Can we go back in time and make The Walking Dead all about Maggie? Nothing against Rick – well, nothing much, anyway – but aside from the many times that he's been too wracked with self-doubt to function, his story arc from the beginning to now has basically seen him go from "man in charge" to "man in charge." It hasn't exactly been a winding road for our good Sheriff Grimes. Really, given how much this show obsesses over what it means to be a leader, its most relevant character has been this headstrong farm girl, who grew up to command the respect and fealty of an entire colony – while pregnant, no less.
There are a couple ways to take this week's Maggie-centric episode, titled "Do Not Send Us Astray." On the positive side, this Season Eight entry mostly reaffirms that "the widow" is the most level-headed and farsighted of all the big bosses we've seen in this series so far. Not that she doesn't endure her share of devastating failure over the course of this hour. and it's hard not to be a little concerned that she's headed toward the same emotional journey that so many otherwise awesome characters have been through: the realization that kicking ass has consequences. So they just stop doing it. For a little while, anyway.
To call this "a dark episode" isn't just a value judgment. It's literally dark. Though the action takes place over the course of about 24 hours, that frame includes two nighttimes, with so much mayhem at either end that it's sometimes difficult to make out exactly what's happening, beyond, "Gee, a lot of folks are getting killed?"
The dual waves of slaughter follow from Simon's Negan-defying mission to exterminate everyone at the Hilltop. The Saviors charge up the mountain. Maggie's ready for them. She opens the gates (to keep them from getting knocked down), then has big armored vehicles roll in to keep the enemy blockaded and pinned. After extensive exchanges of gunfire and arrows, hostilities cease by daylight, as both sides attend to their wounded and dead.
The next night, the second phase of the Saviors' plan kicks in. All the zombie-blood-soaked ammo that the bad guys used infects the Hilltoppers who got scratched in the initial melee. And once these casualties "turn," they feast. The death toll rises quickly.
"Do Not Send Us Astray" keeps the subplots to a minimum. Morgan has a couple of scenes where he's haunted by the ghost of Gavin, delivering cryptic comments like, "You were supposed to" and "You know what it is." Siddiq struggles to fit in at his new home, where he gets chastised for some asinine reason for being a trained medical student who wants to be of assistance. And Daryl and Tara have an argument about where or not Dwight deserves to live, with the latter arguing – quite rightly – that either one of them could've also been a Savior had they met Negan first instead of Rick.
The most prominent non-Maggie player this week is Carol, who sees two relationships come back to bite her (just metaphorically, thank goodness). She reunites with her Alexandrian boyfriend Tobin, whose love once scared her so much that she fled to the Kingdom. They have a few moments of closure, before the wounds he suffers during Simon's attack change him into a flesh-eating monster.
And then there's "young Henry" (as Ezekiel always calls him), who's determined to ignore Carol's orders and assassinate the Savior who killed his brother. Just before the dead start rising, he brings a gun into the makeshift prison in the courtyard ... ends up letting everyone escape (aside from the few who decide to stick around and join Maggie's cause).
This episode's dominated by two visual motifs: the growing number of graves in the Hilltop's cemetery; and Maggie's face, which remains unchangingly grim no matter whether her people are congratulating her for her strategic brilliance or she's contemplating her losses. Her steady expression may a good sign that she's going to keep plugging away as the community's patient, pragmatic protector, rather than breaking down as so many have before her. Because we see so many examples of the alternative kinds of leadership: the kind practiced by Morgan, Carol and Ezekiel, each of whom has stepped away from the fight in the past; Rick's selfish, group-sabotaging mission of revenge against Negan; and Gregory's spineless me-firstism, a man who'll claim allegiance to anyone who has a gun pointed at him. And then there's Simon, who tells his comrades-turned-P.O.W.'s that they're on their own because, "This organization prizes those who don't get captured."
In short: The Walking Dead needs more Maggies. And while this particular battle in the Savior War is something of stalemate – if not an outright defeat for the good guys – Our Madonna of the Hilltop does replace a lot of the bodies she buries with new recruits, drawn from the ranks of the soldiers she captured. Her way, in the long run, is the best way.
Your move, writers' room.
Previously: Face Off