For the past few weeks, everything about The Walking Dead has been trending down, whether it’s the pace, the ratings, or my interest in where it’s all headed. Perhaps the completely bonkers season premiere threw things out of whack: What sort of storytelling tension could possibly compete with such an emotionally draining hour? Now that nearly everyone has bowed at Negan’s feet, who’s even the slightest bit as interesting to watch?
The fight inside of Rick has just about flickered out, so much so that Spencer almost seems like a viable leadership alternative. Carol’s still moping around and playing the loner card. Daryl is wearing sweatpants, people. Sweatpants. Not even a king with a pet tiger or a camp full of gun-toting widows really grabbed me. When Negan shows up onscreen — twirling that bat, leaning back and laughing, spouting more politically incorrect one-liners than Andrew Dice Clay — things finally get interesting again. Lucky for us, there’s a whole lotta Negan in this episode.
Think about that: This guy bashed two very likeable characters to death, talks about women like he’s on the Access Hollywood bus, has enslaved his followers, delights in mental and physical torture, mocks the handicapped, and is a fat shamer. (I’m guessing his occupation before the apocalypse was “unemployed Twitter troll.”) Somehow, this sociopath is by far the most charismatic character on the show, which makes him one of the most likable, in a perverse way. Maggie is a boss, no doubt, and Michonne appears to be getting her groove back, but my attitude toward everyone else is somewhere between “I miss the old [fill in the blank]” and “let them be zombie food.”
On the bright side, we finally get some forward motion as “Sing Me a Song” returns to the usual multiple-story-line setup. Let’s explore each one and what they might be headed for in next week’s midseason finale:
Rick and Aaron’s mysterious scavenging trip
The boys drive a U-Haul out to who-knows-where in search of supplies. Pretty ho-hum stuff, until they find the mother of all “stay the hell out of my compound” survivalist signs. For those of you who don’t speed-read or pause the show to absorb every detail, here’s the full Second Amendment–lovin’ screed:
“My name is Leslie William Starton and I am armed with a Ruger 10/22 (crack shot can hit targets 70 yds +); AR15 (Shit you not!); AK 47; grenades (try me) and several handguns and rifles of antiquity (collection enthusiast). You are not smart to have not listened to the first sign. You will not survive and my conscience will be clear because you have been warned. I will not hesitate to protect my home, my food, my supplies, my ammo. Congratulations! The only way that you have possibly read this far without being shot is that I am dead. Have at it, assholes.”
Of course this guy has three names. He’s also apparently dead, and his stash is on a houseboat in the middle of a lake that’s fully stocked with water-logged undead. Getting to all those guns won’t be easy. Something tells me Rick won’t end up handing this arsenal over to the Saviors.
Michonne’s mysterious solo tour
Still fired up about the mattress burning (and probably due for a deep-tissue massage, given all the floor-sleeping), Michonne concocts a plan. First, she takes up whistling like Negan. Next, she take out some zombies in usual spectacular fashion: one straight through the ear holes, the other a perfectly sliced severed head. Then she builds a zombie roadblock in the street and hopes that the next Savior patrol will be a lone redhead who’s easily ambushed, not a truckload of well-armed assholes. The ol’ “pump the brakes” move doesn’t work on this dreadlocked samurai, and Michonne repeats her demand: “Take me to Negan.” Out of everyone who’s trying to take out Negan on their own, Vegas is giving Michonne the best odds by a mile.
Rosita’s bullying-for-bullets plan with Eugene
These two, ugh. I feel sorry for Rosita, given she got dumped and then watched her ex get executed. I still enjoy Eugene’s soliloquies, too: “Doesn’t matter if you’re stealthy, snipey, gun or knifey — Abraham was right. They’ve got the numbers.” But how many times are we going to see Eugene get ripped for being a waste of food and water? How many times will he show signs of stepping up like when he pulled his weight during the zombie raid on Alexandria, only to fall back into his old do-nothing ways? And when did Rosita start dropping all this español, using “pendejo” for Eugene and “cabrón” for Spencer? Eugene finally makes her a damn bullet, but you know that if it ends up killing someone, it won’t be Negan.
