There’s a stark contrast between the three settlements where most of the action takes place: the burned-out abandoned wreckage of Hilltop, the still-vulnerable Alexandria, and the impregnable, utopian Commonwealth, which looks like it was plucked from a 1950s Hollywood film and plopped down in the middle of a zombie hellscape (with more than a few Star Wars stormtroopers to boot). However, what each locale appears to have in common is that things are not exactly what they seem within their walls. Aaron’s nightmare sets the stage for a tense bit of jumping around to all of these communities, along with Maggie and Negan out on their own, struggling to avoid being killed by Reapers or each other. But it’s the impossibly perfect goings-on at the Commonwealth that take center stage and distract from the threat of the Reapers for at least a little while.
The dream sequence in the opener is a disturbing walk-through of recent horrors: The “W” scar on the forehead of one of the Wolves, the sound of the Saviors whistle, a skin-masked Whisperer. Aaron wakes to find Gracie sleeping peacefully beside him, but the calm is quickly shattered as walkers breach the A-town walls. Jerry uses a sledgehammer to pulverize a pesky zombie and help pound a collapsed panel back into place. But all the noise and commotion only attracts more undead. It’s a reminder that despite the previous almost zombie-free episode, they are still very much a constant threat.
As always, though, the human dangers are ever-present and often more deadly, as Aaron’s salvage team learns yet again when they head to Hilltop in search of tools. (I’m not exactly sure how the “skins,” as Jerry calls them, managed to destroy tools, but so be it.) In addition to the trauma of having to clear out former friends who’ve turned into crispy zombies, they also find a Whisperer lurking among the dead. The storyline that plays out is logical but tiresome at this point — another morality play dividing the hawks and the doves as they debate whether Keith (a very un-Whisperer-like name) can be trusted. The answer: Of course he can’t, but Aaron’s decision to inflict zombie-bite torture on the guy is a bit much. It’s true that Keith’s refugees had one of Nabila’s scarves, but they didn’t kill her. You know you’ve really gone into the deep end when Carol is the voice of restraint.
More loathsome than a couple of Whisperer rejects trying to survive is the punk-ass teen gang terrorizing A-town. If you ask me, they rank above walkers and just below the Reapers on the current threat level. They appear as Judith leads the most adorable Junior Zombie Assassins training session; she’s got a real sword, but the other kiddos have wooden ones. (“Aim for the head,” she instructs. “Stab!”) Judith scolds the teens for toying with a zombie, and when one of those losers acts the bully, he ends up with her sword against his neck. Later, the little shitbags break the wooden handprint planks that Carl made with Judith when she was just a toddler. Truly touching moments are rare at this point in the series, but when Judith cries to Rosita that she’s afraid she’s going to forget the memories of her father and brother — whew, it’s tissue time. I’d also bet that Judith ends up saving that asswipe’s bacon one day.
So Hilltop seemed abandoned but wasn’t. A-town should be home, but between the food shortages, flimsy walls, and teen angst, it’s not. What, then, to make of the Commonwealth? The welcome video has a Lost/Dharma Initiative vibe about it: grainy, jumpy footage and a glimpse into some weird alternate universe that’s too good to be true. Its host, “director of operations” Lance Hornsby, is impossibly chipper and impeccably dressed, perfectly encapsulating the sense of unreality about this place, where footballs are tossed, painting is considered a viable occupation again, and folks play acoustic guitars on picnic blankets. The Commonwealth logo echoes a lost civilization — colored red, white, and blue, bearing a symbol that recalls the Washington Monument with a flame shining light like a beacon of hope. In the video, we see memorials for the first two World Wars — in this place, the dead aren’t a threat; they’re honored. There’s also a chuckle-worthy sequence that defines the Commonwealth’s values for its 50,000-plus (!) citizens: “Community” (illustrated by kids at play), “caregiving” (old folks), and “security” (lots of stormtroopers and Lance confidently manspreading). Contrasted with sack races, ice cream, and baked goods, there’s a distinct military-state vibe about the place. Live your best life, people, but we are watching you. (The Commonwealth was founded by the Miltons — presumably a couple — and run by Governor Pamela Milton, which bodes poorly since the last guy we met with that title had both a zombie head aquarium and a homicidal streak.)
The good news is that all four survivors are given jobs and housing; the bad news is that they’re on track to become permanent residents, and speaking with a “case supervisor” about returning to A-town will take months. Miko gets an invite to meet with a muckety-muck about unspecified “opportunities” which might prove useful for the gang. Another thing that’s not as it seems: The dude running the bakery is actually a surgeon, who also happens to be Miko’s lost brother, Tomi. Bizarre as this place appears, Tomi is a passionate evangelist for the Commonwealth, noting that anything is possible as long as the rules are followed.
It would have helped if someone mentioned that to Eugene. It’s admirable that he’s found both his dream girl and waffle cones in the Commonwealth, yet he’s still desperate to escape and help the A-towners. Luckily, Stephanie works in communications — hence her access to a radio — and offers to sneak him into her heavily guarded office. For a brief, hopeful moment, he connects with Rosita and Judith, but the signal quickly fizzles. Even worse, Princess’s orange crush Mercer arrives and shuts down the operation. Stephanie will be charged as a citizen, but as a new arrival, Eugene is in big trouble — that is, until Lance Hornsby, the video host, shows up and saves Eugene from being hauled away for reasons yet unknown. Steph knows there will be some price to pay; this place is built on trust, and Ol’ Mullethead broke the rules just hours after orientation.
As Eugene awaits his fate, Maggie and Negan make it to the safe house, where Gabe and Elijah eventually join them. But the real bomb drops at Hilltop. To prove his gang really isn’t like the old Whisperers, the newly-one-handed Keith says they saw a girl escape the cave where Alpha kept her horde. Being great people, Keith didn’t even kill her. (What a guy!) That’s Connie he’s talking about, of course. Can we please fast-forward to get Daryl out of Reaperland and finally make “Connyl” a thing?