About midway through this episode, Magna and Kelly talk about horses and gaining their trust. It’s one of those quiet conversations that occurs between bouts of zombie mayhem and the horrors of mankind, one that’s supposed to carry greater significance — an emotional weight that both resonates and instructs, suggesting a brief glimmer of hope in this otherwise miserable existence. But sometimes, as the old theme song goes, a horse is just a horse. And despite a few tender moments amidst the tense ones, there’s a certain TWD-by-numbers quality to this chapter.
The opening sequence sets the tone for feeling like we’ve seen this movie before: Maggie’s terrified, a new threat in the form of the Reapers has the upper hand, and once again, the survivors are, well, in survival mode. There’s a death, but it’s Cole from Maggie’s posse. If I showed you Cole’s headshot, could you name him without multiple-choice options? I probably couldn’t. Same for the big man best known for his massive guns and piggy-back rides — that’s Duncan, and he gets carved up like a Christmas ham. It means a lot to Mags, but for us, these are low-stake exits.
The Reapers also succeed in the time-honored TWD tradition of scattering the group. All alone, Gabe finds an injured Reap on the roadside who starts Bible-thumpin’: “We have been blessed … will you pray for me?” Dude obviously picked the wrong priest for last rites. “God isn’t here anymore,” says the G-man, just before sinking his blade into the Reaper’s head. Judging by this exchange and what Negan finds later — a crispy walker tied to a stake beneath a sign that reads “Judas” — there’s a religious angle to the Reapers (y’know, probably some New Testament-y “reap what you sow” deal).
Meanwhile, Maggie is alone in a mall — or so she thought. Alden and Negan lend a hand as she fends off more Reapers, and the skirmish ends with Alden suffering a nasty gut shot. This plan of hers, Maggie admits, is shit, but she’s all out of ideas. So it’s on to the supply stash house in hopes the others will meet them there. Negan goes along to get along and stay alive and delivers the line of the night when they hear a woman outside, shrieking in the distance: “So we’re going to go toward the screaming. Cool.” Unfortunately for Maggie, it’s another one of her people, Agatha, who suffers a nasty chomp to the arm. While Mags didn’t mind sacrificing Gage for the greater good, she’s lost too many people she genuinely cares about today. Negan has to drag her away from trying to prevent the already-doomed Agatha from becoming a main course.
Back at A-town, Carol is busy Caroling, blowing off her shift on wall repair to go chase horses. She always has a reason for her obstinance, so Aaron wastes no time pulling the ace card in arguing for her to abandon her plan: Remember Buttons! But Carol won’t be deterred, despite the fact that she admits she’s no good at horse wrangling (however, she knows a magic mushroom when she sees it). Her search party finds some of their missing steeds torn to shreds, but as luck would have it, they soon stumble across a few more galloping by. Even luckier, they’re headed straight for a farm, where even the lamest city-slicker ranch hand could wrangle a wild stallion. Here’s where Magna’s trust speech comes in handy — Kelly drops her lasso and nuzzles one. They don’t need a heavy hand; they need love, people! Well, that is until Carol quietly leads one of the horsies away to die by her cold hand. Animal sacrifice might go down as her most ruthless deed yet (and Carol killed a kid once).
Trust among the human folk isn’t as easy to come by. Magna gives Carol a quiet but firm lecture about getting Kelly’s hopes up too high when it comes to her missing sister (remember Connie?). Much deeper distrust runs between Maggie and Negan, and the two exchange more unpleasantries while (slowly) escorting Alden. This is understandable, of course, but how many withering stares and “you ain’t one of us” zingers can Maggie and the others deliver? The answer, apparently, is plenty more. With the decision to leave Alden behind in the church to presumably slowly bleed out and turn, it’s now just Mags and Negs. After he whacks a zombie, Maggie can’t help but stare at the blood-soaked crowbar in his hand. It’s a not-too-subtle reminder of the trauma she’s still carrying, and in a show built on implausible premises, quick forgiveness on Maggie’s part would be a narrative sin of the highest order. Still, these two need to either bury the hatchet, figuratively or literally. Hopefully this mission leads to an uneasy but stable alliance. But I fear the road to redemption and forgiveness is going to be about 20 more episodes long.
The best moments come from one of the least significant storylines — Judith running a kiddie card game like she’s a little Tony Soprano in training. (Yo, RJ’s good for one box of ziti!) Hershel proves himself wise like his namesake — observing that their parents need encouraging words as much as the kids do, and offering tips on eating horse jerky like a pro. Hard to miss the ominous suggestion, though, as the kids talk about how their parents always come home, just as they promise. Alden, for one, is unlikely to see his adopted son, Whisperer-baby Adam. As for Maggie and Michonne, perhaps only one of the lead heroines will make it to the finish line.