Spencer and Gabe’s (short) road trip
For the son of a politician, Spencer does a lousy job of promoting his “Make Alexandria Great Again” campaign. (Two words, Spence: red hats.) Rosita tells him to screw himself when Spencer insists he’d do a better job as their leader than Rick. He probably thinks it’s safe to tell a priest that he might actually kill Rick, but Gabe calmly calls him “a tremendous shit” and decides he’d rather walk home alone through walker-infested woods than spend another minute with this idiot. Waaaah, my mommy was a real leader, she was in Congress! Not a great time to play that card, homeboy. I was rooting for the Cabela’s zombie in the tree stand to somehow take him out, but thanks to Spencer’s private education and some dumb luck, he ends up with a stash of supplies and a crossbow that will hopefully make it into Daryl’s hands.
Carl’s (very) ill-advised attempt to assassinate Negan
In one of the worst decisions ever made by the child of a lead character in a television series — which should be an Emmy category, and named after Kim Bauer from 24 — Cyclops Coral ignores a helping hand from Jesus and goes after Negan on his own. The result, aside from some bad acting: He takes out two Saviors and plays right into Negan’s hands. Thus begins an hour of psychological manipulation and some undeniably funny Negan lines, like this one: “You do the same damn stink eye as your dad. Except it’s only half as good because, well, you know, you’re missin’ an eye.” This one: “Every woman where you’re from dresses like they do the books at an auto shop.” And one more, when Negan makes poor Carl unwrap his empty eye hole: “I can’t do it. It’s like talking to a birthday present. You gotta take that crap off your face. I wanna see what Grandma got me!”
Negan says everything with purpose, and each time he abuses Carl — insulting him, humiliating him, needling him about his dead mom and making a one-eyed teen sing “You Are My Sunshine” to the guy who killed his friends and broke his dad — he then builds Carl up. You impress me, kid. See how they’re all bowing down? It’s called respect. This is ball-busting, something your uptight pops should have taught you how to do. Here’s a beer and ogle these babes. It seems impossible that Negan can flip Carl to the dark side, but the kid has made it clear that he thinks his dad has become a passive wussy. Plus, Carl’s young brain is still developing. Daryl is clearly concerned: Seeing Carl as Negan’s captive/protégé snaps him back into his old self, which lands him back in solitary. (But not for long, assuming the “Go Now” note was from Jesus, who apparently spent the entire episode on top of that truck. Or could it be from Sherry, or maybe Dwight, who’s finally had enough of Negan’s abuse?)
Dwight is clearly the wild card within the Saviors camp. Tough as it was to watch Negan put a hot iron to that Savior’s face — then pull it away, as his skin stuck and stretched like taffy — it probably wasn’t much easier for Dwight to see Sherry’s make-out session with Negan. (It sure looked like she enjoyed it, but it’s almost certainly an act; she gulped down some whiskey and cried afterward.) Sherry and Dwight’s exchange in the stairwell also suggests that she thinks Dwight has gone too far with his subservience to Negan. How many times can the guy watch Negan treat his wife like property or order him to heat up the same iron that was used to give him a pizza-face makeover? (Also, what “truth” is Negan suggesting when he whispers, “You know the truth, just like me” to Sherry? That deep down she likes that he’s a man of action?)
The episode ends with a scene that perfectly sums up the Negan playbook — perverse, amusing, and sickening all at once. First, he makes a weight joke about Olivia from the armory, then offers to sleep with her. When she slaps him, he gives her a hard stare before saying, with a smile, “I’m about 50 percent more into you now.” He kicks off his boots and delights in A-town’s plush carpeting. He plays with the high-end kitchen faucets. He hollers to a neighbor, “Why don’t you come by later? We might grill out!” And he finds Judith. Maybe this awful family portrait will finally snap Rick into action: The sight of Negan on his porch — next to Carl, a sippy cup, a pitcher of lemonade, and Lucille — bouncing the baby on his knee and giving her kisses.