Photo: AMC

Every so often, The Walking Dead can still surprise you. Father Gabriel is one of those surprises. Introduced back in the fifth season as a deeply broken man, Gabriel has gone from terrified and despairing to despairing and terrified to sort of hopeful to terrified again, and so on. While Seth Gilliam is a strong actor, the role didn’t seem to offer much at first but cringing, and by the time the writers positioned him as a thorn in Rick’s side, it looked to be clear he was heading for a messy death. People who disagree with Rick don’t tend to last long unless they have an army behind them.

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But then Gabriel pulled himself together, and he and Rick made friends, and the situation started to change. Giving the character a clear sense of purpose helped; making sure he was also dependable and, when given the opportunity, legitimately heroic helped as well. This is, as we’ve talked about before, a show in which competence is king, and the ultimate measure of anyone’s value is how good they are at surviving. A Gabriel torn to shreds by his own weaknesses isn’t particularly compelling, especially not over multiple episodes. A Gabriel who manages to use that faith in a positive way is a lot easier to watch.

It was a bummer, then, to see him punished for being decent to Gregory at the end of the season premiere, and a bit of a relief to have him returned relatively unharmed (if not exactly unscathed) in “The Big Scary U.” Not everything in the episode is about Father Gabriel and Negan killing time in that trailer, but their scenes together are fairly strong—nothing exactly revelatory, but competent and well-shot, and written with just enough of a point to make them more than filler.

Filler has been a major problem this season, with plenty of subplots dangling in the ether with no real reason to exist. “The Big Scary U” isn’t entirely free of this, but at least every storyline feels like it’s building toward something more interesting than just repeating the same themes the show has wallowed in since its inception. (There’s nothing wrong with going back to the well, as last week’s entry showed, but it doesn’t work at random.) The pacing is slack, and the season’s insistence on looping back to the events of the premiere from a different perspective is more tiresome than illuminating. But there are good ideas here, and even at its worst, the episode never becomes a complete waste of time.

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The biggest misstep is the inclusion of the Rick and Daryl scenes. Their confrontation is probably important to to the season overall, and it pays off the growing distance between Daryl’s and Rick’s approaches to the war, but it also undercuts the tension of focusing on events at the Savior compound, events that work best when they feel the most claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Structurally, it would’ve been smarter to just stay consistent and stick with showing how the other half was handling the war. While it’s important to know that Rick is heading back to the garbage people for the final step in his plans, that’s not all that great a cliffhanger, and could’ve easily worked as the start of a different hour.

Another big problem? All the damn jumping around in time. There’s no real reason we didn’t see events unfold in order apart from a misguided desire to pretend everything’s more interesting than it actually is, and at this point, starting a scene with Gregory at the Saviors’ compound before Rick and the others arrived in the premiere is a major drag. The timelines get caught up quickly, which is a relief, but it still starts the episode off in a hole. The season is suffering from a lack of momentum, and choices like this don’t help.

To the good, while Gregory himself is pretty superfluous to all this, we do get friction between Simon and Negan, which later creates some interesting dynamics when the head Saviors think Negan is dead. Development of the Saviors as anything more than omnipresent bad guys or walking targets has been spotty, so it’s good to see them squabbling among themselves and dealing with problems in the workforce. The way they turn on each other helps to reinforce how critical Negan is to making everything hold together, and the conflict is grounded in reality in a way that makes it legitimately interesting, if not exactly nail-biting.

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The closest we get to actual suspense might be Eugene’s impressively fast discovery that Dwight is the spy. It makes sense on a character level that Eugene would be the one to put the pieces together, especially considering how, as he himself acknowledges, his relatively recent turn to the dark side makes him suspect numero uno when it comes to turncoats. Combine that with the fact that Dwight is the only guy willing to stand up for him when things get awkward in the conference room and Eugene is once against stuck in a hell of his own making. The hour ends with him talking to Gabriel and learning that Gabriel is both sick and determined to bring Maggie’s doctor back to the hilltop. It remains to be seen what he’ll do with any of this information.

As to how Gabriel ends up in a cell, he ends up… well, “bonding” is probably a stretch, but he and Negan both make it out of the trailer alive and unscathed, working together to make it back to the main building through the walker herd. Early in the episode, after praying for purpose, Gabriel decides it’s his job to hear Negan’s confession. This is a very writerly idea but it has a certain charm to it, and Negan’s monologue about what happened with his first wife—whom he loved but cheated on and wasn’t able to take care of when she died and turned into a zombie—isn’t a bad little scene.

Given the “shitting pants” line, I didn’t have high hopes for Negan and Gabriel’s semi-bottle episode, but the whole thing works simply but well, giving Jeffrey Dean Morgan a chance to drop the character’s laughing sadist shtick for something a bit more human. Whether or not it’s a good idea to humanize Negan is a trickier question, since there were times in “The Big Scary U” when the character seemed reasonable to an extent that isn’t so much ambiguous as it was downright destabilizing. It all comes back to Rick being such an aching void of a centerpiece; when the dude who beats people to death with bats starts sounding like he might have a point, you’ve lost the thread. Yet regardless of the larger implications, it’s still good to see Negan as more than just the symbol he’s built himself up to be. It makes for a flawed but intermittently engaging entry.

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Stray observations

  • “The big scary U” is Gregory’s term for “the unknown.”
  • The abuser/victim conversations between Simon and Gregory are so clearly plotted out that I found myself feeling bad for the latter again, despite him being a basically worthless human being.
  • Gregory: “I don’t like killing people any more than you.” Negan: “I like killing people.”
  • Negan’s big plan is to kill Rick, Maggie, and Ezekiel in “the wrongest way possible.” So I guess he’s gonna hug them a lot or something.
  • I still enjoy Eugene’s convoluted speech patterns. There, I said it.

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