The Walking Dead is usually good with cold opens. One of the show’s strengths is its ability to craft small, compelling narratives nested inside of larger, clumsier ones; moments where characters find some small reminder of the way things used to be may have become cliche by now, but the writers and directors and cast are still able to convey those moments with tact and even a modicum of poetry. But “Go Getters” has to have one of the dullest cold opens in recent memory. Maggie wakes up at Hilltop and finds out her baby is fine; she and Sasha talk over Glenn and Abraham’s graves; Jesus shows up; then Gregory says he wants the two women out of the camp, for fear of incurring Negan’s wrath. All of which serves to introduce ideas and conflicts that will run through the rest of the hour, but in a flat, functional way that does little more than remind us these characters exist. When the opening credits music kicked in, the urgency was so unwarranted that I almost laughed.

This season’s premiere led to criticisms of dramatic sadism and exploitation, but to be honest, these are cards the show has always been willing to play, sometimes cannily, sometimes not. As the season goes on, the real danger is turning out to be simple boredom. Those first seven or so minutes have no tension, no clever insight into character, no real humor or passion. It seems like Maggie’s been pregnant for decades now (although she still isn’t showing; I suspect that’s not really unreasonable by the actual timeline, but man, it feels unreasonable), and watching her be strong and stoic but just a little sad in the face of unimaginable grief yet again doesn’t have the kick it once did.

Glenn and Abraham’s deaths were shocking in the moment, but they leave surprisingly little impact, because at this point, death has lost its power to do more than surprise. And grief is difficult to portray effectively on screen, especially for a series like this in which all it seems anyone ever does is grieve and hope and grieve and hope. Maggie messing around with the watch her father gave Glenn should be a potent reminder of all she’s lost, and it sort of is, but the symbol has no weight. It’s just someone checking off a box of what mourning is supposed to look like. There’s no spark to it, which makes it something of a chore to watch.

Thankfully “Go Getters” picks up steam as it, um, goes. This is due in large part to Xander Berkeley’s performance as the weaselly Gregory—Berkeley is so overqualified for this kind of role that he manages to transcend the limitations of the writing he’s given and turn in work that keeps finding new ways to play the same note. He is, as Maggie notes, a coward, self-centered and short-sighted, and his willingness to bow down to the Saviors and give them anything they ask for (and even try to give them what they don’t know they want), should make him someone we all want to see dead. Yet he’s also weirdly sympathetic in a way the writers don’t seem to have any idea how to handle.

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Actually, hold on a second. We just spent an hour last week watching Rick kowtow to Negan’s demands, and even if we’re questioning his decisions, Rick is still supposed to be sympathetic. There are differences between his leadership style and Gregory’s; Rick was willing to lie about Maggie to save her life, which counts for a lot. But there’s still a weird hypocrisy going on, in that we’re clearly supposed to despise Gregory for willingly going down on one knee in front of the Saviors—the look of contempt on Jesus’s face is hard to ignore. But why? Hell, even trying to give up Maggie and Sasha makes a certain amount of sense—it’s a dick move, but given that the Saviors have suddenly become a monstrous army capable of just about anything, it’s a defensible dick move.

If Negan really is as bad as we’re supposed to think he is at this point, shouldn’t Gregory be doing everything he can to protect his people, including handing over two of the strangers who are under the leadership of the man whose arrogance put Hilltop in danger? But no: he’s a creep, Maggie and Sasha and Jesus are the real heroes, and you should stand up to the bad guys, except for those times when you desperately appease them because the writers have decided to make them omnipotent. (To give the show a little more credit: maybe Gregory is just an example of where Rick is going to end up if he keeps heading down this road.)

