In the grand tradition of TV war stories – from Ken Burns' The Civil War to M*A*S*H – this week's The Walking Dead takes a break from zombie attacks and automatic gunfire so that our fighting men and women can have mail call. The episode – titled, role-call style, "The King, the Widow and Rick" – opens with an exchange of correspondence between the Alexandrian coalition's main camps, who fill each other in on how the campaign is going. The sequence is schticky, but effective. If nothing else, Rick's dispatches clarify (perhaps a few episodes too late) the strategic details of his Sanctuary siege, which is apparently meant to cut off the enemy's supply lines. Perhaps more importantly, the reaction to his words suggest that the sheriff may not have the full faith of his deputies. The next letter he gets from Maggie or Daryl could be a "Dear John."
After two previous installments with blessed with narrowcasting focus – and, not coincidentally, more powerful drama – this latest chapter pulls back to a wider angle again. The hour jumps between nearly every one of the show's major characters, along with a few minor ones who've been almost forgotten lately. Some of these threads are strong, tightening the narrative pull as Season Eight's first half nears its close. And some are so weak that they snap almost immediately.
What's really working well right now with this season is anything to do with Rick's battle-plans, and how they're both subtly and openly sowing dissension within his ranks. We saw this come up last week, when he and Daryl were literally at each other's throats, divided over whether they should slaughter the guilty and innocent alike in the Sanctuary. This week, the hand-wringing over whether to be ruthless or humane hovers heavily over the Hilltop community, where Maggie has to determine if Rick would want her to detain or execute Savior prisoners (thank you, Jesus) and if she ultimately cares what he wants.
Frankly, there are no easy answers here – which is why those Hilltop scenes this week are so gripping. Food's not so plentiful that Maggie and her people can casually distribute turnips to folks who tried to kill them just a day or two ago. And given the fanatical savagery of these people, constructing a cage for them to live in inside the colony is like the Trojans building the Greeks' horse for them.
Lauren Cohan gives one of her best performances in a good long while, as the new leader wrestles with her choices. ("Every option's on the table," she tells Jesus, in an eerie echo of our current presidential administration's rhetoric about global hotspots.) Ultimately, she opts to keep the prisoners alive as potential bargaining chips, with the understanding that if they cause trouble, she'll give the order to have them killed ASAP. She also throws Gregory into the prison, in a moment of our vindictiveness that may come back to haunt her, given that he's an irredeemable weasel.
The decision ends up driving the grieving, Savior-hating Aaron away, joined by Enid, who seems to hop aboard his potential plot-line because she hasn't had anything else to do lately. There's actually a lot of that sort of strange-bedfellow-ing going on this week: The similarly sidelined Michonne and Rosita hit the road, stumbling across – and helping thwart – some Neganites planning to use zombie-attracting amplifiers and rocket-launchers to free their people. They're saved by a garbage-truck-driving Daryl and Tara, who've gone rogue because they're sick of following orders as well.
The oddest potential pairing of the week, however, would have to be Rick and Jadis. Remember the inscrutable leader of the weird-talking free-agent Scavengers? She and her dump-dwelling crew get visited out of the blue by Mr. Grimes, who insists that he's willing to forgive their betrayal in last season's finale, and work with them against Negan again. "Threats and dreams, dreams and threats," they say (in a typically WTF? fashion), before they throw him into a shipping container.
Was this a catastrophic blunder by Rick? Or is he playing a long game that requires him to be imprisoned? The episode leaves that matter open (while strongly suggesting the answer is the latter). But this choice does raise another question, which speaks to what's not working right now on The Walking Dead …
Simply put: How the fuck are these people still alive?
That's not meant to be cheeky. The show itself dwells on what it takes to survive, often interminably, and with no apparent endpoint in mind. For example, in one of the go-nowhere subplots in this episode, Carol tries to get King Ezekiel to snap out of his funk by appealing to his concern for his subjects' well-being, saying, "If you can't be the king, play the part." But he's not ready, so our heroine's musings about how to make it in this world are mostly just a waste of time.
Similarly, Carl (remember Carl?) ventures out on his own to meet Siddiq, the mysterious loner he found in the season premiere, in what amounts to ... a whole lot of nothing. While the exploring the woods, the kid gets a spiritual lesson, all about finding a deeper purpose in this harsh new reality. Unfortunately, Siddiq's mission in life requires "freeing" the souls of every walker he finds, which means he and his new teen sidekick put themselves into an unnecessary near-death situation, to prove … something.
Okay, maybe "unnecessary" is too strong a word. If nothing else, these scenes give Carl some screen-time, and introduce another stray character from the comic books into the TV Deadverse. Undoubtedly, the writers have a larger goal in mind here. It's just that for now, like Rick, they're keeping it sealed away, waiting for the right time to deliver the message.
Previously: Father Figures