It feels like the expression “that didn’t take long” has already become a recurring theme on this season of The Walking Dead, and we’re only five episodes in. In some ways, that’s a blessing: For a show that has historically had a problem with dragging its feet (oh, the irony), this final season is again moving at a nice clip, something that’s been a hallmark of the years with Angela Kang as showrunner. But that can also result in uneven unspooling of the plot, with some episodes glacially paced, and others a bit overstuffed. “Out Of The Ashes” is the latter, with multiple locations, narratives, and character developments all spilling out in rapid succession, to mixed results. Most of all, we get the first real look at the Commonwealth, and within minutes, all of our people have been arrested and threatened with expulsion. As I said: That didn’t take long.
There’s a problem of plausibility here: There’s never any real effort to make the Commonwealth seem like a genuinely good place, so when Eugene, Princess, and Ezekiel are all placed in custody for the crime of secretly communicating with Alexandria, it just feels like confirmation of what we already knew. Take that “Welcome to the Commonwealth video that kicks off the episode: By any rational standard, this isn’t something people who have lived through the past 40 years would make. It’s a satire of a welcome video, sending up outdated tropes in a way that overtly signals to the viewer not to take this seriously. So why should we?
If the series had committed to genuinely trying to sell the audience on the notion that the Commonwealth might be a true force for good, and an actual haven of peace and democracy, there could’ve been some genuine tension generated when our people show up and immediately start fucking with it. Instead, we never have cause to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this time they’ve found an outpost of humanity more noble than they are. Think about when Rick first brought everyone to Alexandria. The show worked overtime to suggest that Alexandria might be better than Rick—and when his paranoia spun him out, it made for a frisson of excitement and unpredictability. Here, thanks to the goofy intro video and stormtrooper security, we already know it’s just a matter of time until the place shows its true colors, no matter what Yumiko’s long-lost Tommy might say.
But at least the Commonwealth is an intriguing new world to explore. In contrast, Carol leads her gang on a trip to search the ruins of Hilltop for any remaining supplies. (It’s absolutely confounding that they would have waited until now to make the first trip back there since it burned, but whatever.) The best part of this—aside from finally getting Cassady McClincy’s Lydia some screen time again—is the brief character study of what it would mean to be an ex-Whisperer. Of course they would still wear the masks sometimes; missing the sense of stability and community Alpha brought, even if it was also shitty as hell, makes sense. A look into the minds of these usually silent background characters was a fine reminder that it takes all kinds, and that most of us are creatures of habit, even when those habits were borne of unpleasantness.
And the psychology certainly made more sense than some of the decisions here. Lydia’s outrage is well-founded, but Carol’s compassion just came across as naive, once Aaron allowed the ex-Whisperer, Keith, to be bitten by a walker. There’s nothing wrong with the overall structure of the conflict—Carol is trying to learn empathy again, and Aaron’s anger and fear were justified—but some acts can’t just be shrugged off. Keith had to cut off his own hand, and that’s on Aaron. So to leave him with a weapon and a group of people who are probably pretty pissed off at them, now? That’s not compassion; that’s foolhardy. “Thank you, kind people, for forcing me to cut off my own hand,” doesn’t really ring true as a farewell. (I did enjoy Aaron scorning Keith’s former Whisperer religion, about how the walkers are better off than the remaining humans. After Keith gets bit, Aaron leans in: “Do you feel better off?”)
How long does the show plan to draw out the endless will-they-or-won’t-they fight between Negan and Maggie. The tension makes sense—Maggie’s never going to forgive Negan, and understandably so—but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch them hash out the same conflict, episode after episode. Here, the safe house serves as a pressure cooker, as they’re forced to sit tight, until almost coming to blows (and likely worse, had Gabriel not popped his head in the door just in time). It’s anyone’s guess how they can bring these two to some sort of detente, but it needs to happen, or else all their scenes are going to spin on like this, cycling through the same argument. At least neither party is clearly in the wrong.
I’ve given Judith Grimes a lot of shit over the past couple of seasons, and deservedly so: Trying to introduce her as some tough-talking and hyper-capable young gunslinger was comically dumb, and the more she was marginalized from the narrative, the better. But tonight, she’s finally given a successful subplot, as a group of asshole kids get under her skin about Michonne. “No wonder your mom abandoned you,” the head asshole says, and despite her knife-wielding reply, Judith emotionally crumbles like any kid would. We’ve seen the “I’m worried I’ll forget about the people who are gone” speech before, but with Judith and Rosita, it felt earned. It may not be the most exciting use of our time, but at least it was pitched to the right wavelength, character-wise, for Judith.
Still, the Commonwealth remains the most interesting thing going, and now that Lance Hornsby (hi, Josh Hamilton!) is personally involved in the situation, hopefully we’ll get a peek behind the curtain at how the power players in this society operate. Tommy has delivered the homily about how great it is, and we’ve gotten plenty of evidence that democracy is a slow-moving bureaucracy, even after the apocalypse. Now, it’s time to move past the ice cream trucks and howdy-neighbor walks down Main Street, like it’s date night in the 1950s. A lot happened in this episode, but there wasn’t a strong unifying thread or narrative thematic. Things just… happened, like a mid-week episode of a soap opera. It’s all significant to the plot (well, most of it was), but it doesn’t make for a strong episode in and of itself. Bring on the real situation inside this seemingly docile community.
- Jerry’s perspective was a good way in to the walker attack that started the episode. No one wants to see the undead stumbling toward them, but especially not in the bathroom.
- I would happily watch another hour of Princess trying to flirt with Mercer.
- Which, it was a nice touch to see Juanita get her $2 bill back.
- At last, our heroes learn that Connie is still alive. The dangling plot thread been waiting to be pulled for some time now.
- One of the best things about the Commonwealth is all the new locations. Any time we get a chance to be somewhere other than the woods or Alexandria, I’ll take it. The former train station in particular was fantastic.
- Hopefully this mean Lydia starts getting some dialogue again. McClincy is one of the strongest presences on this show, so to see her sidelined for so long was a bummer.
- Negan yelling “Shit!” as Maggie throws a knife straight past him was fun.