The fact that Berkeley still manages to make Gregory entertaining even as the script works so hard to demonize him is fascinating. There’s even a bit where the actor seems to be actively working against the intentions of the script; Sasha demands he offer them a deal, and he suggests they have a meeting “one-on-one;” when Maggie snaps at him for suggesting some sort of sexual extortion, Berkeley’s contempt and dismissal of her accusation is so authentic that it throws the whole thing into question. As written, the implications should be clear. But Berkeley plays it with barely a leer, which makes an irritatingly predictable “God, what a dick” scene into something a little stranger and more interesting.

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“Go Getters” also benefits from an effective psychopath. The first sign we have that the Saviors aren’t going to take the slaughter of a whole outpost lying down (it’s still hilarious that this group of supposedly ultimate bad-asses had a whole platoon taken out without a single loss in Rick’s group; did they just send all their Gomer Pyles to look after Hilltop?) is a weird sort of midnight prank—completely unnoticed, they open the Hilltop gates, light some fires, and send in an armored car to blast music, attracting walkers into the supposedly protected community. Maggie, Sasha, and Jesus take care of the problem without too much trouble, and the whole scenario is more goofy than menacing. It also suggests a baffling lack of security on the part of the Hilltop folks. I get that they aren’t hardcore, but wouldn’t they at least have guards on duty at night?

Once the dust clears from that, we meet a new Negan surrogate, Simon (Steven Ogg); Simon’s appeared in a few episodes before this, but this is the first time we’ve really gotten a chance to know him, and he makes an impression. Sure, he’s just doing the same I’m-friendly-but-I’m-also-going-to-kill-you shtick that all the others do, but seeing that shtick after getting a chance to know Negan drives home how all of his underlings are striving to recreate themselves in their master’s image. It’s a more effective demonstration of that “We are all Negan” idea than a dozen Spartacus rip-off scenes.

It also helps that Ogg is really good at this. In fact, I’d say he’s better than Morgan, or at least more unsettling. Video game fans should recognize him from his work voice acting Trevor, the psychotic id of Grand Theft Auto V, and he brings a lot of energy and dynamism into what is, essentially, a greatest hits collection of bad guy threats. We don’t need to believe that Simon is a complex person, or that he could be sympathetic, or that he has layers; we just need to be fascinated by his antics even as we worry about what he’ll do next, and Ogg pulls this off nicely. Ultimately Morgan has been undone by both the huge expectations for his character and his inability to be particularly scary. As a henchman, Ogg is pretty much exactly what’s needed, and he and Berkeley play off each other very well.

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“Go Getters” even gives us an ending that finally feels like we’re moving forward, even though we probably aren’t. Jesus forces Gregory to accept that Sasha and Maggie are staying around, and Sasha convinces Jesus to follow the Saviors back to home base so she can find out where Negan lives. Sasha’s determined to kill him, and she’s not alone; in addition to Rosita and her magic bullet, Carl has also decided to step up. His and Enid’s journey to Hilltop had a few decent character beats (the roller skates were a nice touch), and the discovery that Carl is determined to make Negan pay for killing Glenn and Abraham at least offers some possibility of story momentum. It’s doubtful anyone will actually succeed in bumping off the bad guy just yet (and it’s also very likely that a failed attempt at revenge will just result in Negan doing some new horrible thing), but the illusion of hope is better than nothing.

Stray observations

  • I don’t think the Sasha/Maggie scenes worked particularly well; they were passable, but not much more than that. However, the small but clever touch of having Enid put balloons on the wrong grave was lovely—funny and sad and human all at once.
  • Carl is terrible at throwing darts because he only has one eye. Is it wrong that I laughed about this?
  • We only spend a few minutes in Alexandria (the way this season has spent each episode focusing more or less on a single location is interesting; it makes for more coherent storylines, but it also feels like everything is moving even slower than usual), but apparently Michonne has to go off on her own to “figure some things out.”
  • Why were Maggie and Sasha locked into their house? That doesn’t seem very safe.
  • Carl and Enid’s discussion about Glenn and Abraham’s death (“Did you watch?”) had a good, low-key teenage feel to it.
  • “That’s a solid kneel, Gregory.” -Simon

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