This feels like half of an episode of The Walking Dead. Sure, we get the full arc of Negan applying for—and eventually earning—membership into the Whisperers, and Carol and Daryl’s mission behind enemy lines pays tangible dividends, but it all comes across like the lead-up to something more. There are a few fun elements to this installment, but it’s also an awful lot of the first beats to several subplots just beginning to develop. Episodes like this are what make the show feel more like a standard-issue soap opera, albeit with zombies: Tiny developments distributed among multiple locations and character pairings, wholly disconnected from one another, without a strong unifying theme to elevate it beyond yet another “tune in next week to see what happens” denouement.
Weirdly, this means that once again, Negan is the liveliest part of the episode. “Bonds” makes a half-hearted gesture towards creating a thematic link between the disparate narratives, but “people need people” is too broad of a concept to do much work helping craft those connections. (Also, it’s kind of the general idea of the whole series, not a way to prop up a solitary episode and make it stand out.) Besides, Negan’s current ploy is a lot more interesting than anything else that happens, because he’s at least going against the grain of the usual roll-with-the-punches ideology he’s developed; finally, the character’s motor-mouthed bravado is a source of potential backlash, not a cheap ploy for look-at-me villainy the way it functioned back when he had actual clout—and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has a ball with it.
In fact, most of his monologuing here seems geared toward provoking a confrontation with Beta. Negan has always had a fondness for needling the self-serious, and no one’s more self-serious than Beta. So the constant chatter has both its intended effect—pissing off Alpha’s second-in-command—and carving out a distinctive persona for him among the Whisperers, guaranteeing Alpha takes notice, especially after he takes out an entire group of walkers that Beta set on him in a fit of pique. He’s also smart enough to see Beta’s constant questioning and insecurity in his position (when Beta tells Alpha that Negan is a threat, she coolly replies, “To Alpha, or to Beta?”), and by being a burr in the hulking man’s side, he exploits that.
Which leads to an honest-to-god comic montage, one of the few in recent memory, if not the whole series. The old 50s pop song, combined with the sequence of Negan carrying out tasks only to be upstaged by Beta at every turn, is shot and edited to be nothing more than one long joke, a ridiculous dick-measuring contest played for maximum yuks. If it seems a little out of place on a dour episode of The Walking Dead, that’s not wrong—I would argue it fits Negan’s personality, though not the show as a whole. (It seems like something Full House might’ve done, were that series set in the zombie apocalypse.) Still, it’s different, and to paraphrase Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, at this point in The Walking Dead, anything different is good.
The problem with a lot of the smaller stories here is that there’s no sense of urgency attached to them. Despite a life-or-death situation when Daryl and Carol cross the border into Whisperer territory, it comes across as rushed and without much tension—at no point does it feel like either one of them is in danger of being captured and hurt, even after Carol steps on a stick and the two have to hide from Alpha’s people. The Whisperers on the hunt are still creepy and effective (“Keeeeeeeep looookiiiiiing”), but the actual execution of the plan doesn’t get enough time to breathe. Better is the two of them just tossing acorns at a can, joking and giving each other shit. Daryl walks right up to the border of telling Carol why he doesn’t see a romantic possibility with Connie, despite her urging, but I guess the show is going to drag that out a little while longer, despite every single viewer presumably yelling at him to stop beating around the bush. Still, he has some reason to be wary: Carol is unpredictable right now, to the point he feels justified searching for the handgun in her bag, in case she goes on another wild Alpha chase.
Eugene’s story provides a new wrinkle in his sad-sack existence, when pining for Rosita and being bummed after she doesn’t call at the appointed time marks him again as being lonely, but it plays out in an odd manner. Sure, he talks all night with a random woman over the radio, and he wants to build trust with her, but there’s no reason to not then walk over to someone and say, “Hey, you know how we built a radio to scan for any signs of nearby life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland? Well GUESS WHAT.” But it looks like he’s going to foolishly keep this a secret, despite the woman’s perfectly sensible warnings that either of them could be a threat; for his sake, I hope she turns out to be a friend, though an enemy would maybe be a more deserving outcome for such poor decision making.
There’s also the virus outbreak at Alexandria, but so far, it’s nothing but a means for Siddiq to feel anxious and freaked out, followed by his falling asleep and going into a weird fever dream where he’s still holding baby Coco but standing atop a windmill. There was already plenty wrong with this scenario—he’s mad Dante didn’t tell him about the ever-expanding roster of sick people, but he’s also pretty comfortable putting his infant within coughing distance of lots of folks with flu-like symptoms?—so unless something changes, it just feels like an odd way to provoke the character, without intelligently thinking through the rational actions that doctors would take in such a setting. Hell, Siddiq doesn’t even ask Caleb to wash his hands after inspecting a sick patient, before going up to him and exchanging some patter and pats on the arm. Nice doctoring.
Carol’s plan might be dangerous, but it’s also the best thing anyone’s proposed when it comes to fighting back against the Whisperers. Finding the horde and destroying it eliminates Alpha’s nuclear option, removing the boot from the collective neck of our various communities. But that’s all advance planning, clearly telegraphed, and without much tension for the time being. Right now, the only ambiguity creating some fun narrative friction is the presumable subterfuge in which Negan is engaging. “I’m all in,” he tells Alpha, as she leans in with an approving “Shhh” of a benediction. His commitment looks sincere—and is likely 100% bullshit.
- Dante is still gross, but I guess we’re supposed to like him now because he flirts jokingly with an older woman patient at Alexandria. “I would break you like a twig,” she tells him. Feel free, lady.
- Jerry’s wife Nabila does an excellent job conveying she has no desire to join Eugene’s Hilltop A.V. Club. [A.V. Club mentioned, do a shot.]
- “Plan this stupid, might as well be us.” Daryl and Carol still have great chemistry, despite it all.
- Negan earns himself a piece of sympathy bacon from one of the other Whisperers. Already, he’s amassing fans.
- Eugene, making a bold choice with the handle “Taterbug.”
- Nice to see Negan’s obnoxious banter directed somewhere toward which it’s meant to be obnoxious.