Josh Jackson and Jim Vorel review each week’s episode of The Walking Dead in a series of letters
It’s not often that you get an hour of TV as singlemindedly focused on action as tonight’s Walking Dead, “The Damned.” I dare you to go back, in fact, and attempt to count the actual number of human beings who get shot with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition. Remember when ammo shortages were a practical concern on The Walking Dead? When this was the kind of show that would dedicate a subplot to the study of bullet manufacture? Because the showrunners sure as hell don’t seem to remember any of that … although they DO apparently remember tertiary characters who last appeared in a few episodes in freaking 2010.
It’s just getting harder to watch The Walking Dead, Josh. The letters Shane wrote in Paste’s reviews of season 7 had a tendency to restate this point, but it’s true. On any given week, it’s a show still capable of occasionally giving us very fun (if not intellectually stimulating) TV, but then it hands us weeks like this one, where even the action has become frustratingly obtuse. Rarely if ever has the direction and cinematography of this series been the focus of a bone I need to pick with it, but that was certainly true of “The Damned.” I’ve rarely been so confused simply trying to follow the director’s visual language in a Walking Dead action scene.
It certainly doesn’t help that we were trying to simultaneously follow four similar subplots, but even the nuts and bolts of the shootout scenes have been a muddled mess so far this season. Half the time, when characters are shot, it’s not even immediately obvious which group they’re from. Characters show familiarity with each other—like that long-haired Savior and Morgan, near the episode’s conclusion—and I legitimately have no idea if I’m seeing something of significance or not. He looked vaguely like Owen, the long-haired leader of The Wolves from season 6, but that guy is dead. I’m at a loss.
In fact, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just verify what each of the four groups we saw tonight is up to:
Carol and Ezekiel: They pick up exactly where they left off at the end of last week’s episode, face-down in the dirt after a bomb has disoriented them during an attack on a Savior outpost. They spend the episode tracking down the only Savior to have escaped from that outpost to make sure he doesn’t warn yet another outpost (how many of these freaking things are there?), but fail to do so before he can radio a warning ahead. Throughout the episode, we focus on Ezekiel’s perceived responsibility to put on a brave face for his men, although his men would have to be pretty stupid in order to miss what he’s doing. Still, I got a kick out of him telling Carol to “fake it till you make it, babyyy!”
Morgan, Jesus and Tara: This group is storming another Savior outpost—judging from the big satellite dishes, it may be the exact same outpost they earlier stormed in season 6’s “No Tomorrow Yet.” This is how cyclical The Walking Dead has become; we’re watching members of the Grimes Gang storm the same random outposts that they’ve already done in the past—while bringing none of the same fighters who would know the layout of the building, by the way. Questions of morality get broached, such as whether they can take prisoners or not, which apparently wasn’t discussed by anyone in advance. Tara apparently wants to revel in bloodshed, killing every person present regardless of their actions, while Jesus had been given the unenviable position of “voice of reason.” Why does he simply knock out and tie up the Savior who moments earlier tried to trick and kill Tara and himself? According to Walking Dead logic, there’s now a 100% chance that particular Savior will be reappearing later in the season to kill someone Jesus cares about, Saving Private Ryan-style.
Rick and Daryl: Meanwhile, Rick and Daryl have apparently decided to go on a commando raid as a twosome, despite the fact that they’re two of the most important people to their entire coalition and cannot be risking themselves in what amounts to a black ops operation. They’re raiding yet another Saviors outpost in search of weapons, which they apparently DESPERATELY NEED to attain in order to prevent the Saviors from clearing the zombie horde surrounding The Sanctuary from the outside. Rick, tactical genius that he is, suggests that despite having only one guy for backup, they should split up, and he’s immediately embroiled in a savage hand-to-hand fight with a random Savior. Of course at no point in this confrontation do we feel the least bit of apprehension as an audience member, given that this is Rick Grimes, fighting an unknown character. There are no stakes here. In the fight’s aftermath, we get the one moment of pathos in the entire episode when Rick finds what is apparently the man’s infant daughter in a cradle. What was Rick planning to do with that baby, Josh? Any action other than bringing her along with him might as well be a death sentence. That’d be a hell of a thing for a cable TV protagonist to have on his resume.
Aaron and Co: Finally, a group of mostly Alexandrians that includes Aaron, Eric and Tobin stages YET ANOTHER firefight on YET ANOTHER Savior outpost. I have nothing more to say about this segment, other than the fact that it literally lasts the entire hour while being one of the more hapharzardly edited sequences to ever appear on The Walking Dead. It’s never clear who is supposed to have the upper hand—the Alexandrians catch the Saviors by surprise and seem to have better positions, and the battle appears to be over once some of the Saviors start reanimating as zombies … but then it just continues on, as if the former didn’t just happen. And don’t give me any of that “It’s a choppy editing style chosen to represent the disorientation of real-life combat” rationalizing. I don’t think I’m asking a lot when I say that it should be MUCH clearer to the audience what the heck is going on in these sequences.
