We should’ve seen it coming. Any time The Walking Dead slows down to focus on someone’s internal psychological struggle, and an entire episode traces their journey from fearful to a place of acceptance and/or growth, hold on, because there’s a very good chance that character is about to bite it. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happens to poor Siddiq. Credit where credit’s due, though: That was a shocking reveal, and a surprising death, and both things combined make for a damn good closing sequence—and the strongest episode of the season thus far, even if that’s not saying much.
The reveal of Dante’s treachery is smart on a number of levels, not least of which being the fact that we no longer have to go through the motions of trying to find him likable, something that never really worked in the first place. He was introduced being a creep, and despite a few flashes of levity here and there, he’s remained a pretty insufferable presence. The heel-turn moment, where he emits the clicking sound that causes Siddiq to flash back to the massacre in the barn, thereby exposing him as one of Alpha’s followers, worked wonderfully, because it demonstrates that he’s been sabotaging Siddiq’s mental state all along. From obvious bait like the death of Carol’s hostage (which Dante had convinced Siddiq of his responsibility for) or the water source being tampered with, to subtler beats like his seeming friendship and good advice in the previous weeks, this was the kind of long con the show rarely pulls off these days. Also, it adds depth and menace to the Alpha threat: She’s got someone inside Alexandria, who managed to infiltrate it with no one suspecting a thing.
Of course, there was a lot leading up to that scene—and while “Open Your Eyes” follows this season’s usual pattern of a mix of stronger and weaker storylines alternating throughout its running time, overall it was a fairly successful standalone episode, narratively speaking. The bigger issue has to do with how it was shot. This is the second installment of the season helmed by Michael Cudlitz, a.k.a. our old friend Abraham, and much as with his first stint behind the camera this year (he also shot season nine‘s “Stradivarius”), there are several awkward scenes, strangely edited, which hamper the effectiveness of the drama. This is most evident during Siddiq’s discovery of the water source problem: While it was clear something had happened to taint the water, it was edited in a choppy and confusing manner, leaving the viewer to just assume a bad thing had happened, with no clear explanation. This was superior to his previous outings, but it would’ve been nice to see what one of the show’s better directors could’ve done with the material.
The most compelling material this week involved Carol, Lydia, and the Whisperer sitting in the jail cell. It was great to see Carol manipulate Alpha’s daughter with so little concern for the feelings of her young charge—shades of the old Carol are starting to come out again, in the wake of Henry’s death, and using Lydia without a thought to the girl’s reaction was classic behavior on her part. “You used me,” Lydia says, and it’s a totally fair accusation. Carol knows that confronting the Whisperers with proof that their leader is a liar, undermining her supposed noble sacrifice of her own daughter, will sow uncertainty in the ranks of the enemy. And Gamma, already struggling a bit to maintain fidelity to the cause, might be the ideal carrier for this thought virus to infect the others.
Alpha only appears briefly this episode, but it serves a useful purpose: We see the way that she brings her followers into the same kind of physical endurance tests to which she subjects herself. Whipping Gamma’s arm, she does her best to shore up the Whisperer ideology, telling the younger woman that Aaron “tempts you with his lies,” a message that may not be landing as powerfully as she hopes. Aaron is doing his usual thoughtful-guy thing, showing off his daughter’s pictures, offering fresh bread—basically doing everything but singing “Kumbaya” and presenting Gamma with a key to the city. When Gamma loses it and holds a knife to his throat, it feels desperate, like she can’t handle the increasing evidence of his fundamental goodness. Alpha is so successfully wreaking havoc with our communities, this is a sensible counterbalance to all the pessimism, a way of suggesting there are moments of hope, that not all is lost. Between this and a Whisperer handing Negan some bacon last week, we’re getting demonstrations of decency rippling through Alpha’s tribe.
But throughout it all, we watched as Siddiq confronted his demons, and realized he couldn’t handle them. Rosita literally has to save him from drowning after he throws himself into the water, his trauma weighing him down better than any weight around his ankle could. The flashbacks to Enid’s execution continually intrude on his thoughts, sleep being only slightly worse than waking hours when it comes to his visions and pain. It was interesting to see the actor deliver some very naturalistic beats—snuggling with Rosita and marveling, “We have a kid together, mommy,” was a highlight—amid such a stagey, heightened struggle with his own mind. After Rosita rallies him back to normalcy (or some degree of it, anyway), it’s a superb twist of the knife to have Dante subtly reveal his villainy, and then kill Siddiq. All that, and then death—The Walking Dead should feel free to engage in this kind of thing more often. With only one episode left before the midseason break, however, it’s unlikely we’re going to get any more alterations to the status quo until next year.
- Anyone know that song playing in the opening montage? Shazam failed me. (UPDATE: A few of you chimed in on this—thanks to Twitter user Wil Bane for sending me the link to the artist—Delta Rae, and the song is “Come Back Alive.”)
- I will say, for Cudlitz’s occasionally clunky staging, the first nightmare Siddiq has, with the hand going over his mouth as he cries, then a smash cut to the opening credits, I found creepy and effective.
- Gabriel is the only one pissed at Carol for putting Alexandria at risk, or at least the only one we see dress her down for her reckless actions. “So you decided for all of us?!”
- It was a nice bit of cleverness to have the Whisperer prisoner seem to go all soft at the prospect of delicious, fresh food, only to spit it back in Carol’s face, scorning their efforts to win him over.
- Daryl is still letting Carol do her thing for now, but shirtless snuggles with his dog aside, there’s a slow burn to his exchanges with her that seems like it’s getting ready to boil over.