The opening moments of “Davon” feel less like Tales of the Walking Dead than Tales From the Crypt. The episode’s title hero (Jessie T. Usher) wakes up in the woods. He’s being hunted by a mob of people who are shouting that he’s a murderer. He has amnesia. He’s handcuffed to a zombie. The whole setup is so unapologetically, gloriously pulpy that it’s genuinely hard to imagine how the show could squander it.
And then — in what has become an unfortunate pattern for this series — the episode veers away from the most fun and interesting things it could do with a promising setup and stumbles off in a safer, shallower direction. Take away the scrambled chronology and the fun of discovering exactly how Davon ended up in such a horrible situation and you’re left with a remarkably straightforward, predictable story, which is bogged down even further with needless moralizing at the end.
This Tale is set in Madawaska, Maine — a real and fascinating holdover from the days when the territory was occupied by French-Acadian settlers in which more than 80 percent of the population still speaks French. (Fortunately for Davon, most of these Francophone residents save their French for brief, cryptic utterances like “I’ll see,” speaking English the rest of the time.)
The episode does its best to immerse us in Davon’s jumbled point of view by careening constantly between flashbacks and the present day, but in the interest of clarity, let’s lay all this out in chronological order: Seven weeks before the episode begins, an injured Davon is rescued and healed by the small, apparently peaceful community still residing in Madawaska. The group’s leader, Amanda, is obviously bad news; this is the kind of person who says stuff like “Sometimes murder is mercy” while grimacing and staring directly into his eyes without blinking.
Davon is either too dumb to recognize the obvious danger here or too distracted by Nora, a Madawaska resident with whom he enjoys an instant and mutual attraction. The budding lovebirds have an adorable postapocalyptic courtship — flirting over strawberry picking and piano lessons — that sadly unravels when Nora becomes convinced Davon has murdered her preadolescent son, Garen.
Yes: As Agatha Christie might have titled one of her lesser novels, there’s a murderer in Madawaska. But the episode doesn’t have a lot of time to introduce and resolve this whole mystery, so you don’t need to be a Poirot to figure out the likeliest suspects. Amanda is creepy but so obvious she’s clearly a red herring. But she does have a weird teenage son, Arnaud, who keeps talking about how his mother is the only person who loved and understood him.
We hear about all this in the past tense because — in the episode’s cleverest bit — it turns out Amanda is the zombie handcuffed to Davon all along. When Davon stumbled into the murder basement where Arnaud had been bringing his young victims, Amanda tried to stop him and died for her trouble, leaving Davon on the hook for the kidnappings and killings. And with no one left to vouch for his innocence, the entire town is ready for his execution.
That includes Nora, whose distrust of Davon belies the fragility of her own mantra: “We decide who we are.” The town has decided Davon is a child murderer — and by deciding (inaccurately) who Davon is, they have decided they’re the kind of community that will murder an innocent person based on flimsy and circumstantial evidence.
Madawaska’s baroque method of execution involves putting Davon in an old car, crushing it with a bulldozer, then letting zombies feast on him. Like the board game Mouse Trap, it is a bizarrely elaborate way to do a relatively simple thing, and it gives Davon plenty of time to escape without too much hassle.
With his memories restored, Davon confronts Arnaud, who mounts his defense for why killing kids is actually a moral good. Growing up in the zombie apocalypse makes you twisted, he warns. By killing the kids, he says, he’s saving them from a lifetime of awful things they’ll need to do to survive. He finishes this weird little speech with a familiar line — say it with me: “Sometimes murder is mercy.”
Davon is not convinced. Neither is the rest of the town, who finally figure out the truth. And in a stab at a poetic execution that is at least more practical than crushing by bulldozer in a car, Arnaud is tossed into a nearby pit where the children he killed have come back as zombies.
This is Davon’s chance for a big speech, and he doesn’t waste it. “We don’t have to live like this! We don’t have to be like this! We decide who we are!” he shouts. It was probably fun for Usher to cap off his performance with this big, melodramatic monologue, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who paid even a little attention to the events of the episode needed its message spelled out so plainly.
• The opening salvo is pure Tales From the Crypt, but the ultimate message about the dangers of mob mentality feels closer to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a standout episode from The Twilight Zone.
• I know I just dinged this episode for its didactic moralism, and I like a grim mystery as much as the next guy — but I’m not convinced the self-seriousness of “Davon” is enough to justify the actual queasiness of depicting so much child murder or the naked horror of seeing a grieving mother fall to her knees as she suddenly realizes her missing child is now a zombie.
• There are a few creepy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it images that turn up in the brief flashes separating the past and the present — most notably, a shot of a shadowy figure behind Davon and Nora at the piano that ultimately turns out to be Garen.
• Davon doesn’t even try to use the hacksaw on the handcuff chain before lopping off zombie Amanda’s hand?
• Amanda’s house has a poster for the Hanlon Brothers, a traveling circus act that did some wild stuff around the turn of the 19th century. You can read about them here.