Some questions for you, Josh:
- Just how many Saviors, total, am I supposed to believe there to be? At this point, Rick’s groups have slaughtered not dozens but HUNDREDS of these people, both before and after meeting Negan. I feel like the show is asking me to still consider the combined forces of Alexandria, The Hilltop and The Kingdom to be “badly outnumbered,” but how is that even possible?
- Corollary to last point: At what point do the soldiers of The Saviors look at their kill-to-loss ratio, see that it’s standing somewhere around 50 to 1, and decide that this little war ISN’T GOING SO WELL? Seriously, why are you still taking orders from Negan when you’re facing a coalition that has already killed hundreds of your guys? Surely there would be some folks among the Saviors ready to take down Negan from within and broker a peace treaty.
- Do you agree that the guy Jesus failed to kill will surely come back and teach him the same hard lesson that we’ve seen taught to so many other Walking Dead characters over the years?
- Did you even remember who “Morales” was, even after the screenwriters spoon-fed us his identity out of Rick’s mouth? What’s the point of bringing back a small-time character from seven years ago, and what role will he play now?
- If you can pick any OTHER random, small-time character to suddenly reappear into the story for no good reason, who would it be? I’ll pick the Atlanta gangbangers who are running the apocalypse’s best senior citizen home.
There was a time in Season Two when people started complaining, not without merit, that the pacing of The Walking Dead had gotten too slow. But I’d take another 45 minutes on Herschel’s farm over tonight’s endless gun battle. Honestly, until reading your summary, I had no idea who was supposed to be where. These are all different outposts? Why would Rick and Daryl go alone to an outpost? I thought maybe they’d snuck inside while the firefight raged outside between Aaron’s group and the badass lieutenant who got her face bit off by a reanimated ally.
And then there was Ezekial and Carol very slowly chasing one of Negan’s men through the woods. When they finally catch up just in time to watch Shiva pounce on him. But the message coming back through his walkie talkie made it seem like he just got the warning out in time, when he likely would have communicated with his base as soon as he left the explosion.
The moment Rick walked into the nursery was a powerful one, humanizing this fight against the Saviors better than Jesus and Tara’s argument or Morgan’s sudden desire to kill them all. (Apparently there are only two speeds for Morgan—irrational pacifist or murderous psychopath.)
Beyond that scene, though, the biggest emotion I felt was confusion. At one point it looked like Jesus, Tara and Morgan were all going to bust through doors and fire shots at the same time. But Morgan and his companions waited until later, which I guess is why they got shot.
And then there was Morales. Last we saw him was Season One, when he decided to split off from Rick’s group and go find family in Birmingham instead of following the sheriff to the CDC. Rick gave him a gun and a walkie talkie, two things that Morales is now using against Rick, as he alerts the rest of the Saviors to Rick’s presence. Atlanta was a long time ago, indeed.
There are a handful of characters who’ve either presumably died offscreen or are still alive. The most likely reunion at this point would be Heath, whose glasses we’ve seen smashed but whose dreads we’ve not seen since things were looking particularly bad for him on that bridge.
We learned in a Rick/Morgan flashback that Rick’s plan is to hit the Saviors before they can hit back, and I assume this is all part of the same offensive as last week’s attack on The Sanctuary. One can only assume that even with those killed or captured this week, the armies are roughly the same size at this point, or maybe that Negan’s is still bigger. Does that mean we’re in for a season of big punch/counter-punch noisy battles like this? Or with soldiers taken prison do we think there are going to be some tense negotiations like we saw with the Governor?
Finally, please help me figure out why Morales calling the Saviors at this point is going to be helpful. Aren’t they in the midst of their own zombie horde crisis or has that already passed? What exactly is happening, Jim? Is this just going to be a half-season of chaos? As the war with the Saviors heats up, The Walking Dead needs to remember that gunfights can be as boring as peaceful moments on a Georgia farm.
I have no idea who Morales is supposed to be calling on his walkie talkie when he says “The Saviors are coming back here.” They’re certainly not coming from The Sanctuary, which is surrounded by walkers—and if you listen to Rick and Daryl’s dialog, their part of this mission is focused around trying to KEEP the Sanctuary surrounded by walkers while the other teams do their things. They’re also presumably not coming from any of the other outposts that are under attack by the Grimes Coalition (this may be my new term for the wider Grimes Gang that encompasses Alexandria, The Hilltop and The Kingdom). Which leaves one presumed option: They’re coming from ANOTHER FREAKIN’ OUTPOST, because The Saviors have approximately 700 of these things, all clustered into 15 minute drives from one another.
