Photo: AMC

It looks like the Negan conflict is going to dominate at least the first half of The Walking Dead’s eighth season, for better or worse. So far, at least, it’s for worse, and “Monsters” fails to buck the trend. Again we see people shooting at each other; again we indulge in the same muddied philosophical arguments; and again, people die. Multiple people, actually, and for once, we actually lose some familiar faces. Or at least, we lose faces that are supposed to be familiar.

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The best twist in the episode is when, after endless scenes of Morales and Rick pretending like we’re supposed to care about their history together (does anyone? If so, I envy you, because you probably enjoyed this more than I did), Daryl just comes up behind them and shots Morales in the head. No fuss, no muss, no equivocation; that guy who we haven’t seen since the first season who was brought back for… some reason, is now a corpse, like so many before him.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say Morales’s return is an attempt by the writers to give Rick yet another moral conflict over What He’s Become. This is suggested by another Daryl murder near the end of the hour. While the two men are finally leaving the compound, a hidden Savior starts sniping at them, Rick makes a deal with the guy—they’ll give him a vehicle and let him go if he talks—and they find out that the guns were moved a day or two ago, presumably without Dwight’s knowledge. (Meaning that the intel Dwight sent them wasn’t a lie, just out of date.) Then Daryl shoots him.

Rick is clearly shocked, and it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be at least a little bothered by Daryl’s actions as well. In this particular scene, that works; Rick had given the guy his word, had stressed how important it is to keep your word, and Daryl just went and broke it without even checking in. But I suspect we were also supposed to be equally horrified when Daryl killed Morales, and, uh, not so much. (I laughed.) The character was so immediately tedious that having him dead with no ceremony whatsoever was the first time in a long time that the show felt like it was actually self-aware. I doubt that’s the case, but at least, for a few seconds, I was happy.

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The rest of “Monsters,” not so much. More speechifying from the King, more violence, and more arguing with Jesus about the morality of killing captured Saviors. This time Jesus ends up debating with Morgan, who’s having some sort of mental break because the writers don’t know what else to do with his character (the in-show reason is, I think, that he was driven into a murderous rage by the Saviors, which makes some character sense, in that it indicates Morgan is a man of extremes who either never kills anyone or who starts killing everyone, but still doesn’t have much juice in it). That debate turns into a fight that is more or less pointless, unless you want to pretend it’s a callback to the fist fight in They Live. In the end, Morgan once again leaves the group.

Negan is still absent in “Monsters,” which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because we don’t have to listen to any more of his sub-Garbage Pail Kids rhetoric, and a curse because Negan, even as broken as he is now, is the only element of the show that really carries any tension anymore. Without him, the Saviors are just a bunch of greasy, grim-faced assholes, and while I appreciate the show’s trying to say that it’s maybe not great to kill all of them, I honestly don’t care if they live or die. This isn’t war so much as extermination, and that gets old very quickly.

There are a few moments that work as intended. I’ll confess to never liking Eric much, but Aaron seeing his dead boyfriend wandering off into the woods is legitimately heartbreaking, a brief reminder of when the zombies on this show were scary and sad instead of just one more environmental hazard. While Gregory should very much be dead at this point, watching him try to talk his way back into Hilltop before immediately turning around and insisting that the captured Saviors not be allowed inside was cringe-inducing in a not entirely bad way. Pathetic weasels at least allow for something unexpected to happen occasionally.

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And hey, someone opens fire on the King and his group, puncturing his success bubble, so maybe that’ll be something to worry about next week. But man, this was another slog. The Walking Dead has been hateful and dumb and borderline nihilistic in the past, but it’s been years since it was so consistently, agonizingly dull.

Stray observations

  • “Well, I guess we’re not the same guys we used to be, huh. ’Cause you’re a monster.” Shut up, Morales.
  • “And we’ll get you to Negan. Or we won’t.” Shut up, Mor—oh, you’re dead, nevermind.
  • Jesus’ determination to save the captives is just so tiresome. Congratulations, show. You’ve made me bored by people who want to save lives.
  • Rick tells Morales that Lori, Shane, Andrea, and Glenn are dead. Doesn’t mention Dale or Carole’s daughter, but I guess they wanted to keep this one in under the running time.
  • “You mean when you ate a little girl’s pancakes.” “I did not eat those pancakes!” Another reason I still sort of like Gregory: He’s one of the few people on the show who gets to occasionally be actually, intentionally funny.

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