With this final season split into three eight-episode chapters, what we have here is a classic setup moment: It’s slow, not much happens, and it tees up something big for the mini-finale that’s ahead. We’ve seen these before, and it’s not a bad episode. But after last week’s nail-biter with Connie in the horror house, and knowing the show is in its final stretch, it’s mostly a disappointing bit of filler — save for the increasing weirdness of the Commonwealth and a surprising plan to take down the Reapers.
The primary story line belongs to Maggie’s crew, who decide to press on despite what appears to be great odds in confronting Pope’s peeps. Negan, as usual, recognizes said odds and prefers self-preservation. But Maggie’s not going home empty-handed. Further stoking her fire is the sight of Elijah’s sister’s best friend, who’s now a zombie thanks to the Reaper takeover of Meridian. Now this mission is about more than supplies and reclaiming their old home — Mags wants revenge. So does Elijah, who calls dibs on killing “the one.” Presumably, that’s Pope. Or could it be Leah? Negan offers to stick around on one condition: Maggie must consider them even and stop plotting his demise. The two shake hands, but Maggie herself notes that she shouldn’t be trusted on any Negan-related matters.
For some reason, the sight of a hirsute walker whom Negan dubs “Blackbeard” inspires Maggie to think up a wicked plot: Steal not just a page, but the whole playbook of the Whisperers. It’s bad enough they’ll need to wear skin masks; worse, they need Professor Negan to teach them how to walk like the dead. It’s an assignment he delights in, and when Negan cracks wise, Maggie is humorless. She’s a badass, for sure, but Maggie is also awfully one-note this season. (Yes, I know this man butchered her husband in front of her. But she’s a less compelling character when all of her energy is spent putting Negan in his place and throwing shade.)
Gabe, meanwhile, scouts out Meridian and encounters their priest on a visit to the local cemetery. For a second, it looks like a padre-versus-padre showdown is about to pop off, but Gabe avoids detection. Presumably, these two will meet again, considering the time spent on this near-miss encounter. Far more compelling is Maggie’s Whisperer lessons: Lower those shoulders! Limp those arms! Negan doesn’t do her any favors by carving up an ill-fitting mask for her training sessions, but when she finally gets a bespoke flesh bag for her face, Maggie takes to the zombie shuffle like an old pro.
When walker class ends, sensei and student share some barbecued rabbit and tense words. Negan tries to empathize, saying that he’s been on the receiving end of a massacre, too. Maggie suggests there were no children at Savior headquarters, to which Negan has a devastating comeback: “Where’d Aaron get Gracie?” Touché! As they appear to inch toward some mutual understanding, Maggie asks if he’d do things differently. “Yeah,” Negan says. “I’d have killed every single one of you.” Yikes, Neegs — not what Maggie needed to hear, honest though it may be. It seems an odd strategy for coalition building, or at the very least, assuring that Maggie keeps her promise not to kill him.
Pretending to be something you’re not is the theme that unites Maggie (acting like a zombie), Daryl (a Reaper), and the Commonwealth (a utopia that’s not hiding some sinister villainy). Eugene’s failed attempt to contact A-town has resulted in hard labor for his pals and poor Stephanie. No surprise that the Commonwealth takes community service to a new level — forget picking up trash, they’re killing walkers to clear space for “future development.” As Zeke’s coughing fits remind us that he likely has terminal cancer, Princess talks the troopers into getting him some medical aid. That’s the humane side of the Commonwealth. On the flip side, there’s Miko’s brother, who is weirdly insistent that no one can know he’s a doctor, then gets carried away by troopers for no apparent reason.
Miko and her fresh Talbots wardrobe get tantalizingly close to shedding some light on the mysterious Pamela Milton and the Commonwealth’s top brass. Her assignment is to provide them with legal counsel — it turns out Milton is a Harvard grad like Miko, thus confirming that as society crumbles, the Ivy League alumni network will somehow still endure. On Miko’s first meeting with the boss, Eugene finds a way to screw things up even more. Earlier, we caught a glimpse of a blazer-clad yuppie d-bag headed off to a picnic date with a security detail in tow. In an implausible series of events, the well-guarded couple is left alone and oblivious to some threatening “rotters,” then furious that Eugene sprayed them with blood in the process of saving their bacon. Ol’ Mullethead does the right thing and punches that d-bag square in the face. The trouble is, the snowflake is Milton’s son. The effect is twofold: Milton cancels Miko’s meeting, and Eugene is told he needs to provide directions to A-town or face a life sentence. (Of note: the Meghan Markle doppelgänger from the ice-cream truck is Milton’s assistant, and she seems unusually concerned about the well-being of Miko’s friends.)
There’s also a side mission with Daryl and Leah that involves a husband’s frantic efforts to help his injured wife. Along the way, Daryl carefully digs for more intel on the Reapers and insight into how the hell Leah became so devoted to Pope. She makes excuses for his psycho behavior — essentially, she says he’s just under a lot of stress at work — and adds, “He made me strong.” Daryl isn’t ready to give up on her yet, though, and in the end, he catches s glimpse of her humanity when she can’t bring herself to put the dying woman out of her misery. (Daryl, however, doesn’t hesitate to put a bolt in the woman’s head.)
We’re left with Eugene in deep trouble, the mystery of the Commonwealth deepening, and a likely heartbreaking end to Daryl’s attempt to deprogram Leah. (I wonder who could possibly fill that void and provide Daryl with the soul mate he deserves … if only we had some signs.) Speaking of heartbreak, the final scene serves up both pathos and big possibilities for next week. Elijah’s reunion with his kid sister is a tragic one, as he sees her stumbling along as a zombie. Maggie takes his hand as he struggles to fight back tears — a breakdown in the middle of a pack of walkers would be tragic for all of them. As the camera pulls back, we see the Whisperer impersonation was a big success, literally. There’s now a huge herd in tow, presumably headed toward Meridian.