The Walking Dead
After a few weeks of slow-burn palace intrigue and class warfare, TWD was beginning to feel a bit like Downton Abbey: Undead Edition. This episode continues the haves-versus-have-nots theme, but thankfully cranks up the action while delving deeper into what is happening inside the Commonwealth. By the end, three things are clear: Maggie was right to be skeptical of joining the alliance; Lance Hornsby is not to be trusted; and new guy Toby Carlson is quickly rising up the list of Top Creeps of the Apocalypse.
Employing what’s become a frequent storytelling device in recent seasons, there’s a good bit of timeline jumping as this tale unfolds. We begin with a mystery as Lydia prepares to leave Hilltop and see what all the Commonwealth buzz is about for herself. She is surprised when Elijah offers to escort her to the Commonwealth checkpoint; suddenly, he’s crushing so hard he can barely contain his giggles (Elijah’s pal’s urging him to “shoot your shot” will soon sound like a bad choice of words). Their flirtation ends fast as a rider on horseback comes galloping in with a blood-soaked map, a chest full of bullets, and a dying plea to help … someone, somewhere?
Maggie gives a firm “hell no” on a rescue plan (look closely at the map and see “River Bend” written next to a circled area), but Lydia and Elijah are determined to help, so Mags gives in and the trio hit the road. En route, the kids give their leader some straight talk about being frustrated with just “getting by” at Hilltop. Then on cue, almost as a rebuttal to the grass looking greener at the Commonwealth, they discover three zombified Commonwealth soldiers. Then Aaron appears, waving to them urgently. The plot thickens!
The first flashback rewinds to a week ago, as Aaron visits the Commonwealth church where Gabe delivers a sermon about embracing the strangers in your midst (and unclenching one’s butt cheeks). Gabe has found God again, he says, and this is good because Aaron hopes he’ll bring some divine perspective to a mission he’s been assigned to tackle as part of the city’s “new immigration initiative.” The deets: There’s a group of 40-some people holed up in an apartment complex on the western Virginia border, and the Commonwealth wants to help them. They’re religious folk, hence the need for Gabe to come along. This all sounds suspicious enough, and then even more so when we see the dead kid who rode into Hilltop is part of this plan.
Confidence is not instilled by Aaron’s boss, a lean, amped-up fella who goes by Carlson and is a real piece of work. “That mix of dopamine and adrenaline, just …. mmmmm!” he declares as they prepare for their mission. “We’re going to change lives!” Did this guy help launch Uber? He is super-pumped! My money was on Carlson as either a not-so-reformed tech bro or keeper of the last pure batch of cocaine in North America. The truth turns out to be much worse. Gabe smartly senses trouble, especially when Carlson admits he’s never rescued more than four people. We later discover that saving folks was never really his jam.
Everything about the River Bend Apartments strongly suggests it’s best to turn around: the big cross painted in red on the façade; the sickle-bearing stranger visible in a window; presumably the same sickle-bearing stranger who emerges with hipster piercings and demands they hand over their weapons. Inside, there are lots of candles and a distinct “Escape Room meets Dungeons & Dragons clubhouse meets put the lotion in the basket” vibe. They pass through creepy, shadowy hallways lined with creepy, shadowy onlookers en route to meet the strange River Bend leader. Aaron gives his best elevator pitch for joining the Commonwealth — amenities include walls, a functioning government, and two movie theaters! But the leader — clearly a pessimist and a NIMBY who probably posted daily on the Nextdoor app — figures they must also have drugs, prostitutes, and a seedy part of town. As one would expect from a boss with a collection of human skulls, he’s got a temper and a hair trigger.
Surprisingly, the leader is also open to common-sense arguments. Why would we raid this place, asks Gabe — it’s a total shithole. And why would they have delivered rations if they’re actually cannibals, poses Aaron. (Perhaps to fatten them up for a better human meal? But I digress.) It seems Gabe’s rediscovering religion led to a miracle, as the leader is just about to let them all go. Then comes the big surprise: Carlson shows his true colors by grabbing the boss man’s gun, wounding him, and killing both of his henchmen in the blink of an eye.
As we learn in another flashback, Carlson is no missionary and definitely no saint — he’s an ex-CIA assassin who’s barely maintaining sobriety and reluctantly helping Lance with a covert op. As Lance explains, Pam has given him a lot of resources for the “hick town” rescue project, as he calls it. He used some of them to send a convoy of supplies for “that other thing,” but the River Bend squatters hijacked the convoy. Or so he claims. Of course, the question of what that other thing is goes unanswered, at least for now.
All hell breaks loose at River Bend as Carlson and the Commonwealth troopers storm the building, Gabe escapes captivity, and Aaron and Carlson nearly fight to the death (regarding Carlson’s failed attempt to shoot Aaron — wouldn’t a trained hit man realize his gun was empty?). As if that weren’t bonkers enough, it turns out the dead horse-riding kid got his map from none other than very goth-looking, hoodie-wearing Negan, who apparently joined the River Bend crew after telling Mags to peace out. Negan and his new badass friend Annie are the ones who freed Gabe during all the commotion; now the three of them are hoping to pep-talk the surviving River Benders into fighting the Commonwealth invaders. Oddly enough, it’s not the folks with the cabinet full of skulls who turn out to be the real threat.
Carlson, meanwhile, is busy throwing people — a.k.a. “enemies of the Commonwealth” — off the roof and taking long, uncomfortable licks of a whiskey-coated finger. He might not survive to learn he was sent to River Bend under false pretenses; regardless, Lance seems to be running out of time to keep his clandestine plans under wraps (and running out of henchmen to help him carry them out). Now that Maggie’s team is also in the house, Carlson is in trouble, and Lance’s nefarious schemes are closer to being revealed.