It’s funny, Josh—I had the exact same recollection of the Season 2 fan reaction while watching “The Damned.” At the time, some of the viewers were getting antsy about the story sort of spinning its wheels at Hershel’s farm, with episodes filled with similar-sounding conversations that all amounted to “Can you believe this crazy world we’re in?” But episodes like “The Damned” are a different kind of wheel-spinning. If you walked in halfway through this episode as someone who didn’t know the show, you’d probably think that important events were unfolding, and you’d be thinking that because you’d be giving the screenwriters the benefit of the doubt. Instead, what we were really watching was battle after battle, gunfight after gunfight, without any stakes or context. The show hasn’t seen fit to actually clue us into the grander ambitions of Rick’s war plans, instead hoping that by keeping them nebulous our interest will be heightened. I would argue that the opposite has instead occurred—we don’t know what anyone is trying to achieve, besides “Well, they’re attacking another place that has some Saviors in it.” I can only assume that we’ll eventually be privy as the audience to some of the actual strategy sessions, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that once this happens, and it comes down to Rick vs. Negan, we’ll look back on all of these outpost firefights and think that they seemed completely inconsequential.
As you suggested, at this point I’m honestly looking forward to a reset of the board and some more negotiations, perhaps for those hostages taken by Jesus’ crew—although that would probably require Rick escaping and rejoining the group first, because he’s far too important and dangerous to be part of a prisoner swap. And I have no doubt that Negan and The Saviors still have a boatload of tricks up their sleeve. Hell, I’m half expecting him to bring out a Death Star equivalent of a superweapon on any given week, before giving a long, pontificating speech about how said weapon is going to make everyone shit their pants. That does seem to be the guy’s MO, after all.
Two episodes in, I’m still not really able to decide how long the writers and showrunners are intending to let the war run—either to the mid-season finale, or the season 8 finale. When in doubt, I’m going long. I think that in the minds of the writers, Rick vs. Negan is what “everyone” wants to see, and they’re going to milk it for absolutely as long as they can, despite the fact that the season 8 opener had the lowest TV ratings of any season opener since Season 3. It’s only because the show had been built into such a huge ratings juggernaut that they can look at the sizable drops and say “Well, that’s still pretty good, right?”
In the end, I’m feeling more than ever that The Walking Dead is long since past the point where it’s ever going to have what you and Shane called “great TV” moments, or be taken seriously as an Important Prestige Series. That’s what makes it all the more laughable when they still attempt very brief flashes of “artisticness,” as in the opening and closing montages of “The Damned.” As the faces of Grimes Gang members appeared in the dust, one by one, all I could think about was the absurdity of implying that all these characters have earned equal stature. No offense to the actors portraying the likes of Tara and Aaron, but their tier is nowhere near the likes of Rick or Daryl, and it never really will be. Eight seasons in, what The Walking Dead needs to be focusing on is its simpler pleasures, and what that requires is concise, clear storytelling. That was nowhere to be found tonight.
Random, final question: If at the end of the season Negan surrenders and puts his arms up in the air, will Jesus advocate for him to be spared, because “that’s not what we do?” And will Rick listen to him?
It feels like The Walking Dead is a little bit of a victim of its own success at this point. I can only think the production team was going for a mix of big battles bookended by some kind of artfulness, and the whole thing came out a hazy, boring mess. There’s really not much else I can say about the episode. Early on, when the show explored questions like how much do you put yourself at risk to open yourself up to strangers and how do you fight for survival and keep your humanity, it was intriguing. But after seven seasons, these questions have been wrung dry for meaning, and when Jesus and Tara fight over whether to take prisoners in the middle of an ongoing battle or Morgan has his fourth major swing between Gandhi and Attila the Hun, I lose patience.
Jesus is like the 10th character to play the role of Chief Morality Officer. At some point, the group needs to find a reasonable happy place. Don’t want to shoot a guy with his hands up? Knock him unconscious and either tie him up or move on. But know what you’re going to do before you storm an outpost and don’t make us all watch the same argument the show has been having for years. To its credit, the show actually found a new way to present that very same moral quandary this episode when Rick walked found the baby after killing its father. That was simple, powerful and unexpected. And it was buried in an otherwise crappy episode of television with attempts at “artisticness” as you so perfectly put it that were more distracting than interesting.
We can only assume that the theme of this season will be “So Much Killing” that maybe it will resolve with some grand gesture of dramatic non-killing like you suggest. Hopefully they’ll throw in some actual storytelling to make us care about these characters again.
You can find Josh and Jim on Twitter.