattled again when she realizes that her sweet, hopeful Maggie is taking a turn toward the terrible. How can she lecture anyone about the importance of kindness, when for months she's been demanding that all of her friends harden-up?
Both these women are forced to do a little heat-of-the-moment soul-searching, as they stare into the face of someone who's their living mirror. "The Same Boat" introduces Alicia Witt as Paula, the Savior we heard on Rick's walkie-talkie, demanding that the raiding party drop their weapons; she gets to deliver a classic Walking Dead monologue about what boiling water does to a carrot, egg, and coffee beans. But don't get too used to her. By the end of the hour, Paula's dead, killed during a daring escape plan that culminates in every Savior the group has met so far being slaughtered — in some cases gruesomely. After all that, a distraught Maggie mutters, "I can't any more" … and Carol finally seems to be on the same page.
This hour doesn't exactly fix the problems that have been plaguing the series lately, but it does figure out a better way to handle the balance between "let's talk about our feelings" and "let's splatter some zombie-brains." The bulk of the episode takes place in a few dark rooms and corridors, with just a handful of characters. Yet it never feels as excessively chatty or navel-gazing as some recent stretches have been. Writer Angela Kang and director Billy Gierhart open with a jittery long-distance standoff between Paula's Saviors and Rick's raiders, and end the episode in a flurry of bloody mayhem. That's all it really takes to add tension to the quieter scenes in the middle, where women posture and threaten each other in a dank basement.
It helps that throughout all these hushed conversations, Carol and Maggie are actually doing something: trying to maneuver themselves into a position to escape. It also makes a difference that the cast this week is mostly female, with the exception of a couple of Savior dudes who are either wounded or ineffectual. Paula is flanked by a mean-spirited bruiser and a heartbroken, angry youngster, both of whom scoff at the idea that the pregnant Maggie deserves mercy (or, to put in another way, because she's "making bite-sizes snacks for the dead"). Carol, meanwhile, is taunted for being "a nervous little bird." Their message is clear: Softness and sisterhood are for corpses.
There are striking directorial choices abound: our heroines' abduction are seen from their perspective — with their far-off friends barely audible, and their vision obscured by hoods — while the thrilling climax has them using walkers, blades, guns, and fire to lay waste to their jailers. But the heart of the episode is in the dynamic between these ladies. The script very craftily sets up Paula as a parallel Carol: a formerly timid, unexceptional secretary, who now has no compunction about lying and killing if it'll get her through another day. By the end, they — and we — have to wonder whether butchering the Saviors is, symbolically speaking, an act of self-destruction.
In fact, Paula implies just that, warning her prisoners, "You're not the good guys." Last week we saw Glenn struggling with the act of murdering the living, trying to take some reassurance in the idea that at least Negan's people are awful. But now that we've spent time with the Saviors, they really don't seem that different from the folks we've been following for six years. They support each other, sleep with each other, bicker over strategy — they're not super-villains, in other words. Aside from their cult-like insistence that "We are all Negan," the "bad guys" seem pretty level-headed.
And maybe that's what freaks Carol out so much, even more than seeing Maggie turn more ruthless by the minute. While she's quietly studying these thugs, looking for a weakness, she mostly just sees herself; when Paula later asks, "Are you going to kill me?" Carol can only whisper, "I hope not." It's hard to imagine that TWD's toughest character is about to become a Morgan-like pacifist. But maybe she's about to realize that if she keeps killing everyone she thinks of as an "other," soon she'll be the last person on Earth.
Previously: Head Games