It's been a while since The Walking Dead delivered an episode as fundamentally entertaining as this week's installment, titled "Dead or Alive Or." Yes, the show's still committed to a bleak and tedious war story for probably the rest of this season; no, it doesn't seem like these characters are ever going to stop whispering soberly about their competing philosophies of survival. But you know what this hour had? Swamp zombies! Forward plot momentum! Plus, Father Gabriel doing his best Zatoichi impression. It's great whenever the writers remember that TWD should be more beholden to 1970s drive-in movies than modern prestige television. This series works best when it's ripping off George Romero and John Carpenter, not Mad Men.
Director Michael E. Satrazemis and credited writer Eddie Guzelian get a pat on the back for fitting some genuine genre thrills here – especially in the scenes out in the woods, where Daryl, Rosita and Tara duck scattered Savior scouts and lead the surviving Alexandrians toward the Hilltop. The diffused light through the trees, the dramatic zooms, the undead monsters who rise from the marsh: It's all striking-looking and creepy as hell, like the best pulp horror.
And the episode's script works some standard, worn-thin Walking Dead conflicts around actual action. In that Alexandrian traveling party, for example, Tara's keen to get rid of Dwight, whether by "accident" or through outright assassination. Daryl, meanwhile, believes they need to keep him alive at least until he helps them escape the Saviors. When she's left alone with Negan's former right-hand-man, Tara forces him deeper into the wilderness, ostensibly on a walker-slaying chore. But who are we kidding? It's really so she can yell about how he shouldn't be allowed to "switch sides and make it okay."
It's the show's boilerplate hoo-hah about whether "doing what it takes to survive" excuses treating other human beings as expendable. But because it's happening while Tara has a gun pointed at her nemesis – in a spooky, zombie-infested forest, no less – the conversation has a welcome sense of urgency. It helps too that these scenes involve two characters who've had fairly complicated arcs, with Tara moving from sweet-natured to vengeful, and Dwight trying to avoid becoming too numb to all the awful things he's done in Negan's name.
The Man With the Plan (and the Big-Ass Barb-Wired Bat) himself only appears in a few scenes, but they're enough to reestablish him as a scary menace, especially after last week almost made him seem more stable and compassionate than Rick. Now that the Saviors are starting to regain control over the region, their foul-mouthed leader is bringing back all the old protocols. Negan wants to find out how Gabriel and Dr. Harlan escaped; he also wants everyone involved to pay. Until then, the Evil Version of the Fonz orders Eugene – whom he clearly suspects was the minister and doctor's liberator – to get started manufacturing bullets, in an outpost that the chicken-hearted science-geek will have the responsibility of running at more-than-maximum efficiency.
At the peak of his orneriness, Negan warms to Eugene's suggestion that while the munitions factory is ramping up, the Saviors could engage in some "pure psych-ops" by catapulting zombie-parts at their enemies. The villain waves away the idea of doing this for show, though he does get stoked about the possibility of using diseased walker-blood to infect them. That's what gives this episode its title, the notion that his opponents must be beaten whether they're "dead or alive or … some kind of shit in between."
One potential problem with this new strategy though is that Eugene's been justifying his swing over to the dark side by taking comfort in the Saviors argument "about people being resources and whatnot." The dominant theme of this season – and the one before, to some extent – has been this question of whether it's best to lead through strength, fear, shrewdness or benevolence. Negan tries to combine all four, but his is mostly a reign of terror ... which doesn't exactly inspire the long-term loyalty he demands.
This is something Maggie's wrestling with up at the Hilltop, too, where her resources are dwindling and her mistreatment of her Savior prisoners is causing her to question the Colony's future. It speaks to how well-constructed this episode is that even though there's nothing new about Maggie's dilemma, the writing at least makes it feel like some kind of narrative progress is happening. By the end of the hour, all the relevant Alexandrians regroup at the Hilltop, thanks in part to Dwight rejoining the Saviors and steering them away from our heroes. Meanwhile, Negan's gearing up for a ghastly new assault that ought to happen very soon, perhaps expediting the end of this exhausting "all-out war."
Until then, at least The Walking Dead proves once again that it can put together compelling little stories amid its larger epic. Besides the Tara/Dwight subplot, this episode features some gripping sequences involving the fugitive Dr. Carson and Father Gabriel. The latter urges the former to have more faith that God's in charge, then keeps proving why. Even as his eyesight deteriorates from his recent infection, Gabriel stumbles on a place to hide out, bottles of antibiotics and keys to a new car. Then, in one of this week's most exciting sequences, while Harlan's stuck in a bear-trap with walkers encroaching, the reverend walks safely across those same snares, grabs a gun and shoots one of the ghouls – all, essentially, while blind.
Of course, the Saviors arrive, capture him and kill the doctor. Because, y'know, this is still The Walking Dead, where hopes get dashed. But hey … at least the priest got to enjoy a nice afternoon, before getting dropped back into the murk. And at least we got to tag along.
Previously: Chapters and Verse