The Walking Dead
As much as I sympathize with Kelly and her rapidly advancing hearing loss, the opening scene does not quite do justice to the events that unfold and the questions answered in this episode. She had a rough go of it in the woods, for sure — lost her audio and a fine swine — but in the end, she’s basically fine. But we’re wrestling with some existential questions here, people: Who set Negan free, and why? What’s up Magna’s keister and why did she do hard time? Why is Zeke so deeply depressed? What is Alpha’s master plan? Is she ready to accept constructive criticism of her leadership? Will Negan ever find his black leather jacket? And why are groaning, stumbling zombies still able to silently sneak up on functioning humans in the middle of the woods? All mysteries (save for the last one) are solved.
To set the stage, let’s consider the general state of things — which, simply put, ain’t great. Negan is on the loose, and given he could face execution at A-town, he might be ready to drop his turn-the-other-cheek philosophy. Someone has also been stealing supplies from Hilltop, as if they don’t have enough problems already. Old Man Earl keeps bitching about the Whisperers and the tree, and you know if this guy had the internet, he’d be ranting about the Deep State and how Hillary put a hit on Jeffrey Epstein.
Funny thing is, though — he’s right. Alpha helpfully acknowledges that the tree and the damming of the creek are part of her plan to crush the survivors into a fine powder. (She also leads a master class in skin-mask making: “Careful, now. Ears are the trickiest.”) When another Whisperer offers an alternative strategy, such as “how ’bout we just send a few thousand zombies in to wipe the Shouters out,” Alpha calls for a vote. Like a Russian presidential election, everyone knows how this will end, and sure enough, the final tally is approximately 857 to one. “That’s democracy for you,” Alpha says as she hacks at the dude with a knife and lets Beta finish him off.
Alpha might be better off simply waiting for her rivals to doom themselves. A quarter of their medical supplies are gone, which is especially bad news for Zeke — not because he’s looking for some painkillers, but because he’s sporting a rather large growth on his neck that he’s pretty sure, based on family medical history, is thyroid cancer. That puts his depression and suicidal thoughts in a slightly different light. Sorry we busted your chops for moping around, Zeke.
Also not working in favor of the survivors is their tendency to split up and get lost, attacked, or both. Thankfully for Kelly, the most adorable search party in history is on her trail, as Daryl and Connie take Dog on a rescue mission. Daryl’s story about Merle’s stolen fishing boat scores big points, and his efforts to both pantomime and sign probably led to mass fainting among his fanbase. Later at Hilltop, Connie signs that Daryl is part of her family now, which is far too direct for his comfort. He responds as Daryl is wont to do — gives a half nod and cruises off on his hog before showing any signs of emotion. These two better cut the crap and hook up soon.
Slightly less surprising than the fact that Kelly survived being semi-unconscious in a high-walker-traffic area of the woods is the reveal of where the missing supplies went (these same woods) and who took them (Kelly and Magna). Daryl calls her out — “All you’re good for is talkin’ shit” — and Magna has no retort. When Yumiko blasts her for stealing, Magna finally reveals why she went to jail: Her young cousin was the victim of a crime at the hands of a man who apparently did no time for whatever heinous act he committed. Yumiko thought Magna was innocent, but learns otherwise: “Nobody came for him,” she says. “So I came for him.” I like Magna’s taste for street justice, but frankly, I’m not sure I care whether the truth brings these two closer or they end up as walker food.
Speaking of folks with bodies in their past, Negan finds himself at the center of one of the weirder storylines in TWD history. His work-release manager, Brandon, is the one who set him free, and despite what seemed to be his slight disdain for Neegs in previous scenes, he’s actually a total groupie. His old man was a Savior who idolized his leader; now his kid is an extreme fanboy — kissing Negan’s ass, trying to talk tough, and cracking wise by rating a walker as a seven on the hotness scale. (“She’s clearly a three,” responds Negan with scorn. Save the one-liners for the experts, pal.)
As the ultimate sign of respect, Brandon found Lucille and the old moto jacket, but Negan seems to be faking his appreciation for the gesture so as not to upset a clearly unstable individual. Yet it all goes south when they find a woman and her boy trapped in a school bus. Negan tells Brandon to get lost and then takes a liking to the little kid — his extended lesson in “nut-tapping” might be the most educational moment of the series to date. (Remember, folks, don’t aim too high or you’ll smack nothing but dick.)
Sure enough, the psycho groupie didn’t get Negan’s hint to scram. Brandon thought the blow-off was a challenge, and he murders the mom and little boy to prove he’s worthy. That’s a bad move — while Negan will sadistically butcher anyone who has at least hit puberty and once made a dad chop his son’s hand off, he does not kill kids. (What a guy.) Negan’s fury at the sight of the boy’s corpse leads him to pick up a rock and beat Brandon to death furiously. (Have you noticed that the violence has really cranked up a notch this season? In this episode alone, Negan slices a zombie head in half and blood covers the camera, then the sound of Brandon’s skull being pulverized is disturbingly loud and wet.)
With his jacket on and Lucille on his shoulder, Negan heads into Whisperer territory. We know that Alpha is now planning to use Gamma as bait to gain A-a-ron’s trust somehow. But with his old swagger back and a new taste for blood, is Negan ready to make his enemy’s enemy his friend, as Brandon suggested? He gets an audience with Beta and it seems he’s not looking for a Whisperers membership application. “All right, you big ass freak,” he says. “Let’s do this.”
Maybe Negan figures he’s a dead man either way — back in A-town or out here taking on the Whisperers alone — but better to die in pursuit of one last, noble cause than on his knees. One piece of advice for Beta: Guard your nuts.