It’s been said before, but part of the challenge a typical episode of The Walking Dead faces is that there are so many characters, divided up among so many different locations, that an episode trying to service multiple storylines can often end up feeling undercooked, like the show is just trying to push through plot rather than tell a story with maximal effectiveness. That adds to the soap opera feel of latter-day installments, and while “Promises Broken” falls victim to that sensation in two of the three narrative threads it follows, it also manages to reignite stakes in the last one—which is a welcome feeling on a series that has taught its audience all too well to beware of any emotional investment.
If you had told me at the end of “Find Me” that The Walking Dead would eventually make me care about where things stand between Daryl and Leah, I would have laughed in your face. The addition of a flashback love interest for everyone’s favorite crossbow-wielding tracker was handled so perfunctorily that, when Leah returned three episodes ago, it felt as though the pair’s wary handling of one another was of interest only to the degree that it created some uncertainty about what Daryl would do when embedded with the Reapers. But after completely kicking the proverbial can down the road regarding whether Pope learned anything revealing about Daryl from his torture session with Frost, the episode managed to create some genuine pathos between the two.
Leah finally demonstrated a willingness to push back on her obedience to Pope. Sure, she’ll stick up for her fellow troops when she thinks he’s unfairly chewing them out, but she also made sure to emphasize to Daryl just how deep her sense of obligation to the unstable sociopath runs. He’s a true father figure in her eyes, homicidal warts and all.
But then, after he orders her to kill the group of people they stumble upon, she has a change of heart. Letting the man escape with his kid directly contradicted those orders, and proved that there are limits to her loyalty: She drew the line at ruthlessly executing pitiable innocents. Hell, she couldn’t even perform the mercy killing the dying wife asked for, leaving it to Daryl to put an arrow between her eyes. When things start to go south—as they inevitably will—Daryl might have more of an ally than he initially suspected.
Eugene just can’t catch a break, can he? No good deed goes unpunished in the Commonwealth, where after spending days toiling away clearing out nearby walker infestations from future real estate as penance for the radio incident, Eugene steps in it with the community’s biggest asshole. (True, we only met him for a few minutes, but after seeing him in action, I feel comfortable sticking with this assessment.) Saving a couple of snooty residents from walkers backfires big-time when the would-be victim serves up abuse instead of gratitude, earning a well-deserved punch in the face from Eugene. (Complaining about the blood on your date’s clothes instead of tearfully thanking Stephanie for saving the woman from certain death felt a bit over the top, even for an upper-crust douchebag like that.)
Watching Eugene—and by extension, Ezekiel and Princess—end up right back where they started was disheartening, and it felt like the show was taking a cop-out in terms of narrative progression, just so they could introduce this shitty son of Milton’s. But even weirder was the whole “kidnap Miko’s brother” thing, where Hornsby makes a deal to release the guy if she agrees to return the favor at some point. It doesn’t really make sense on any logical level, but then, neither does a lot about the Commonwealth thus far. At least watching Ezekiel whacked out on painkillers was fun.
But then there’s the ongoing drama of Negan and Maggie, which has now been drawn out across the entirety of these first seven episodes, and doesn’t appear to be any closer to a resolution. What began as a tense and volatile relationship is now being reset, seemingly every episode, just so the series can milk more “will she or won’t she kill him?” pathos from it. This episode literally begins with Negan extracting a promise from her to not kill him, and then walks it right back. Don’t get me wrong, Jeffrey Dean Morgan shines delivering some solid dialogue here, when he says he would’ve done things differently in the past, knowing what he knows now. (“I’d have killed every single one of you.”) But it’s all just variations on a theme, increasingly interchangeable. It’s time to wrap it up, one way or another.
Much better was the development of a plan on the part of Maggie and the others to borrow a page from the Whisperers, and use the walkers to their advantage. The steady accrual of the undead was well shot and deftly edited, lending an air of creeping inevitability to the process, which is a feeling that usually only gets deployed against our protagonists, not in their favor. Seeing Elijah’s sister among the walkers fell flat (we’ve never even seen this person before, and we barely know Elijah—he made more sense as a masked killing machine than he does a scared and insecure guy), but at least things are moving forward.
As well they should: Next week is the midseason finale for part one of the show’s extended farewell season. (I know, it’s confusing.) There’s a lot that could happen, but somehow I doubt much will—the Reapers aren’t about to be dispatched this early, and things at the Commonwealth don’t appear to be on the verge of radically shifting, even if Eugene gives up the location of Alexandria. Hell, Alexandria itself is barely scraping by; at this point, the best thing the series could do is let it fall to pieces. Give our weary band of survivors—and by extension, the audience—a new challenge for the final stretch of episodes.
- Maggie: “This is not fun.” Negan: “Well, not with that attitude!” Jeffrey Dean Morgan is keeping this pairing watchable with MacGyver-level methods of charisma deployment at this point.
- Apparently the Reapers have their own mentally unsound preacher, as well. Gabriel may have lost his faith, but this guy picked it up and then some.
- “It’s not gonna fit perfect—it was someone else’s face.”
- Ezekiel and his lollipops were a welcome moment of levity.
- I’ll have more to say about this next week, but honestly, is it too much to ask for some coherence and clarity in the Commonwealth-set storytelling? It’s a good idea that’s been poorly executed, thus far.
- Speaking of which, that whole Miko-in-the-waiting-room sequence was a flop. I’m not sure why the show can’t seem to crack the mystery here.
- Next week’s episode has a lot of heavy lifting to do. We’ll see how much of it manages to get done.