Even in a zombie apocalypse, location is everything. The past six years of The Walking Dead have been like the most intense, endless House Hunters episode ever, as Rick Grimes and his band of survivors tour the ravaged American southeast, looking for a place with a roomy backyard – and preferably, neighbors who won’t try to kill them and take all their stuff. They’ve journeyed from abandoned prisons to gated suburbs, and at every stop the facilities have been a little bit nicer, the future a little brighter. And now, in this week’s installment – titled “The Well” – Morgan and Carol visit a community called the Kingdom that may just be the show’s sunniest, most promising locale yet.
After last week’s pitch-dark, blood-soaked murder-hour, show-runner Scott M. Gimple promised that the next episode would be “funny.” But that’s not really the first word that comes to mind this week. Absorbing? For sure. Hopeful? Unusually so. But it’s not like this series has suddenly become a comedy. Not unless nervous laughter counts.
Still, there’s an amusing disconnect between the desperately skeptical Carol and the Kingdom’s residents, who spend their days singing songs, tending orchards, eating cobbler, and paying fealty to a man who calls himself King Ezekiel – a benevolent monarch with a pet tiger named Shiva. Carol’s first reaction to her strange new surroundings is to play-act as the Happy Housewife again, calling her hosts “amazing” and gushing to them about their delicious breakfast pastries. (“It’s flavor on top of flavor!”) But privately, she grumbles to Morgan that, “This place is a damn circus.” Later, when Ezekiel calls her out on her charade, she shakes her head dismissively and calls his whole operation a “joke.”
This episode is credited to writer Matthew Negrete and director Greg Nicotero, core members of the show’s creative team; they both understand that TWD is often at its best when it’s in building-up mode instead of tearing-down. They also know that after the bleakest turn this series has ever taken, fans are in need of a reason to press on. So we get this highly entertaining chapter, introducing one of the comics’ most popular characters in King Ezekiel (played in properly commanding fashion by Khary Payton). We get to relax for a bit, in a place so chilled-out that the locals have time to work up a cappella arrangements of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
What makes “The Well” so welcome right now is that Ezekiel is the first survivor we’ve met in a while who’s strong and savvy without being deeply psychologically damaged. Yes, he talks like a refugee from the community theater – which, he eventually admits to Carol, he actually was in his former life. But the man is not batshit crazy. A former zookeeper (which explains the tiger), Ezekiel has a different vision of leadership than Negan, the Governor, or even Rick. He inspires loyalty through a combination of kindness, pragmatism, and benign eccentricity. Even as the self-appointed regent kills walkers, he promises them that everything has its purpose. “We live on in your place,” he bellows. “Full, festive, faithful, and free.”
One way we know that the Kingdom is viable is that they’ve already encountered the Saviors, and are still thriving regardless. Much of the actual action in this episode involves Morgan joining his new friends on a Savior-mandated mission to round up wild hogs and deliver them to Negan’s crew (after surreptitiously fattening the animals up on zombie-meat). Ezekiel and his inner circle honor the terms of their treaty mostly in secret, to spare their people from the harsh reality that keeps them safe.
Will this “fairy tale” be a dangerous mistake, long-term? That’s the big question raised this week. We’ve seen this scenario before: an apparent utopia, way too good to be true, undone by a combination of arrogance, madness, and unpreparedness. And there are indications already that some of Ezekiel’s men would rather fight the Saviors than pay them off. What’s often so frustrating about this show is that Gimple and creator Robert Kirkman refuse to let any good thing last for the sake of keeping the story going; instead, they ultimately depict constructive, compassionate characters as fundamentally weak. After what we’ve seen recently, there’s every reason to suspect that this latest plot-line will eventually wind down that same path.
For now though, let’s just enjoy exploring all the amenities of this brave new world, with its porch-front schools, special movie nights, and bizarre affection for pomegranates. In nearly every way, this was an enjoyable episode – even for the gore-hounds, who got to see an opening zombie attack with some of the wickedest kills this show has ever attempted. (Somebody give a raise to the make-up artists who crafted the effect of a ghoul’s entire face peeling off.)
And for those who want to believe that maybe this new corner of The Walking Dead universe isn’t doomed, well, look to Carol. The saga’s most hard-bitten, cynical character refuses to stay inside the Kingdom, but she does accept Ezekiel and Mogan’s offer to take up residence in a house nearby – so that she can avoid validating this kooky land of make-believe, but can also stay alive long enough to heal some of her psychic scars. At the start of tonight’s episode, Carol finds herself hallucinating images of the living turning into the undead, and vice-versa. That’s meant to be a sign of her malfunctioning survival instinct. But it could also mean that she – like this series – is ready to start recognizing humanity again.
Previously: The Big Bash
Find out everything you need to know about Negan, ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 7 villain. Watch here.