The Walking Dead spends a lot of time arguing about the place of humanity in the post-apocalyptic world. Not the place of human beings as a species, but the place of human beings as a concept. The old rules versus the new rules, ruthless efficiency versus charity, second chances versus preventing revenge, that kind of thing. Usually these take the form we saw last week, which was basically Tara and Jesus arguing until the charity case in question tried to hold Jesus hostage to make his escape. However, this week, Greg Nicotero and company have decided that this disagreement on what to do with prisoners in a world in which everyone is trying to kill everyone else should take the form of an actual fight between two characters who know martial arts.
It’s actually refreshing to see two people who aren’t pegged as bad guys come to blows over a disagreement. The closest we’ve come are the various Rick problems in Alexandria and prior, but most of his problems in that town were caused by people who could be considered bad from an objective viewpoint: a wife-beater, a lick-spittle toady striving for power, an unrepentant racist, those sorts of folks. You know, the kind of people that aren’t going to really be considered great people no matter what else might be going on.
Rarely do you see two major characters on Rick’s side get into a legitimate physical disagreement, and yet, Jesus and Morgan have a solid fight scene after the prisoner dispute hinted at last week becomes physical. After a surprise zombie attack—a very funny sequence with zombies essentially falling down a hillside into the road—a group of Jesus’s prisoners make a break for it, with Morgan giving chase to stop them. Previously, the long-haired Savior Jared (who killed Morgan’s protege Benjamin) had taunted Morgan to the point of near-violence, only for Jesus to give said prisoner a reprieve and to argue with Morgan. Morgan chases down the escaping prisoners and shoots one before Jesus comes and saves the rest of them from summary execution for flight, leading to a Crouching Tiger fight between the two.
It’s nice to see that in a world in which everyone is a killer because they have to be, philosophical disagreements can become physical. Everyone’s constantly fighting in this world, be it Saviors or zombies, and not everyone would be mentally healthy enough to have a polite discussion about crime and punishment and criminal rehabilitation. At some point, someone’s going to kick someone in the chest, because these are people falling back on base instincts, and Morgan’s learned the hard way that not everyone can be rehabilitated, and that taking prisoners puts you at risk of having innocent people killed by those prisoners when they inevitably escape.
The same debate plays out during Rick and Daryl’s adventure skulking around the abandoned building looking for heavy weapons. Rick and Morales (remember him from the first season?) are having one of The Walking Dead‘s signature discussions—we’re all monsters and everyone we know and love is dead or soon to be dead—when Daryl shows up and ends the discussion by shooting Morales immediately, to Rick’s surprise. Daryl’s complete nonchalance about it (Norman Reedus is brilliant with that casual “Yeah, I know” when Rick asks if he knows who he just killed) is what makes the scene work. Daryl doesn’t care about someone from eight seasons ago; like Morales, Daryl knows that the guy who left for Birmingham isn’t the guy holding a gun at his friend. Even if he was, that doesn’t matter because Morales is holding Rick at gunpoint, threatening to turn him over to Negan. Rick’s in danger, and Daryl saves his life.
If you threaten Daryl’s friend, he’s going to make you die for it. No talking him out of it, no second chances. The conflict between Rick and Daryl is played out completely silently. Rick yells and looks shocked when Daryl kills Morales, and Rick looks almost disappointed when Daryl kills the Savior who tried to surrender to Rick in exchange for a car and a chance to live. It’s sold completely by Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln, and there are no words spoken about it.
It’s the most subtle element in Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell’s episode, and it’s a great counterpoint to the long discussion between Jesus and Tara in the previous episode. We get it. Rick gave his word to the guy, and Daryl shoots him because he’s one of the Saviors and could blow the whole operation by running away. Jesus thinks people can be redeemed, and Morgan might be losing his mind, but he’s right (and Tara agrees).
That debate, and the fact that both sides seem to think that Maggie will be on their side, gives a lot of weight to Gregory’s return to Hilltop. Xander Berkeley’s Gregory is probably the best new character the show has introduced in two seasons, if not longer. Maggie ultimately decides to let him back in after some hilarious begging and great interplay between Gregory and Cal, the guy who took Gregory to the Saviors compound in the first place. It’s nice to have a little intentional comedy, and Gregory is a lot of fun; the turn from begging to be let in to immediately refusing entry to the Savior prisoners is really funny, as is Maggie’s angry stare-down (Maggie’s child is going to be terrified of her, because that is an A+ mom stare).
It’s refreshing to have a Walking Dead episode where debates are shown via action, not discussed to death. There’s a little light comedy that works, some solid acting, and a couple of fun larger action sequences. The more emotional moments, particularly the death of Eric, don’t work as well, but that’s not the fault of director Greg Nicotero or of the two actors involved, Ross Marquand and Jordan Woods-Robinson. Everyone’s trying very hard, and there’s a little bit of poignancy to Aaron watching Eric’s reanimated corpse wander off into the distance, but there’s not a tonne of emotional impact because the audience hasn’t gotten to know Eric very well; he’s been a face in a crowd, someone unwilling to fight, and a guy who once had spaghetti with Daryl after breaking his ankle. He’s had no character development, and thus his final moments with Aaron don’t really matter, despite Ross Marquand knocking the scene out of the park.
It’s the equivalent to Ezekiel and his team walking into a Savior trap at the very end of the episode. Three or four people die immediately, but since we never really met them, it doesn’t really matter. Eric might have a character name, and he might get reaction shots occasionally, but that doesn’t make him developed, or mean we care that he dies (and it clears the way for Aaron and Jesus to become the show’s newest couple assuming everyone lives). He’s had less development than Tobin, and he’s never been shown to be as useful as Tobin, since most of his time on the show has been nursing a broken ankle.
And unlike Ezekiel’s ambush, there was never much suspense that Eric was going to make it out alive. Come to think of it, there wasn’t all that much suspense in Ezekiel’s ambush, either, since the more someone talks about how good things are going the more likely they are to suffer very bad things before the end of the episode. Having a plot threat leading from episode to episode has done wonders for the show’s pacing. Even if it’s obvious, it’s at least driving a specific narrative.