Opening scenes on The Walking Dead often make more sense by the end of the hour. But tonight’s episode doesn’t require much translation: Ezekiel gets into character, a routine he presumably repeats daily; gives one of his better speeches to the Kingdomfolk; and then, post-ambush, realizes the people who died for his cause are now trying to dine on him. To paraphrase Michael Stipe and quote Morales, everybody turns, and by the night’s end, the dreadlocked amateur thespian is no longer full of bravado — Zeke is broken and seems ready to hang up his crown for good. All that plus Toxic Avenger zombies, an excess of severed limbs, some total implausibility, and the most traumatic animal death since Buttons the horse was reduced to a walker buffet in season five.
So how about the overhead shot of the human shield that saved the king’s life? It’s a gory, grisly scene — a woman whose entrails have leaked out, two arms strewn about, splatters of guts and blood. And you see all of that before the closeups. Hard to blame Zeke for a minor freak out as he strains to escape on a bum wheel and comprehend the carnage (such as the woman who wore her child’s flower in her body armor, who is now a groaning mess of viscera). A Kingdom survivor comes to Zeke’s rescue, and despite their overwhelming defeat, still calls his leader “your majesty.”
Zeke’s bodyguard doesn’t last long, thanks to a gunshot from one of the slimiest Saviors yet — a creep with ’70s glasses, a bad ’80s haircut, and an overbite who’s straight out of central casting for registered sex offenders. He wants Zeke’s help in taking the .50-caliber machine guns to cut down the mob of walkers who now surround the Sanctuary, a “sitty-ation” he’s looking to remedy. Like Negan, this henchman is well-versed in the art of psychological warfare and zombie comedy, hitting Zeke where it hurts. “You got them all killed and they’re still following you,” he says, making light of the reanimated Kingdomers who are closing in on their leader. “Take away that tiger, what’s left? Just some meaningless con man in a costume.” Meanwhile, Zeke’s self-doubt might even make you wonder which path you’d follow if thrust into a zombie apocalypse: Would you follow the better angels of your nature? Become the person you wished you could be? Or the person you fear you could be?
Megan’s Law paints poor Zeke’s face with blood and is just about to decapitate him when the high point of the episode arrives: It’s Jerry, who lets out a war cry, cleaves the skeezy Savior in half with a mighty swing of his battle axe, then adds one extra chop for good measure. He politely asks to borrow Zeke’s dagger to kill two more zombies, then stands firm when the king insists Jerry doesn’t need to call him “your majesty” anymore. “Dude,” Jerry replies. “Yes, I do.” His reaction when his axe snaps? “Shitballs.” Love that guy.
Aside from Jerry, the other (human) Kingdom fighter we’re left wondering about is Carol. No way she’s among the body count. But Carol being Carol, she didn’t merely survive. She somehow slips into the sniper’s nest undetected, climbs into the ceiling, and mows down four Saviors responsible for the massacre. She also escapes, survives a furious firearm assault, uses a Savior as a human shield, opens a gate to unleash a zombie attack, and produces the key needed to save Zeke and Jerry. No biggie.
It seemed odd that Carol let the Saviors drive away with the guns rather than kill them, until we see why she smiled: Rick and Daryl just happened to arrive and were immediately in hot pursuit, instinctively knowing they should both chase a truck carrying who-knows-what. Lucky for Rick, the Savior on machine-gun duty is the world’s worst shot. Meanwhile, Daryl fires a couple rounds with a pistol at a moving target while riding a motorcycle and nails the guy. If there’s a silver lining in this episode — aside from Jerry’s awesomeness — it’s that Rick and Daryl finally have the firepower they need.
Zeke, however, is not holding up well. Jerry tries his best to inspire the guy who’s inspired him (“Thank you, your majesty … for being such a cool dude.” Love that guy!). But Zeke is inconsolable — and that’s before they find a horde of extra-gross walkers who’ve been marinating in a stew of toxic waste. Zeke seems bent on suicide, insisting he’ll stay behind to fight them off. Enter Shiva, who proves once again that she is the only tiger capable of silently sneaking up on her prey before leaping into action. TWD history repeats itself, though, as we’ve seen multiple horses, Tabitha the goat, a CGI deer, and plenty more wildlife devoured by zombies. Shiva puts up a brave fight, but she’s quickly outnumbered and swarmed; the walkers dig in as the biohazard soup turns red. Rest in peace, old girl.
Jaded as longtime TWD fans must be by now, it’s hard not to ache for Zeke as he returns to the Kingdom with just two survivors of the massacre. He really loved that line, “And yet I smile,” but there ain’t no turning his frown upside down. Before the battle, he told a boy named Henry to “fear not,” but now he can only put a hand on the kid’s shoulder and limp past him in silence as the last of his followers look on in stunned silence. Zeke is facing a mighty existential crisis, knowing his act led his people to their deaths. The Bard-quoting king seems like a role he can’t play anymore, unless Jerry can talk him out of retirement. Rick may have the guns now, but what use will the Kingdom be without its warriors, its leader, and perhaps the only thing that truly scares Negan — its kick-ass ninja tiger?