Jeffrey Dean Morgan described last week’s season premiere as “balls to the wall,” and this episode maintains that very Negan-esque level of intensity, even with no sign of the man himself. While the Big Bad is stuck in a big pickle with Gabriel, we explore part two of Rick’s grand plan to destroy the Saviors and kill his archenemy. This requires a crap-ton of hopping between four staging points: an armored-car shoot-out between Aaron and the Saviors; the satellite station with Morgan, Jesus, and Tara; the urgent-care building with Carol and Zeke; and an armory raid with Rick and Daryl. It’s an action-packed hour, so if you’re a fan of subtle character development, long stretches of impossibly clever banter, or artsy cinematography that evokes Jean-Luc Godard … why are you watching this show anyway?
We begin with a weird series of close-ups of Rick, Daryl, and the episode’s key characters looking super-intense while super-intense music plays. Zeke and Carol awaken in a cloud of smoke. Is this roll call? A post-apocalyptic cologne ad? (“Somewhere between life and death … lies undeath. Calvin Klein’s Undeath. Available at Macy’s that haven’t already been looted.”)
The heaviest firefight but least interesting showdown is led by Aaron, who rolls up on a Savior outpost with metal-enforced whips, his boyfriend Eric, and a whole lot of ammo. Representing the bad guys is Maura, a Savior who seems stuck in middle management but is showing a lot of potential for growth in the organization, based on her surly demeanor and use of “chickenshit.” She thinks Aaron’s team is too soft to leave cover and advance to finish them off. But Aaron has a strategy that wastes a lot of lead and makes for good TV: Stay put and keep firing until the dead Saviors turn and eat their former comrades. Maura is apparently so shocked by this twist that she forgets how to fight, as a walker sidles up and makes a meal of her neck. On the downside, Carol’s ex-beau Tobin takes a bullet to the shoulder, and Aaron’s hard-charging squeeze Eric suffers what looks like a lethal gut shot.
The satellite-station assault is far more complex. The Saviors built a “moat” of sorts, using two fences to contain a pack of zombies. That’s not much of an obstacle for Morgan, who’s transformed from pacifist to John Wick — a pistol-packin’, silencer-usin’, one-shot-one-kill assassin. It seemed highly unwise when Morgan told his crew he didn’t need backup because, he said, “I don’t die.” But when his three-man team is shot at point-blank range, he’s the only one to survive. Was it the cheap body armor that saved him or are the Saviors just really lousy marksmen? It’s a good thing Morgan stepped up his killing game, since one of his soldiers is so nervous that his rifle rattles — a reminder that most of Rick’s army is new to combat.
If you were annoyed when Gabe doubled back to rescue Gregory last week, you were probably furious when Tara and Jesus found Dean, who had hidden in a closet and pee-peed in his jeans. Out comes the age-old TWD conundrum: Kill ’em all or show mercy? As Tara and Jesus engage in riveting philosophical debate, Dean wrestles with Jesus and steals his gun. Turns out he pissed himself on purpose, and then, just to make it clear he’s a dick, he stomps on a bottle of prenatal vitamins. ”Looks like that bitch Maggie and her kid are gonna die anyway,” Dean says. “Just like you two.” Jesus ends up with the upper hand, but then hogties the guy. They’re killing everyone else — why not this asshole too?
The real moral test comes when Morgan joins Tara and Jesus and their group of Savior captives. Look who’s back: It’s Jared, the bully who killed Morgan’s protégé, Benjamin! Let’s chat about our options: We’re supposed to kill them, Morgan says. That’s not what we do, says Jesus. How many times are they going to have this conversation? It sets up a potential conflict between those like Jesus, who follow the more levelheaded Maggie, and Tara’s loyalty to Rick, who’s struggling to resist an urge for vengeance.
At least Carol picked the most entertaining survivors to team up with: Zeke, whose medieval hype-man skills are second to none (“Onward! To our foe, then to his compound, then to certain victory!”), and Jerry, who works that two-handed axe like a champ (nice head-cleave, big guy). They’re trying to find a Savior who escaped before he warns his cohorts they’re about to be ambushed. In a rare quiet moment, Zeke reminds Carol that his confidence is as much a show as his accent. “Fake it ‘til ya make it, baby,” he says, as she frets that they’re headed toward disaster. “There will be no fantasies of failure this day.” My money would be on Carol’s pessimism, if not for Shiva, who seems to specialize in leaping, face-chomping sneak attacks. Those really are the hardest pet tigers to find.
Of course, the biggest moments unfold with Rick and Daryl as they search a building for .50 caliber machine guns, thanks to a detailed note from Dwight. Daryl still doesn’t trust ol’ Pizza Face, which gives Rick a moment to Ricksplain the plan: Get weapons, take them to the Sanctuary, and mow down the walkers to “free up an exit,” presumably for Gabe and any Saviors who wish to surrender. They decide to split up, because, hey, when has that ever not worked out? Daryl finds a room with what looks like dog food, half a sandwich and bloody handcuffs, triggering some PTSD from his time as Negan’s prisoner. It’s easy to forget that Negan succeeding in breaking Daryl down mentally and emotionally not all that long ago.
Meanwhile, Rick gets a double-dose of brutality, starting with a burly Savior who jumps him, and winds up impaled on a shelving post protruding from the wall (Rick’s lucky his much larger foe didn’t make him a wall ornament instead). We see the dead man’s “Grace Be God” tat and think once again about the primal nature of this dark world where once noble men and women are all too often reborn as the worst versions of their animal selves. Or maybe we just think “Lame ink, brah.”
Enter a delicious dose of method acting from Andrew Lincoln when Rick finds something unexpected — little baby Gracie in her crib. Rick was ready for anything but this, as evidenced by his muttering, “No.” He can’t bear to look at himself in the mirror. Rick won’t kill an infant. But child care is already a bitch with Judith. Dude can’t afford another mouth to feed, people!
The semi-big moment arrives when Rick is surprised a second time, by someone he (and we) had long forgotten: Morales, who dates back to the Atlanta days. Morales, his wife, and their two kids split from Rick’s group when they made their way to the CDC in season one; Rick gave him ammo and a walkie and wished him luck. Now, Rick’s old friend says he’s radioed the Saviors and they’re on the way. Cut back to those extreme close-ups from the opener, but in current state: Daryl shaking off his trauma, Aaron trying to keep his boyfriend alive, Morgan and Jesus weighing murder versus mercy, Tara plotting revenge, Zeke projecting confidence, Carol hoping he’s right, and Morales cocking the hammer of his gun. Hey, nobody said this “kill Negan and overthrow his vast criminal network” thing would be easy, right?