So, for the third time this season, a recon party from the Kingdom drives out of town to deliver their tribute to a group from the Saviors. In each of the earlier trips, tensions have run high, and one of the jerkier soldiers on Negan's team has gotten snippy with Richard, Ezekiel's top lieutenant. And from the moment all the King's men roll into the drop-zone – short one cantaloupe, as we soon find out – the scene is fraught with danger. Inevitably, push comes to shove, Somebody gets killed.
The big question with this week's episode – ominously and deservedly titled "Bury Me Here" – is whether the predictability of what happens diminishes what's otherwise a nail-biting, heart-breaking episode. Because in a lot of ways, this hour represents the best and the worst of what The Walking Dead can do.
On the positive side, after last week's wheel-spinning turn in which characters talked their way into decisions they'd already made, this latest chapter advances the plot through actual honest-to-God action. Punches are thrown and shots are fired ... not just at walkers, but at folks who matter. The encounters between the Saviors and the Kingdom-dwellers are the stuff of great TV drama – the kind that fans can't look away from, even if they have a sick feeling in the pits of their stomachs throughout.
But here's the negative: There's a frustrating familiarity to the place where "Bury Me Here" lands, with Ezekiel finally realizing he has to prepare for war, Carol stepping up to help the community and our resident Zen master Morgan descending back into his pre-Eastman murderousness. This has never been a show with much patience for philosophies of survival that don't involve massive amounts of killing. Still, showrunner Scott M. Gimple (who's also this episode's credited writer) undoubtedly has at least some small modicum of respect for the inner serenity and idealistic vision of folks like Ezekiel, Morgan and the late Deanna Monroe. But the show's creators have so much invested in Rick's macho action-hero, "fight or die" ethos that they rarely seem to think too far beyond it. In the series' two-fisted combat stories, pacifists get punished.
All of which means that of course Morgan was eventually going to pick up a lethal weapon again, and that it was inevitable that Ezekiel and Carol were going to realize it's once-more-unto-the-breach time. But there's still something very pat about the way it happens here, with all three characters very nearly turning on a dime from neutral to soldier. Even if they've been chewing over the possibilities of getting off the sidelines for weeks (and they likely have, judging by their behavior in recent episodes), they embrace their new roles awfully quickly. Morgan in particular just sort of snaps at the end of the hour, in a jarring and unsettling fashion.
Back to the positives: The performances of Lennie James, Melissa McBride, and Khary Payton are so strong here – and Alrick Riley's direction of Gimple's script so assured and well-tempered – that this episode remains an effective bit of storytelling even when its outcome is clear. The Walking Dead often falters when it circles back on itself, returning over and over to the same situations, character-beats, and ideas. But that repetition really pays off this time, where our past experiences of Savior supply-drops make this latest mission all the more nerve-wracking.
And those scenes are incredibly edgy even despite the non-mystery at their center. As soon as Ezekiel & co. realizes they only have 11 cantaloupes in the back of their truck, it's pretty obvious what happened to the 12th. Richard's been trying for a while to orchestrate his own "sinking of the Maine," to inspire his leader and his neighbors to take up arms. To that end, he arranges a blockade of shopping carts – in the shape of an arrow, pointing to an empty burial plot – and while everyone's distracted, he hides one melon.
Richard assumes he'll be the one filling that grave, and that the Saviors will make him a martyr when the "tribute" comes up short. Instead, the group's resident bully kills sweet, well-meaning Benjamin – a character who, let's face it, may as well have been wearing a "shoot me" sign around his neck from the moment he was introduced. This outrage drives Morgan around the bend, since the kid reminded him of his own long-gone son. Once he figures out exactly what happened, the formerly peaceful warrior chokes the well-meaning saboteur to death. Having violated his own code against killing, our stick-wielding friend announces his intention to jump all the way off the wagon and slaughter anyone who gets in his way.
Carol, meanwhile, crawls out of her self-enforced isolation for two reasons: She finally learns that Negan bludgeoned Glenn and Abraham to death; and because Morgan's sudden reversion to savagery is concerning to a fellow recovering badass like herself. To help him ease his troubled soul, she asks him to take her place for a while in the house outside of town, while she subs in as Ezekiel's sage counsel and capable training officer.
Anyone looking for signs of hope that The Walking Dead hasn't become just one long argument in favor of violence should focus on Carol and Ezekiel – the former pleads with her old friend not to succumb to the worst of himself, and the latter takes comfort in the idea that a weevil-infested crop can be destroyed and re-grown. What's even more disturbing in those stand-off scenes than the casual violence is the snide dismissal of the very idea of "kings," and their mockery of anything resembling a plan for the future. That's a worldview apparently too nihilistic even for this show.
So maybe, just maybe, Gimple and his creative collaborators do have some faith in peaceful true-believers who build, plot, plant and cultivate. It's only that, as action/fantasy dramatists, they're always going to be more interested in the pest-extermination than they are in the gardening.
Previously: Love, Actually