Sometimes, The Walking Dead focuses on building episodes around flashy setpieces. Last week’s journey to Washington D.C., to scavenge equipment from the abandoned (but naturally zombie-filled) Smithsonian Institute was one such instance—the kind of expensive location shooting that you expect from one of TV’s biggest shows, even if it’s one whose ratings are in serious decline.
Other times, though, the show takes a step back, and simply breathes deep for a moment as it loads up material for the future. These episodes have a tendency to be what you might refer to as “filler.” But although “The Bridge” shares many of these traits, you can’t quite accuse it of not serving a purpose. Although considerably less eventful than last week’s season premiere, it might actually be a better hour of TV, thanks to some of its progression in characterization.
The main action and plot points take place at the titular bridge, which is being constructed by a shared workgroup of all communities to shorten the distance between The Hilltop and The Sanctuary, the home of the former Saviors. Tensions repeatedly flair, thanks to the combination of Daryl’s short fuse and the general douchebaggy nature of former Savior Justin (Zach McGowan), who first harasses young Henry and then commits a considerably more serious offense that leads to a walker herd ambushing the camp’s workers. The primary casualty? The arm of poor Aaron, which has to be amputated by a very nervous-looking Enid, who has apparently been studying medicine under Siddiq. Good thing that Carl saved that guy, eh?
Aaron, it must be said, truly has suffered a lot in this series, and his suffering is sort of unique in the sense that none of it has really been his own fault. He’s watched the love of his life killed, lost numerous friends along the way, and now lost his own arm. Poor Ross Marquand will be acting with his arm in a harness behind his back for however much longer he’s on this series, which truly cannot be comfortable, can it?
Much of the true action of “The Bridge,” however, is everything happening in the margins. There are some fascinating tidbits here that are delivered in methods more obtuse than usual for The Walking Dead. To name a few:
— Maggie has apparently remained in contact with Georgie the Knowledge Peddler via letters, and Jesus even mentions that Maggie was invited to “join them,” whatever that means. Does that mean The Hilltop was invited to join another community, or just Maggie? It seems like Rick must be aware of this, given that he has the book of engineering manuals given to Maggie by Georgie. Have the other communities also met her?
— Aaron discusses his fathering of the baby whose savior father Rick killed last season. Does no one else in The Sanctuary find that a little odd? That kid might have living relatives, one town over.
— There are some very obvious allusions to the comic villains known as “The Whisperers,” and it has become clear that something out there is stalking small groups and taking them when they’re vulnerable. In particular, they seem to be targeting groups of former Saviors (this group could really use a new official name), given that the residents of The Sanctuary aren’t allowed to have guns by Rick’s order. Clearly, The Whisperers are going to be coming into play during the coming weeks, but will they be one-season villains, or a multi-season threat?
— There are some surprisingly touching character moments; particularly the conversation between Maggie and her hapless, would-be assassin, the blacksmith Earl. “Ruminations upon a previous life as an alcoholic” is the kind of stuff that typified earlier Walking Dead seasons, but we haven’t really heard that kind of thing for a while, and its a refreshingly human exchange. Of particular interest is what Maggie says later, referring to her own father’s former drinking problem—intriguing, given that it’s been well-publicized that the recently deceased Scott Wilson will make one final appearance as Hershel during season 9. Obviously, this will be happening in some kind of vision or flashback, but one wonders if perhaps Maggie will get to show her father his young baby namesake.
I do, however, have one bone to pick with “The Bridge,” and with the entirety of season 9 so far, and it revolves around crazy old Jadis. In this episode, we witness a budding romance between the former leader of the Trash People and the avowedly Episcopalian Father Gabriel, but can we acknowledge for one moment that season 8 actually happened? And if season 8 happened, can we acknowledge that not only does Jadis know the identity of the helicopter people, but that she summoned them to her location at one point in season 8, a fact that is known by Rick and Negan?
It only logically would follow that Jadis would obviously have been made to explain the nature of those helicopters to Rick by this point, and he would have disseminated this information to all the other characters of importance. Therefore, we can only logically conclude that just about everyone but us, the audience, should understand what is going on with the repeatedly sighted helicopters in the sky, but no one ever discusses it or lets us in on the joke.
Alfred Hitchcock once defined the idea of “suspense” on film as the audience knowing something important that the characters don’t. Say, for instance, that a lit stick of dynamite is placed under the table where two characters are having a conversation. If the audience is aware of the existence of the burning dynamite, but the characters aren’t, that scene has suspense as a result.
By that merit, is it safe to say that The Walking Dead is now exploring the opposite—the avant-garde concept of “reverse suspense,” where Jadis and Co. all know what the hell is going on with these helicopters, but the audience has no idea? Might I suggest that these things tend to work better the other way round? Take it from Hitchcock, Walking Dead screenwriters.
All in all, “The Bridge” is a connector episode, but it’s better than many of the similar episodes that The Walking Dead has given us in the past. It’s saved by its quiet moments, from Maggie and Earl’s conversation to Carol planting a kiss on Henry’s head and ruffling his hair. Sure, the characterization of a character like Earl will probably be thrown away and forgotten within an episode or two, but hey—it was nice while it lasted, right?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter.