Why doesn’t “For Blood” work? It’s got just about everything you could want from an exciting installment of The Walking Dead—a surprise death, a sudden betrayal, Daryl shoving his giant knife through a dude’s head—and yet none of it comes together in a very satisfying way. The pacing is off, the edits often jar the action in abrupt fashion… this mostly seems to be a case of execution failing to live up to potential.
But it’s also worth wondering if the creative team thought that giant fireworks-meets-mass-stakes machine that the Reapers activated at episode’s end was going to look cooler, or at least more menacing, than it did. In this viewer, it mostly elicited guffaws; the thing appears to randomly fire wooden stakes from a 10x16-foot square, in the general direction of a large open courtyard. Could it fell a lot of walkers? Probably. Does it generally appear that our heroes could’ve just ducked out of sight, based on the framing? Very much so. Again: a problem of execution.
Just like in “Promises Broken” last week, this installment has a tripartite structure, as we bounce between the storm in Alexandria, Maggie’s crew amassing the walker herd and attacking the Reaper commune, and then the Reapers themselves, though by the end the second two have more or less synced up. Each of these narratives has promising elements, and some actually deliver on them, but it stills leaves the distinct sensation of clumsy storytelling. And just like last week’s undercooked episode, director Sharat Raju can’t seem to knit them together effectively. (He also helmed Michonne’s farewell, so maybe he’s just better at dream logic than action.)
But in the case of Alexandria, some of the blame also lies with a script that tosses a few balls in the air and then only commits to one of them. Aaron breaks everyone into three groups—fight the fire, repair the wall, and keep everyone in the house safe—and then the episode proceeds to only follow the third group. (What a coincidence that we stuck with the people confined to a single, pre-existing location.) Which, given that it’s essentially just Judith delivering pep talks to the other kids while Virgil delivers one to her, makes for pretty desultory television. Yes, walkers eventually break in, but it’s strictly by-the-numbers, as is the milquetoast “cliffhanger” of Judith and Gracie trapped downstairs.
Maggie and the others’ narrative doesn’t really come alive until they’re breaking into the compound. (Yeah, they killed the Reaper named Wells, but that was as perfunctory as it was telegraphed.) Gabriel taking out people sniper-style from his perch was effective for the same reason Maggie stealing the car and smashing the gate worked: It was executed with minimal setup and maximum payoff. In an action sequence chockablock with heavy-handed buildup for almost every other beat, they stood out.
Really, the best use of Maggie and Negan was simply as visual aids for Daryl. Seeing his friends pull a Whisperers maneuver and then break off from the group was the shot in the narrative arm his embedding within the Reapers needed; he had no choice but to break ranks and support his friends, and in so doing, the episode leapfrogged over any hemming and hawing to get to the good stuff. And good it was—rather than pulling some “I’ll take over this post” nonsense with Emo Hair Reaper, he plunges his knife into the guy’s head. Choice made.
And of the elements that worked here, none were better than the unexpected death of seeming Final Big Bad, Pope. (R.I.P.) After setting him up as the next big threat, the show dispatched him with the brutal efficiency of, well, a walker attack. Mea culpa: Just last week I said there was no way the series was offing him yet, and I’ve never been happier to eat my words. Just by executing the “God chose us” zealot, a wrench gets thrown in an otherwise predictable story, placing Leah in charge and leaving it unclear just what’s going to happen between our protagonists and the Reapers. Will the latter want revenge? Undoubtedly. But Leah’s not stupidly vengeful—there’s a host of options in play now, all more promising than what existed before.
If only it had been carried out in less stilted fashion. The framing and editing were off—we’re at people’s backs and jumping around their geographic locations on the roof—so what might’ve landed with real force instead just hit with the impact of a brisk shrug. A welcome one, to be sure, in terms of plotting, but not emotionally resonant. For that, we go to Leah’s heel turn: One good betrayal deserves another, and giving Daryl up to her people felt both earned and potent. “You’d do anything to protect your family,” she reminds him. “So would I.” Her ambivalence wasn’t about being a Reaper, it was about Pope. Daryl didn’t really get that, until now.
That would’ve actually been a much better stopping point/cliffhanger than the whole “let’s explode a bunch of sticks in the general direction of Maggie and Negan, who are standing stock-still for no good reason other than to lazily try and generate tension.” I get that this is one of three “midseason finales” we’ll have during this last season (thanks to it being broken into Parts 1 and 2), but goosing anxiety so clumsily reeks of desperation. “They’re retreating!” Negan exults. “But why?” Maggie answers. They may as well have said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” looked straight to camera, and gulped.
So we end this arc of episodes much as it began—Alexandria in rough shape, Maggie and company desperate to bring back food, and very little having changed in between, save for a few deaths that didn’t really matter to us, and the long-delayed return of Connie in the best installment of the season. With Pope dead, though, the show has something going for it—a little more unpredictability. Surprise us, Walking Dead.
- Wells’ death really seemed to jar something loose in Leah. “What was he, bait?!” That may have been the moment Daryl realized he could gamble on her wanting Pope gone.
- I didn’t mention Rosita’s brief “hero” moment—running out of the house to kill a bunch of walkers—but like much of the episode, it was filmed in such stiff and uninspired manner that it didn’t feel very exciting.
- Pope: “Why do I keep you around?” Daryl: “You said God chose me.” For his last appearance, at least Richie Coster got to have a few well-written exchanges with Norman Reedus.
- Am I the only one confused as to why, in the middle of a hurricane, walkers would not only stay upright, but surround the house and attack? Wouldn’t all the wind, noise, and movement be a bit more distracting? (Yes. Yes, it would.)
- I did enjoy the landmines.
- “It’s hard to watch someone you care about change.” You don’t say, soon-to-be-betraying-Daryl Leah.
- Thanks for watching and reading along, all. Sorry this wasn’t a better installment on which to hit pause, but I’ll hopefully see you all back here next year. (We’re all sticking around come hell or high-walker water at this point, right? You don’t get eight episodes into the final season of a decade-plus of TV and then say, “Nah, I don’t need to see how this all ends.”)