There’s a lot to unpack in any given Walking Dead episode, but let’s never forget that this show is, on a very primal level, about killing zombies. Creator Robert Kirkman was inspired by George Romero’s Dead movies, which tell complex tales of desperate human survival, and also feature some of the wickedest, goriest moments in motion picture history. So it goes with TWD. The TV series has lately been exploring incredibly dark themes, regarding the ruthless exercise of power and the fate of societies which lose touch with their values. And while all that’s going on, the special effects team has been working overtime to ensure that the horror scenes are as effectively disgusting as ever. They hit a new high early in the latest episode – “Swear” – when Tara and Heath are digging through a pile of dirt on a barricaded bridge and discover that the heap is filled with buried walkers, planted to kill intruders. It’s so wonderfully, terribly sick, and a big reason why we tune in each week: to see something fearsome … and awesome.
The “bridge of death” turns out to be one of the many ways that outsiders are prevented from finding their way to the Oceanside Cabin Motor Court, which becomes the latest in Season Seven’s seemingly limitless supply of new communities for our heroes to visit. The Oceansiders also use a system of bells and air-horns to warn whenever a trespasser is approaching. Then they exterminate all visitors, living or dead. No questions asked. No exceptions.
As of this week, AMC has aired six of this season’s first eight episodes, and with the exception of the bleak, bloody roadside purgatory of the premiere, each chapter has taken us somewhere different. We’ve made our first trip to the Kingdom, and to the primary Saviors compound known as “the Sanctuary.” We’ve visited a spartan, post-Negan Alexandria, and a newly demoralized Hilltop. And now here’s Oceanside, which for the most part is a wholly original addition to the television version of The Walking Dead, populated by characters who aren’t in the comics.
“Swear” is credited to screenwriter David Leslie Johnson, a Frank Darabont protégé who hasn’t had his name on a script since his former boss was forced off the series in Season Two. It was directed by Michael E. Satrazemis, a TWD regular responsible for helming key installments like the devastating episode “The Grove” and the Hilltop-introducing “Knots Untie.” These past credits don’t really clarify whether their episode will end up being an important piece of the show’s larger whole, or if it’s just a wheel-spinning one-off, shot mostly in a remote location with a cast of guest stars.
But this hour-plus is plenty entertaining, whether or not it “matters.” If nothing else, it catches up with two characters we haven’t seen since early March, when the Alexandria crew mistakenly wiped out a Saviors satellite camp instead of Negan’s home. Unaware of the blunder, Heath and Tara have been out scavenging for food, weapons, and medicine for weeks, finding only “eight rusty cans of okra and a bottle of aspirin.” They’re blissfully unaware that her lover Denise has been killed, and that their friends back home have been living in terror and squalor.
Tara has never been as well-utilized by the show as she is this week. After she gets knocked off that zombie-infested bridge, she washes up on the shore of an all-female civilization: a sort of Planet of the Gals. She avoids getting killed thanks to the intervention of Cindy, the kind-hearted, restless adult granddaughter of Oceanside’s leader Netanya. Tara turns on the charm, lying about her past as a fisherwoman – which gets exposed as a fib when she says she worked on a “larder” – and cracking jokes to convince her hosts that she’s a good person. (When asked the last time she ate, she quips, “Do soy sauce packets count as food?”) The problem is that Netanya doesn’t want her or anyone else to leave, lest they spill the OCMC’s secrets. It’s up to Cindy to argue that there might be some benefit sending their guest back, to open up trade with the Alexandrians.
Inevitably, “Swear” ends with Tara briefly believing she’s being allowed to go home, before realizing that she’s been taken out into the woods to be executed. She escapes the Oceanside assassins, who during the chase admit that they already knew all about the Saviors, i.e. the ones that slaughtered their community’s men. Netanya led an exodus from Virginia’s badlands, guiding her people to somewhere much harder to reach, with waters full of food.
After Tara hears this story, she initiates a typical navel-gazing Walking Dead conversation about good and evil and living in the world. That’s a bit anticlimactic, granted. Broken down to its essence, this episode doesn’t deliver much that constitutes “progress” for the larger saga. Tara and Heath go far away, they get separated, and she finds a mini-utopia that she can’t talk about (and that we may never see again … or at least not for a while). Then she comes back to a much sadder, lonelier Alexandria.
But the bare-bones description doesn’t convey the pleasure of watching the wryly funny, sweet-natured character out on her own little odyssey – from hell to heaven and back again. And the plot alone doesn’t capture the scope of what Season Seven’s been doing so far. The writers have been expanding the world of this drama week by week, and in the process have been bringing back a lot of the sense of discovery, adventure, and danger that represent the show at its most purely enjoyable. The more people and places The Walking Dead adds, the more possibilities open up – even they’re ultimately just chances to find more nifty-looking rotting corpses, ripe for the splattering.
Previously: Queens of the Hill