At this point in The Walking Dead’s run, it’s hard not to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day whenever we’re greeted with something we haven’t seen before. (Specifically: “Anything different is good.”) Any respite from the conflicts and struggles we’ve seen a dozen times before comes across like a welcome tonic, even if it sometimes sputters into failure. I’ll take an ambitious, inventive misfire over a safe and routine episode anytime, although the former have become increasingly rare, even when the show was granted six additional “bonus” episodes to play around in whatever manner it chose. But when we get something different, and it’s done well? That’s even less common. Add in the fact that this new, well-executed thing is actually scary, to boot? That, my friends, is called The Walking Dead trifecta, and it’s about damn time we got another one of those.
Not everything about “On The Inside” worked, but when it works, it really works. Obviously, your mileage may vary based upon how much you enjoy certain tropes of horror, but to this critic’s eyes, Connie and Virgil’s time inside the house from hell was marvelously executed, indulging in the conventions of a horror movie without ever feeling like they were cheaply deployed. We’ve had episodes in recent seasons that managed to deliver some scares, most notably during season 10's midseason premiere, “Squeeze,” but this might be the first time that I can recall the show out-and-out putting characters through the paces of a something-behind-the-walls fright fest, and it was a lot of fun.
While the lion’s share of credit should go to episode director Greg Nicotero—a man who knows his horror movies, where framing and editing are everything—the script from Kevin Deiboldt does a very effective job setting up all the surprises. Connie, we learn, hasn’t slept in days, refusing to take Virgil’s advice and get some rest. It’s because she’s suffering from PTSD: Every time the exhausted woman closes her eyes, or even just rests against a window for a moment, she starts having flashbacks of horrific images from the past. As a result, when they take refuge inside an old house to escape the barrage of walkers outside, we’re expecting the symptoms of severe fatigue to be plaguing her. So when Connie starts exploring the building by herself, and catches a glimpse of some thing behind the walls, we’re unsure if it’s really there, or whether—as Virgil suspects—she’s hallucinating.
The other smart move the episode makes is to give the audience a taste of being in the aural perspective of Connie before things go to hell. The loss of sound forces the senses to focus on the visual framing, so that when the sound drops out again, there’s a potent feeling of “oh, shit” created, as we wait for the other shoe to drop. (It also makes for a solid jump scare when the creepy wall-dweller finally strikes, the sound erupting into the mix once more.) It works even better when she sees the wall-dweller creeping up behind Virgil, and is helpless to act as she watches through the hole in the wall while he’s attacked, before finally managing to distract the being long enough for Virgil to plunge his knife into its side. The climactic reveal that there’s actually three of them—human in name only, more like feral animals than people—is just icing on the icky cake, a chance to up both the gore and catharsis quotient when Connie slathers herself in viscera and opens the front door to let the walkers rip the creeps apart.
Plus, the episode gets bonus points for actually connecting the thematic dots between its A and B storylines this time. Just as Connie and Virgil are trapped inthe house, Daryl is stuck on the inside, as well, though in a very different way—one that’s far more dangerous in the long run, for both him and the rest of our protagonists. Having been forcibly inducted into the company of the Reapers, he’s now stuck playing along for the time being, proving his loyalty to Pope while trying not to sell out his friends too badly. Unfortunately, that means having to torture Frost at Pope’s bidding, cutting off his finger as part of an interrogation to make Maggie’s associate reveal the location of the safe house. Frost was already in pretty bad shape the last time we saw him; having joined the undead by episode’s end was probably a mercy.
It’s also smart the way the show is keeping Leah’s cards close to the vest, emotionally speaking. Daryl’s speech to her and Carver about how he doesn’t really like any of the group, and how Pope scares the shit out of him—“but if you say trust him, I’ll trust him”—contains enough truth to sell it, while still allowing him to hold back the fact that he’s doing everything he can to keep Maggie and the others safe. While the show shouldn’t force Daryl to stick around with the bad guys for too long this season (it would be a strange choice indeed to separate him from all the relationships we’re invested in for the majority of the series’ final episodes), for now it’s nimbly generating plausible frisson from the situation, and keeping it from getting bogged down in “what will that madman Pope do next?” nonsense.
It was smart to keep the C-plot (Kelly racing off to find Connie, while Carol, Rosita, and Magna go after her) to a minimum, because it was the weakest material by far, and a classic case of “what a coincidence!” resolution to the episode. It was incredibly dumb of Kelly to race off alone like that, but perfectly in keeping with her character, who has never been the sharpest tool in the shed. It didn’t make it any more entertaining to watch, so much as a by-the-numbers case of another Walking Dead reunion. I’m glad that dangling narrative thread has been tied up, and even happier that it gave us an episode as satisfying and distinctive as “On The Inside.” It ended with a nice cliffhanger (what did Pope learn from Frost, and is Daryl fucked?), but all that was secondary to the stand-alone horror movie starring Connie. If you’ve got more monsters behind the walls, Walking Dead, let’s see ’em.
- Daryl using honesty to hide his intentions is paying off well, even if it is a bit of a retread of the Negan-joins-the-Whisperers story from last season.
- Also nice that he still can’t help being Daryl. Leah: “Stop pissing off Carver.”
- The moment that Connie went down into the basement and stepped on some human bones was the moment I went, “Okay, we’re really doing this thing! Great.”
- They’ll have Virgil survive those nasty stab wounds, won’t they? They looked like fatal injuries at the time, but since he was still breathing by episode’s end, I’m guessing he’ll bounce back.
- So they keep watch 24/7 at Alexandria but no one noticed Kelly run away with a horse? Come on, now.
- Really, not too many additional notes for this one. Just a solid, self-contained bit of creepiness that really makes this installment stand out.