Ezekiel, Eugene, and Yumiko stuck standing immobile, for fear of triggering explosive activity, is all too apt a metaphor for this penultimate episode of The Walking Dead’s 10th season. Rather than do anything to liven things up, the table-setting installment keeps everyone either waiting around or wandering uncertainly, pausing only to deliver heartfelt speeches about How Things Are Now. In other words, it’s the show maundering into its usual problem of trying to make the season’s big episodes exciting by neutering smaller ones such as this. It’s one of the reasons the quality from week to week varies so widely: Rather than allowing every episode to become the best version of itself, there’s a clear sense some outings are less important than others, and this is unfortunately a good example of one that lacks a clear theme and drive—other than, “Just wait until next week.”
“The Tower” has a few moments of quality that help keep the episode from sinking under the weight of too much inertia. First of all, let’s discuss Juanita Sanchez, a.k.a. Princess. A big one from the comics, she’s the kind of character who instantly either delights or irritates the shit out of viewers (not unlike her reception from Ezekiel, Eugene, and Yumiko), and comes in hot, with a motor-mouthed delivery and a colorful outfit to match her colorful personality. In the “plus” column, it’s nice to finally have another character who isn’t all doom and gloom, with portentous opinions and a dour outlook. It’s sometimes easy to assume that the walkers ate everyone on the planet with a mischievous attitude, simply because we so rarely come across a person with as effervescent a viewpoint as Princess. And while it’s understandable that people are usually a little more somber—this is the zombie apocalypse, after all—upbeat extroverts don’t stop existing just because circumstances are dire. If only for giving us a bubbly and chatty loner with a tendency to irritate those around her (which helps explain how she found herself alone in the first place), Princess is a welcome addition to the cast.
Then again, the minus column has a pretty glaring entry: the plot that surrounds her. After an entertaining introduction, the episode literally strands Princess and her new allies in the middle of a minefield, because sure, why not, someone made a minefield in the middle of an empty downtown lot. As part of a clunky method of introduction, Princess decides to lie for no good reason to the people she’s just met, other than to delay their arriving at her promised destination of a shop containing sets of wheels. (Which turn out to be bicycles, not cars.) So they wander into said minefield, Princess loses her way, and they all get angry at her for not taking them on the quickest route. She apologizes, explaining that she wanted to endear herself to her new friends, and Eugene immediately forgives her, seeing it as a parallel to his own deceptions early on when he was pretending to be a scientist. And it sort of is—only the whole thing begins and ends so quickly, it’s more like a Just-So story than a convincing episode plotline—too pat to feel earned, too abrupt to land emotionally. Paola Lázaro does what she can to sell Princess’ insecurity and sadness, and it’s a testament to the actor that it even partially works.
The central story similarly has some interesting character stuff stuck in the middle of a lumbering slog. Beta’s slipping mentally: He’s hearing voices that aren’t there, and even starting to hallucinate the walkers nearby conversing with him. Ryan Hurst leans into Beta’s deteriorating mental state, and the reveal that some Whisperers are noticing and starting to flee makes for an engaging state of affairs. But the entire thing is really just a warm-up for next week, as Beta leads the undead horde into Alexandria, realizes no one’s there, and then sets out to find our people, capturing Aaron and Alden in the process. It was smart to relocate the Alexandrians, but by just having the horde turn around and find them immediately, it plays like a delay tactic, a way to stretch out getting to the good stuff. There’s a case to be made that this needed to happen, but that doesn’t make watching it any more compelling.
Even the character exchanges this episode suffer from a surfeit of overly trite and quickly resolved drama. The tension between Carol and Kelly is initiated then immediately resolved, with Kelly forgiving the woman responsible for separating her sister from the group by explaining that weaknesses can be strength, hope is what you make of it, and other platitudes. The tension between Daryl and Judith is introduced then immediately resolved, the latter’s concerns about being left alone getting some reassurance from the tracker that the kid’s got a whole community of people who care about her, even if he should one day disappear. And the tension between Negan and Lydia is introduced then resolved in true Good Will Hunting fashion, with Alpha’s daughter yelling at the man who killed her mother, then collapsing in tears into his arms. At least the last of these benefits immensely from the great chemistry between Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Cassady McClincy, delivering two of the most engaging performances currently on the series.
This is the epitome of The Walking Dead at its most pedestrian: Not awful, not great, just killing time with some good actors and soapy dramatics before the grand finale. The finale should provide an end to the Whisperers storyline one way or the other; let’s hope the show can pull out a few more surprises, which would make this one of the most engaging half-seasons in recent memory. It’s still not a strong full season, but this far into the aging series, there’s nothing wrong with stealing a page from Princess and taking what you can get.
- “You guys are real, right?” The opening scene with Princess is one of the most lively of the back half of this season, just because someone besides Negan is finally offering up a little spark and sass.
- Kelly’s not wrong: It’s pretty cool that everyone is learning sign language because of her and her sister. That seems like a helpful method of communication in a world such as this.
- Lydia deals the harshest line of the episode to Negan: “Most of us wish you’d died, too.”
- Maybe if Judith learns tracking from Daryl, it’ll make her less annoying? I dunno, I’m just trying anything I can to add value to that character.
- Pretty naïve of Aaron and Alden to think they could follow along the front of the horde from 15 yards into the woods without being noticed. Get it together, guys; something tells me you might not be long for this world.
- If you haven’t already heard, the season finale has been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak. Fingers crossed that social distancing does its job, the federal government starts doing its fucking job, and all is back to normal-enough sooner rather than later. Until then, stay safe, everyone.