This is starting to feel like the Star Trek season of The Walking Dead. Each week, our heroes visit some new colony (or planet, in Trek terms) with some clear defining trait. For Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, that meant a quick trip to Nazi Land or ‘30s Gangster Town or Surprisingly Similar To Native Americans World. Carol and the others don’t get anything quite so colorful (although there was that guy with the tiger), but there’s still a concentrated effort on the part of the writers to introduce a larger community into the show’s universe, a sense of multiple societies existing side by side, each one finding a different way to deal with the primary danger. The fact that this danger is no longer the show’s titular villains (who, while still potentially fatal, have been reduced largely to an environmental hazard at this point) but Negan and his dastardly Saviors offers some novelty. And it’s at least conceptually interesting to see that Rick’s woes are only a small part of a much bigger picture.
But it’s tough to pull off this kind of expansion this far into a show’s run, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious, and arguably least important, is simple plausibility: each new group one of the Alexandrians discovers within walking distance of their home base robs the series of the loneliness that defined its earlier seasons, that sense of a world turned into a graveyard populated by little more than angry (and hungry) ghosts. But now it seems like you can throw a rock without hitting some small but fiercely determined colony of survivors struggling to stay alive. What makes this a little goofy is just how many of these places there seem to be in the immediate area—while cities are probably still more or less death zones, you’d think the population density in rural areas wouldn’t be this tightly knit.
Like I said, though, that’s an easy consideration to disregard. We are, after all, watching a show about murderous, ambulatory corpses, so there’s a certain elasticity when it comes to realism; besides, the whole “desperate scavenging alone in the ruins” thing was getting played out. Negan’s group doesn’t really make sense unless they’ve got a whole lot of little communities to menace, and the idea of Rick and the others being drawn into a larger dysfunctional society was probably something that needed to happen if the show was going to have any more stories worth telling.
There’s the rub, though—”stories worth telling.” “Swear” is the sixth episode of the seventh season, and so far, each hour has focused more or less on a single location; some of those locations (Hilltop, Alexandria) were familiar, but others were not. And the new places are kind of a mixed bag. I remain a fan of the Kingdom, with its colorful, self-aware king and that damn tiger (you realize we’re going to have to watch that animal die at some point, right? CGI or not, that’s going down hard). But Tara’s discovery of a town full of women who kill anyone who stumbles over their location feels like a filler hour, an entry that doesn’t offer much new information about anyone, doesn’t introduce any particularly interesting characters, and fails to move the plot forward in any significant way.
I’m a big fan of episodic-focused storytelling; while I think serialization can be a powerful narrative tool, TV shows work best if they manage to tell smaller, satisfying stories inside of longer, more complicated ones. So I respect The Walking Dead’s efforts to offer up plots with definite endings, even if those endings remain open enough to allow for wiggle room down the line. (After Tara lies to Rosita in the final scene—a rare example of a character actually making a difficult but responsible moral choice!—it’s possible we never see the group of women who tried to kill her ever again. But who knows.) Respect doesn’t necessarily translate into enjoyment, though, and for much of “Swear”’s running time, the episode suffered from the same tedious lack of tension that’s been plaguing so much of the season. Introducing new communities is a defensible strategy, but “defensible” doesn’t mean “interesting,” and nothing we see here is all that thrilling to watch.
Oceanside distinguishes itself in two ways: it’s all women, and they kill any strangers who stumble over their community. These characteristics both spring from the same unsurprising source—the Saviors murdered all the males over 10 years of age in the group, so everyone else went into hiding, and are determined to protect their secrecy by any means necessary. Once again, we learn that Negan is a monster whose actions have changed (and ruined) seemingly countless lives. Which, sure, we get it. The Saviors are very, very bad. One side being especially evil doesn’t automatically make anyone who suffers under them compelling, though, and none of these women leave much of a mark. They are dour, and suspicious, and they eat a lot of fish. That’s pretty much it.
I’m also not sure their plan makes much sense in the grand scheme of things. It makes thematic sense, fitting into the “extreme solutions to an extreme situation” concept that comes up so routinely on the series (followed by the reminder that “extreme” usually just means you have more of a chance to fuck everything up), but as a practical answer, I’m not sure “staying in basically the same area but having a lot of guns” is going to work long term. In order for Negan to be effective as a threat, we need to believe that everyone under his sway has no other choice but to stay where they are and accept his orders. At the same time, the zombie threat has lost a lot of its menace, which means it’s getting harder to believe that these groups are as stuck as they seem to be.
That’s one of the challenges of widening the scope: it becomes more difficult to create threats which are convincingly definitive. The writers didn’t help themselves last season, either—by letting Rick and the others get the drop on the Saviors so many times before the hammer (er, bat) fell, the whiplash of suddenly finding out that no, these bad guys really are incredibly powerful after all is hard to ignore.
“Swear” does have a few bright spots. As maybe the closest thing to self-aware comic relief the show has left, Tara remains likable enough, if not exactly setting the world on fire or anything. She gets a few good jokes in, and the fundamental arc of the hour allows for a gratifying amount of hope without giving up on the cynicism. Catching up with her and Heath, we find her arguing for the necessity of joining together with others, of believing in something bigger than yourself, and it’s impressive that the script manages to show the downside to that (in that the Oceansiders’ commitment to protecting their own drives them to murder) while still allowing Tara to retain her hard-earned optimism. Hell, she even manages to stay true to her word after she finds out her girlfriend died; it’s a moment of selflessness and faith that generates one of the few moments of legitimate tension in the whole hour.
And while the women of Oceanside are a grim lot, it was a relief when the script didn’t waffle on their determination to protect themselves. It would’ve been too easy for Tara to convince them to join up with Alexandria—they need to stand by their convictions in order to have any power as a group at all, and the way Natania (Deborah May) tries to convince Tara to stay with them without overtly stating the life or death nature of the decision was some smartly subtle writing. It was also a relief to see Tara work out the math for herself, realizing that she’s being walked to her death (far enough away from camp so that the gunfire doesn’t attract unwanted attention) and taking steps to escape. Her friendship with Cindie (Sydney Park) offered some small warmth, and the final escape across the bridge, while a bit goofy, was at least moderately exciting.
Oh, and Heath might still be alive. Or he might not; I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. “Swear” isn’t a complete misfire, but it continues to be plagued by the same problems that have run through the season as a whole, a lack of urgency that remains constant even as various characters expend more and more effort to convince that Negan truly is the baddest of the bad. The season is nearly half over and it still feels like the table is being set. Eventually you get so hungry, you start wondering if you should find dinner someplace else.
- I like Tara, but it’s harder to root for her when she tells such hilariously stupid lies. Her decision to talk about Rick and company murdering a bunch of Negan’s men also seems like a bad call. (“You should totally trust my group! We’re good at killing!”)
- She gets spotted eventually, but it’s not a good sign for Oceanside’s continued survival that Tara manages to waltz into their camp (past their lookouts) so easily.
- “Some people are evil, Cindy.” Is she talking about the Governor here?