Melissa McBride is so damn good. Case in point: in “The Well,” she spends most of her time pretending to be cheerful and friendly to keep herself protected from a new group of survivors. It’s a performance that would be remarkable even on a show less routinely straightforward and subtext-free than this one, but here, it’s something of a revelation. We’ve seen her do the same shtick back in Alexandria, but I’m continually amazed at how, in a world populated by characters who seem to be able to do little else but constantly speak what’s on their minds, Carol’s allowed this level of subterfuge. It automatically makes her scenes with the people of the Kingdom more interesting, even before King Ezekiel calls her on her shit.

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So yeah, huge surprise, “The Well” is a step up from the premiere. It follows the two best characters the show has (Carol and Morgan, fight me), and it offers a narrative with more to offer than just misery, death, and then, wait for it, hold on a second, I think there’s going to be really something interesting behind this—no, sorry, death again. The football pad wearing dudes from last season lead Morgan and a nearly comatose Carol to their settlement, and when Carol wakes up, she meets their kooky leader, a man who calls himself a king, talks in a half-assed “I used to watch the BBC” Shakespeare-slang, and has a pet tiger. A CGI pet tiger, but really, we’re in the “A for effort” territory now.

King Ezekiel (Khary Payton, who is excellent) and his tiger are fine additions to the show. Watching “The Well” gave me another chance to think about why the premiere was so frustratingly clumsy, and I think a larger part of it stems from the show’s struggles to manage long-term storylines. This has come up in past, but there’s an art, and a rhythm to building up a narrative over time, and I’m not convinced The Walking Dead is ever going to master that art. The show is constantly conflicted with itself, in how it wants to portray its characters (Is Rick a natural born leader, or is he half out of his mind and destined to get everyone he cares about killed?) and the ideas that drive them (Is this a place where it’s possible to hope, or is hope just a ticket to a nasty death?)—and while that conflict can lead to great storytelling (see: Walter White), it can also lead to a painful lack of consistency. It doesn’t help that the core loop here is so obvious it’s impossible to disguise: They think they’re safe, they’re not, some of them die, they escape and/or kill the bad guy, find a new place, think they’re safe, etc. It’s hard to trust after a while, and what’s worse, the characters themselves are aware of their own histories, so each new beginning, the writers have to find new ways to trick them into falling for the same trap again. It’s impossible not to feel something sadistic in that—the old Lucy-and-the-football routine, only every time Charlie Brown misses a kick, he falls into a pit of acid.

But the show’s creative team has gotten surprisingly good at coming up with new potential paradises to destroy, and, if viewed in isolation, episodes are still more than capable of telling small, self-contained, and satisfying arcs. That, for the most part, is what we get in “The Well.” Viewed in the macro, we know that eventually all of this will let us down somehow; but viewed as a handful of short stories, it’s interesting, unexpected, and even occasionally moving.

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Carol’s story takes the main focus. We start the episode with her, half-unconscious as Morgan and the others carry her into town. Later, when she learns about the Kingdom, she immediately starts making plans to run again. This has never been a particularly clear character motivation; last season, there was a push on the idea that she’d grown so sick of killing she couldn’t bear to be around people, because to care about others meant the risk of losing them or murdering others to protect them. It’s not a terrible idea, but it never quite seemed to fit Carol. “The Well” keeps her wanderlust, but makes it a bit more vague—she can’t bear to live with the others because it’s all a lot of nonsense and because, like us, she knows it’s all going to fall apart eventually.

That’s one of the few truly potent ideas the show has left, and one that too often gets buried under all the forced shocks and swerves: Why survive in a world where survival so often seems like an excuse for more pain? The meta-textual answer is, if these people stop trying to survive, the series ends, but we can’t have Rick or Carol or anyone actually say that. So instead, we have a group that’s constantly suffering from the strain and misery of living in an environment where the very things that make them human—the things that make life worth living—are the things that make their suffering worse. They go on because being alive is a hard habit to break, and the writers need to keep finding ways to make that idea interesting.

The result is scenes like the conversation between Ezekiel and Carol near the end of the hour, when he lets down his guard, tells her that he sees through her act, and also explains that he’s running an act of his own. He’s not crazy; he’s just a former zookeeper (and community theater actor, hell yeah) who realizes that people need something to believe in, so he gives them something colorful and unique and hopes for the best. He’s not a terrific leader, but he’s trying, and maybe the most gratifying part of his and Carol’s shared screentime is the suggestion that maybe this is the best anyone can hope for—that even though yes, it’s going to end badly, there’s still something worthwhile in the journey.

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I’m not sure if that’s intentional, or just an inevitable outcome of a show with a limited skillset like this one trying to find ways to justify its existence. But “The Well,” while not great (and probably not enough to bring back the audience who turned away after the premiere), is a sign that The Walking Dead has some life in it yet. We see Morgan taking on a new student, and struggling with the responsibility that represents; and even though it’s likely that Ben is going to get dead at some point, the scenes the between the two men in this hour are solid and engaging in and of themselves. Hell, the episode even manages to re-contextualize Negan in an effective, unsettling way—for all his power, King Ezekiel still has to make deliveries to the Saviors, and the relationship is not an entirely comfortable one. Negan can work as a threat if he’s used as more than just a way to shock us.

We’ll see, though. For now, I think Carol’s decision—to live in a house outside of town, present but not directly connected to anyone—might be the ideal way to watch this show. Enjoy the moments, but don’t necessarily expect them to add up to anything more than themselves. Not a bad approach to living, really.

Stray observations

  • Getting a potential romance vibe between Ezekiel and Carol, and I am into it.
  • Morgan trying to prepare Carol for the king without actually telling her anything, plus Carol’s actual reaction to him, is maybe the funniest this show has been in years.
  • The choir singing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a nice, surprisingly topical touch.
  • When Ezekiel’s men go hunting in the city, they use a walker to attract wild pigs; when Morgan asks why, one of the men, Richard (who later gets in a fight with one of the Saviors), says he wants their bellies full of rotting meat. In the moment, this seems vaguely creepy; the discovery that it’s a passive aggressive way to rebel against Negan and his men is excellent, and a good way to make us like the Kingdom people more.

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