Back in the fall of 2015, The Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple attempted a noble, not-all-that-successful experiment with narrative structure. To wit: The show would be spending an entire half-season – eight full episodes – tracking just a couple of days in the life of Rick Grimes, as he and his associates tried and failed to secure the Alexandria Safe-Zone from a nearby walker horde. This season, Gimple gave this concept another go. The fall premiere began with the good guys leading a multi-front assault on Negan, the Saviors and all their scattered compounds. The midseason finale takes place just a few days later, as the enemy regroups and starts fighting back. But while the curtailed time-frame makes more sense this time, it's hasn't really been what you would call dramatically satisfying. At all.
Some major events transpire during this week's episode (“How It's Gotta Be") – but the biggest development is revealed right at the end, when we see that Carl has sustained a walker-bite just under his rib-cage. He's not dead ... yet. In the episode of Talking Dead that aired immediately after the show, Gimple emphasized that the character is still alive, and has business to complete before his time in this fallen world is over. But he also said that this kind of wound is “a one-way ticket." In other words, fans of original TWD cast member Chandler Riggs will probably want to tune in when the series returns on February 25, 2018, because that could be his last goodbye.
As for everything else: Aaron and Enid embark on a diplomatic mission to Oceanside that quickly devolves into violence and distrust. The Saviors who escaped the Sanctuary begin the process of forcibly resettling in Alexandria and the Kingdom, but find the locals unreceptive… with Carl and King Ezekiel so hostile that they begin blowing up their respective homes. Daryl and several other of our heroes (including the turncoat Dwight) slip away from the fray and regroup at an underground base (literally!) for their new resistance movement. And Rick and Negan finally have a hand-to-hand tussle – with the former making the latter irate by putting his hands on the spiky baseball bat “Lucille" – but only, alas, for a few minutes.
So that's a lot to cram in before the hiatus. The big question though is: Does any of it justify a half-season that's otherwise covered so little ground?
The argument in favor of the way that Gimple and company have handled these eight episodes of The Walking Dead is that a lot happens quickly during times of war. Rather than breezing through the siege at the Sanctuary, or the transfer of prisoners to the Hilltop, or the wholesale slaughter of the Kingdom's warriors, the past two months' worth of episodes slowed down enough to observe the toll exacted from every battle, including the rationale – and intense disagreement – behind every strategic decision.
Here before the break, a lot of those earlier choices result in dire consequences. The big question Daryl and Tara wrestle with is whether their defiance of Rick's orders – by breaching the Sanctuary's walls with walkers – was a fatal blunder. Rosita tries to give the insubordinates some relativistic cover, saying that maybe the original sin rests with her and Sasha for going off-mission and trying to assassinate Negan last season. And Dwight notes that Eugene is as much to blame as anyone, because he concocted the plan that turned the potential endgame of a zombie incursion into the perfect loophole.
Still, it's hard not to share Rick's seething anger and disgust, as he walks past his disobedient friends in their new underground lair and lays eyes on Carl's seemingly mortal wound. His plan was (mostly) working. If everyone had played their parts, it might've been a resounding success. Instead, he's probably about to lose a son.
Meanwhile, on their way to a pre-arranged rendezvous with their allies, Maggie and Jesus are stopped on the road by Negan's right-hand man Simon, who fills them in on the new reality. The Kingdom and the AZS have fallen; the Hilltop will be allowed to remain largely independent, because it's “the bread-basket" of this new society and needs to “keep producing." Maggie, however, sees this edict as an opportunity. She intends to make her community into the last outpost of the revolution. And to prove she's serious, she immediately executes a POW. No more Mrs. Nice Mommy-To-Be.
On its own merits, “How It's Gotta Be" is a perfectly fine installment. Because the action takes place mostly at night, it's sometimes too dark to tell where everyone actually is and what they're doing; but director Michael E. Satrazemis' use of close-ups is visually striking, and shifts the emphasis to individual reactions to a crisis, which has always been the show's strong suit.
Yet unlike past midseason/season finales that have signaled a clear shift in the larger story and its meaning, this episode leaves more unresolved than it clarifies. Eugene helps Gabriel escape the Sanctuary, which is great. But it also indicates that the writers still aren't sure whether they want that character to be a hero or villain. And while Ezekiel rallies from his stupor to become a leader again (thank goodness), it still doesn't make sense that the Saviors are saving him, Rick and Maggie for some future public assassination, rather than slaying them all on sight.
The most positive sign of possible change comes via flashback, where we see Carl chastising his father for his callousness toward the stranger who'd turn out to be Siddiq. The wise-beyond-his-years teen suggests that the only way forward in this new world is through helping people, instead of abandoning them … or killing them.
That's a good, constructive message, which perhaps Rick and The Walking Dead will heed next year. But it'd be a lot more meaningful if the kid who said it weren't currently dying of zombie-ism.
Previously: Eugene-ics 101