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After one of the most violent hours in television history, The Walking Dead pumps the brakes this week, shifting the story from what's left of Rick's posse to Carol and Morgan.
Last time we saw them, Morgan had broken his no-kill code to save Carol from her sadistic Savior stalker. They also ran into two body-armored fellows who offered to help Carol, seeing as she was in rough shape. Unfortunately, AMC's promos for this season gave away what awaited them at their next destination — King Ezekiel, ruler of the Kingdom, and his pet tiger Shiva. Much like Carol, I spent the first 40 minutes of this episode thinking, "You're shitting me, right?" But a heart-to-heart in the garden saved what otherwise might have been the show's jump-the-shark moment. Zeke's perpetually chipper bodyguard Jerry helped, too.
"The Well" opens with Carol seeing visions and a brief but memorable rumble with some walkers — including the Zombie Kill of the Night, as a chop from one of the horseback-riding Kingdomites flips a zombie's face clean off its skull. (It's probably harder to find new ways to kill these fleshbags than it is to actually plot the story lines. Same goes for the fact that every group we meet still calls the monsters something different. At the Kingdom, they're known implausibly as "wasted." If order is ever restored in this world, the first rule of business should be to establish a universal nomenclature. Even in the apocalypse, consistency matters, people!) Carol wakes from a long nap to find herself in what she later calls "a damn circus" — crops are grown, class is in session under a gazebo, movie nights are held, clothes are washed and folded, cobblers are consumed, everyone's quick with a smile and a wave. This, of course, ain't Carol's scene.
It's fitting that King Ezekiel's greeting room is a stage, since Carol and Zeke turn out to be the greatest actors still alive. For a second, it seemed Carol should be in a concussion protocol, given her humble, aw-shucks reaction to a guy in dreadlocks talking like he's working the day shift at Medieval Times and his roaring pet tiger. But that's just the Meryl Streep of the apocalypse playing her role of syrupy-sweet matriarch as both a defense mechanism and a weapon.
Nevertheless, Carol's "let me go and die" attitude has been exhausting. I'm about ready for Morgan and everyone else to let her march off to a life of exile, even if you can't help feeling her skepticism about the Kingdom and its leader. After the tiger roars, Zeke quiets her down: "Shiva, enough. The fair maiden has been through a myriad of trials. They are our guests." A few beats later, he proclaims, "Your words leave me pitch-kettled." Oh, boy. Dude is gonna talk like this all the time? Zeke is the most entertaining actor from your local Renaissance faire — except he stays in character when off-duty, getting all method like a low-rent Daniel Day Lewis and annoying the living hell out of everyone.
Thankfully, we have Zeke's jolly right-hand axe man. Jerry is the yin to the king's Olde English yang. He tells Shiva to chill, throws deuces, and loves a good pun. When Zeke explains the Kingdom's guiding principle, "Drink from the well, replenish the well," Fake-Ass Carol responds, "It's all about the well!" Jerry doesn't miss a beat: "Well said." Love this guy!
A few key subplots develop to distract us momentarily from Zeke's LARPing. We meet two key members of the Kingdom: Richard, who looks like a poor man's Gerard Butler and stands out as a leader; and Ben, a likable young guy with a tragic backstory (though at this point, aren't they all?) whom Morgan agrees to mentor. Unlike the Cheesemaker teaching him aikido, Morgan finds a more eager pupil in Ben. Though he admits he's rethinking his hard-line pacifism; perhaps it's okay to pull the trigger when it's necessary.
Then there's those pigs: Zeke takes Morgan and the king's court on a hog-hunting expedition, and he's puzzled as to why they dine on zombies. Is there a dark secret at the heart of the Kingdom? After dispatching a few walkers, Zeke goes full community theater: "May we one day cease you all from this curse! Until then, know that we live on in your place. Full, festive, faithful, and free!" Richard looks unimpressed, adding, "Only halfway free."
We soon learn one of Zeke's secrets: The Kingdom is under control of the Saviors, who demand a weekly delivery of foodstuffs or else someone gets whacked. (When Ben tells Morgan that his father died in a zombie attack, and how Zeke is "more careful now," it sounds like the real story involves the Saviors.) Richard mixes it up with a particularly slimy Savior, who gets a few cheap shots off and flips him the double-bird. (Put that guy on the list of scumbuckets like Dwight who hopefully meet a gruesome end. Tiger food, perhaps?) Like the drive-thru guy at McDonald's spitting in your Big Mac, they're fattening up those pigs with zombie meat as a big eff-you to the Saviors. Since everyone carries the virus that turns folks into zombies upon death, there's probably no serious risk of eating that "tainted meat." (R.I.P., Bob Stookey.) But let's hope Daryl passes on the pork if he's offered some in captivity.
Two episodes in, the puzzle pieces are already lining up: Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Kingdom need to join forces and wipe out the Saviors. But getting there won't be easy, considering how low Alexandria's morale has fallen. Aside from Maggie, it might be a while before Rick and the gang find the will to fight again.
The episode peaks as Carol tries to escape the Kingdom, only to get busted by Zeke and Jerry in the garden (which is appropriate, given the Garden of Eden metaphor and Carol's refusal to try the fruit). "Never bullshit a bullshitter," Zeke says, before finally dropping his own act and opening up. He says he was a zookeeper who saved Shiva from a broken leg, and ever since, they've been best buds. (Aww.) As expected, Zeke also reveals his community-theater background. (Good line: "I played a few kings: Arthur, Macbeth, Martin Luther.") His current role as royalty is intended to give his people hope, someone larger than life to believe in. Still perplexed and unimpressed, Carol asks Zeke why he's trying so hard to help her. His answer: "Because it makes me feel good."
None of that's enough for the world's biggest sourpuss, who gets an escort out of town from Morgan and sets up in a quaint little cottage all by herself. Who's that knockin' on Carol's door? It's Shiva and Zeke, who's still talking like a zookeeper and is determined to get Carol to taste his delicious fruit. (Metaphor alert!) Did you catch that tiny smile on Carol's face at the end? Perhaps the old Hollywood cliché of two actors falling in love on set is about to play out between the last thespians on Earth.
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