Has any show ever made grief as tedious as it is on The Walking Dead? Late in tonight’s episode (called “The King, The Widow, And Rick,” presumably because “Some Other Shit Happens” was too on the nose), Aaron shares a moment with Maggie, mourning their lost loves. It makes sense to acknowledge the impact death has on the living, but by now, these scenes are less like honest expressions of human suffering and more like form letters the writers can plug in to make sure every episode reaches the full running time. Characters are so routinely poleaxed by sorrow that it no longer works to see someone choking back tears and muttering, “Does it ever get any easier?” Just because it makes sense doesn’t mean we need to be there when it happens.
Contrast that with the scene in which Carol confronts Ezekiel—a scene which is just as predictable (oh look, another optimist crushed by the weight of the horrible world) but actually has some juice in it. Partly that’s because Carol and Ezekiel are just better characters than Aaron and Maggie, and partly because the writers find a slightly new way to attack the premise. Yes, Ezekiel is in despair because lots of people died, and he feels responsible, and Carol insists that he gets back to leading. (Funny how much more convincing this is when Rick isn’t involved.) But when Carol asks why Ezekiel kept visiting her, it leads to an exchange that’s specific to both of them, and not just the usual vague platitudes about need and loss. Hearing Ezekiel tell Carol that she made him “feel real” is legitimately moving, and both actors handle the moment well.
Which isn’t to say this is a good episode. “The King, The Widow, And Rick” finds the show back to its regular bullshit, cramming together a bunch of dragging storylines as we kill time before the next big catastrophe. Rick makes his pitch to the Garbage People, and they give him a hard pass (the end of the hour finds him locked up naked in a trailer, which is probably not good); Michonne and Rosita decide to go to the Sanctuary for… reasons; Tara and Daryl decide to take matters into their own hands; Carl goes out to find the guy his dad chased away; and at the Hilltop, Maggie has to make a decision about her Savior prisoners and Gregory.
That last story thread at least builds off of what’s come before it, though the morality of the series is so muddled at this point that it’s hard to know what exactly to take from the situation. Ambiguity isn’t inherently bad, but trying to reconcile the coldness of Maggie’s decision-making process with previous events leaves a bad taste in the mouth. One of the show’s standard tricks is to put characters in situations where their old moral assumptions are no longer relevant, and it seems very much to be what’s happening here. Jesus wants to let the captives live because shooting a bunch of unarmed people because they make life more complicated isn’t a great way to build a society; Maggie lets them live, but only because there’s a chance they’ll be useful in a prisoner exchange.
And it’s hard to argue with Maggie, even though, as a human being, I think she’s wrong (at least, I think her promise that she’ll kill the Saviors if they aren’t useful is wrong). In context, the lesson she and Rick and the other survivors have learned again and again is that you can’t trust an enemy; optimism and the “weakness” of mercy will, statistically speaking, get people you actually care about killed. That’s the context the show has created for itself, and while there may end up being nuance in this situation (at least one of the Savior guys doesn’t seem like a complete asshole), it’s unsettling how thoroughly history has boxed everyone in. Slaughtering captives is what the bad guys do, but it often seems like the arc of The Walking Dead is the slow, painful process of people who try to be good learning they’re safer and more effective as monsters.
But that’s an argument for a Negan-centric episode, so put it aside for now. At least the stuff on the Hilltop has a certain queasy tension to it. Maggie’s decision to throw Gregory in with the Saviors is darkly hilarious, though again, there’s that weird feeling of “You should be uncomfortable about this <wink wink>”, acknowledging both that the widow is making some hard calls, and also that, given what we know about Gregory, her decision is tough to argue against. The show works hard to present scenarios in which conventional decency is insufficient to the problem at hand, and while that trick has gotten significantly less interesting (it just feels like a way to excuse shitty behavior), it still has at least a little juice in it.
That’s not really the case with Michonne and Rosita going on a road trip. While it’s great to see both characters again (is this the first we’ve seen of Rosita this season? Kind of feels like it is), the amorphous need to act that motivates them doesn’t make for compelling drama. It’s fine, but none of this feels essential or anything more than just an excuse to trot out people we haven’t seen in awhile. The fact that it dovetails in the end with Daryl and Tara, bringing all four to the Sanctuary for Daryl’s big play (which will almost certainly backfire spectacularly) helps some, but this is mostly just a shoulder shrug.
Really, that’s the biggest problem with the episode. There are a few important moments, but too much of it is just the usual melange of characters wandering around like dispirited gas molecules. Carl finally tracks down Siddiq, the stranger Rick scared off earlier, and it’s a relief to find out that Siddiq isn’t a bad guy, but the sequence is undercut by Carl being, well, Carl. His decision to stay and help Siddiq kill more zombies (he does it for his parents, which is actually a neat character idea) nearly gets them both killed.
And then there’s Rick, who starts the hour with yet another speech (this one delivered by letter and voice-over), which… look, his speeches are terrible. Let’s just leave it at that. We’re still waiting for the other shoe of his Garbage People plan to drop, as they refuse his offer of cooperation (“He talks too much”) with a speed that kind of undermines Rick’s image as a great strategist. I’m sure he has something else up his sleeve, but given that they could’ve just shot him in the head as soon as he arrived—well, that won’t happen because Rick’s the hero, but that’s not information Rick should have.
Anyway. At one point, we see a zombie stuck on a spear trap struggling to reach a plastic bag. The metaphor is surprisingly on point.
- The idea of passing letters around through established drop points is pretty clever, though I would’ve assumed it would be just as easy to send messengers around.
- “Well, Jesus, I’m no angel.” I changed my mind. Kill them all.
- Reminder that Jerry is great.
- The Garbage People wear aprons and nothing else when they make art. They’re so clearly designed to be odd and intriguing, but in a way that’s obviously artificial and thus more annoying than fun. (“King” Ezekiel sometimes falls into a similar trap, but the actor is great and the character is so inherently likable that it’s easy to cut him a lot more slack.)
- Also, Rick saw a helicopter. That’s a pretty big deal which has no immediate impact on the episode.