Well, that didn’t take long. Cole, who accompanied Maggie and Elijah to Alexandria back in last season’s “Home Sweet Home,” is dead. And two episodes after meeting Maggie’s new underlings, Duncan and Agatha, they’re both killed—the former at the hands of new antagonists the Reapers (presumably), the latter via the tried-and-true method of being torn apart by walkers. Not only that, but Alden, who at this point counts as a semi-old-school character simply by dint of being around since season eight, is also likely dead, or will be soon enough. That’s a decent body count for a latter-day installment of The Walking Dead, even if it does seem pretty clear now that Duncan and Agatha were always meant to be little more than cannon fodder. Still, this is the kind of bloodletting the show used to deliver without thinking twice—and for a series about tiny bands of human survivors constantly in danger from hordes of the undead, it’s a welcome reminder that consequences shouldn’t only arrive at the ends of significant episodes, but rather at any given moment.
The attack that kicks off “Hunted” is wonderfully thrilling, in large part because it sets aside any sense of grounded, clear action in favor of a sort of nightmare-logic meant to put us inside the head of Maggie and the others. The Reaper assault comes across like nothing so much as an attack of literal boogeymen, flying out of the pitch-black night to launch themselves at our protagonists. It’s almost more magical realism than battle scene, as masks and bodies dart in and out of frame in the flash of an eye, disappearing after drawing blood like Batman vanishing into the shadows, or lassoing someone like Elijah and yanking them out of sight, leaving Maggie alone, wide-eyed and running for her life. (She also gets to pull a Batman disappearance, flinging a climbing axe at a Reaper and then vanishing in a flash when he briefly turns away from her.) We don’t even know where some of the team ended up, but separated, fearful, and under constant threat of a knife to the head is a compelling place to leave them.
And for most of the main plot with Maggie, Negan, and Alden, that sense of tension is sustained, if not exactly expanded upon or fleshed out in any meaningful way. Maggie’s solo scenes, where she’s prowling cautiously through the dark and abandoned shopping mall (that’s what it was, right?) were smartly shot and cleverly edited; again, not exactly cinéma-vérité realism—always fascinating to watch a walker magically appear right behind someone, as though their stealth mode was activated prior to that—but a nice depiction of the encroaching paranoia and sense of anxiety caused by isolating Maggie in that way. Then, while fighting off another pair of Reapers, Alden is badly wounded, and the rest of the episode is essentially the waiting game, as Negan (and Alden himself) try to impress upon their leader that Alden is likely not going to make it.
But for all her tough talk, Maggie is remarkably hesitant to let Alden go. Some of that stubbornness is probably symbolic; Alden represented the triumph of Maggie’s way of being over and above the Saviors, and his transformation into a trusted member of the team had value to her above and beyond his usefulness as another body capable of wielding a knife. Whereas Negan embodies a tether to pain, and frustration, and a past she’s trying to overcome, Alden existed in the position of hope for a better future. No wonder she lashes out at the former while bull-headedly insisting the latter will be fine. If Alden dies along with everyone else Maggie cared about in the group, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of her leadership skills, necessarily. How else can she prove (to herself) that she’s still better than Negan? Ultimately, she can’t equivocate and blame her way out of accepting Alden won’t make it back with them: “It’s your fault,” she rages to Negan, after being reminded she needs to decide what todo about Alden. “You destroyed everything we built.” Negan takes a breath, then drives home the obvious: “You still have to decide.”
Unfortunately, “Hunted” is also structured like a very typical episode, meaning there are B-plots and C-plots to which we keep cutting back, neither of which is handled terribly gracefully. Carol and company’s hunt for Alexandria’s escaped horses is one of those “pragmatic outings ruined by overly hokey scene composition” narratives, where Carol’s desperate need to log a win runs into the compassion of the other woman who join her—until they suddenly see all the horse majestically riding across the forest, and some extremely corny music swells on the soundtrack, and it’s all just a little too hokey to land effectively. Plus, Magna calling out Carol for giving Kelly false hope about Connie still being alive was jarring. We haven’t exactly seen a bunch of Carol-as-Kelly’s-mentor scenes, so making a big deal of that felt a little out of nowhere. Even if we didn’t know Connie was still very much alive (rescued by Virgil outside the now-abandoned colony of Oceanside), Carol hasn’t exactly been the picture of optimism, and the idea that she’s doing some put-on-a-happy-face act just for Kelly rings false.
While they passed by much too quickly to really register, the brief scenes with both Father Gabriel and the kids both attempted to further deepen some shifts in character. Gabriel was already sliding into a nihilistic frame of mind, so while it’s not exactly a shocker to see him deliver a knife to the head rather than a prayer for the dying Reaper, it does go some ways toward showing just how far he’s fallen from grace. “I thought you were a man of God,” the Reaper says, right before Gabriel plunges his weapon into the man’s brain. “God isn’t here anymore,” the man of the cloth replies, suggesting that cloth may be purely functional at the point. And the two brief scenes with the kids do little more than remind us that kids almost always know more than we want them to; the children of this community have a firm handle on the situation whenever someone leaves, as articulated by Judith: “They don’t want us to think they’re never coming back.”
The merits of this episode begin and end with Maggie and Negan’s arc, in other words, and while I had hoped for more of a detente between the two at this point, the degree to which Maggie’s anger inflects every one of their exchanges does feel honest. That doesn’t mean it should stick around, though—it’s going to get awfully tiresome if the pair stop to bicker between each moment of action. But here, condemning Alden to his likely death, each back and forth was earned: “People change, Maggie,” Negan reminds her, and with every rejection of his position, she digs a deeper gulf between them. She’s not wrong to do so—would you ever really forgive the person who bashed in the head of your beloved right in front of you?—but as Maggie herself would admit, they don’t have the luxury of settling old grudges any more. The Reapers aren’t just coming; they’re here.
- The Reapers sure love throwing knives from a distance, don’t they?
- The fact that the Reaper Maggie tussled with inside managed to crawl away leads me to assume we’ll be seeing a bad guy with a nasty gash on his face soon, since the broken bottle definitely left a mark.
- It was random, but the set design with the mannequins and sparsely decorated interior was very well done, set the mood nicely.
- Once again, Negan gets the best line of the episode: “Really? So we’re just gonna go toward the screaming? Cool.”
- Rosita’s having dreams about Abraham trying to warn her. Surprised Carol didn’t just stare at her and go, “It’s a dream, Rosita. Not magic from beyond the grave.”
- Horse meat tastes okay, according to young Herschel. “It’s not that bad. Not like the spiders.” Feel free to not elaborate, kid.
- I think I could do with never again seeing an oh-so-symbolic shot of someone washing blood off their hands, Walking Dead.