Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

It was a tantalizing hint of a sharp left turn, narratively speaking, for The Walking Dead: Walkers who can communicate! Ever since the tease that aired following Rick’s departure, where Rosita and Eugene were shown lying in the mud and listening wide-eyed as the herd of walkers passing by above them whispered “Wherrrre arrre theyyyyy,” the stage was set for a brand-new world of dangers and a radically revised post-apocalyptic universe.

We should’ve known better. After an episode literally called “Evolution,” in which Eugene makes the case for the walkers developing the potential for speech and thought, it’s all revealed to be a sham. After killing some of these spry new Talkers (I can’t be expected to write “talking walkers” every damn time I refer to them) in the show’s final minutes, Daryl sees the seam in one’s skin and opens it up, pulling off an undead skull cap to reveal the all-too-human face hiding underneath the rotting flesh. Leaving aside the practical difficulties of sewing masks made from decaying material (they must have to make new ones, like, every other day, no?), this means there’s a threat of living beings out there who have chosen to blend in with the walker hordes; in other words, at any moment a supposedly braindead shambling mess could suddenly turn and launch a swift attack on our unwitting protagonists—which is exactly what happens here. R.I.P., Jesus.

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It’s fair to say there’s a lot of potential in that idea, but it can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown after the early episodes this year showed such promise in the notion of deriving human conflict from our existing characters. Worse still, that promise is just lying there waiting to be utilized: There’s a whole plot about what went wrong between the communities, and rather than delve into it in a significant way, the show is playing the waiting game, obnoxiously offering little teases of a far more interesting show, if only it would stop playing coy and dropping elusive hints about why Alexandria (and Michonne in particular) is on the outs with the other two outposts. We get small flashes of insight: Michonne feels guilty turning down Carol’s request that Alexandria send a delegation to the fair, but insists, “We have our own troubles, too.” She tells Siddiq that people in Hilltop are still angry with her, and she refuses to mend fences—“Not the way they want me to,” anyway—instead implying she made some hard choices that got people killed, but it was the right thing to do. Show, don’t tell, Walking Dead. The series may want to play the long game with that narrative, but it means we’re left spinning our wheels in the here and now. Or rather, enduring some tiresome conversations, and then killing off Jesus before he can settle into his role as leader.

Credit where credit is due: His murder at the hands of a Talker was a rare instance of the show delivering a somewhat surprising death, even if it was telegraphed the minute everybody else slunk through the cemetery gate and we waited around for the undead shoe to drop. After a sometimes invigorating fight sequence (though director Michael E. Satrazemis falls prey to the unfortunate tendency of employing lazily gratuitous slow-motion shots), Jesus turns to dispatch what is presumably one last walker before joining everyone in escaping, and instead it ducks his sword, grabs him, and stabs him in the back, whispering, “You are where you do not belong,” as he breathes his last. Everyone pours back in to the gravesite, which is how Daryl makes his discovery about the human menace in walker form, and our heroes hear the whispers of the others passing on the order to keep them together.

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Screenshot: AMC

It’s a clever enough wrinkle, and even if it again creates the standard Walking Dead scenario of us-vs.-them struggles, it’s at least closer to garbage-people weirdness than a new crew of Saviors. If only the refusal to engage in the larger existing story of conflict between the communities didn’t mean we had to endure irritating stories about Henry and his teenage shenanigans. The pivot to a new crew of kids who turn out to be insufferable shits, deriving laughs from peeing on walkers, was annoying in a Carl-in-season-four kind of way, a clumsy teen angst storyline shoehorned into the post-apocalypse without any real appeal. The show is trying to turn Henry into Carl 2.0, and it’s neither working nor wanted. (Though I will confess to a moment of sympathy when he sees Enid kissing Mr. ex-Savior). That he winds up locked in Hilltop’s jail, barfing and sad, by episode’s end, is a little too on the nose as a metaphor for Henry’s presence on the series.

But hey: When God imprisons a kid, he frees a Negan. This development is welcome only insofar as it hopefully means no more scenes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan stuck smirking and/or sobbing behind bars, his character literally going nowhere. Presumably, this is setup to having the former monster be rehabilitated, but it would be far more unexpected and satisfying if he just killed a bunch of Alexandrians and hit the road, never to be heard from again. “It’s bad enough I gotta clean up your shit, I shouldn’t have to listen to it, too.” Amen, Gabriel. Stop trying to reach this guy—here’s hoping the priest left the cell open intentionally.

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The steady journey to find Eugene and evade the walkers was the most satisfying part of “Evolution,” likely because it was a rare case of the show just executing a straightforward story without trying to drag it out. They went to find Eugene, and in doing so, discovered the new menace of walkers who don’t abide by the old rules, ending with the reveal of the humans that hide in plain sight among the undead hordes. That’s a beginning, middle, and end for a subplot, and it’s something this series could sorely use more of. It’s what made those first couple episodes stand out; so take a breath during this mid-season hiatus, Walking Dead, and hopefully you’ll come back ready to get down to the business of telling good stories, not just teasing them.

Stray observations

  • Tara, summing up Henry’s value: “He threw up on a pig. And then my boots.”
  • The best and most dramatically poignant character beat this episode was Michonne and Carol making awkward small talk about their kids before getting into the issue of the fair.
  • I should’ve known Jesus was doomed the second Aaron told him he should finally start being the leader Hilltop needs when he gets back. “At long last, you’ll find your place” is pretty much the kiss of death on this show.
  • Negan’s one good line: “It’s like TV—and I loved the shit out of TV back when that was a thing.”
  • I do like that Daryl named his dog, “Dog.”
  • Seriously, though, the masks these Talkers make? The physics of trying to stitch together organic material that basically rips like wet toilet paper is just madness. Please tell me the show is going to give some explanation of how it holds together, like maybe they paper mache’d it or something? Otherwise, come on, now.

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