Back in season nine, if you had said that a year from now Negan’s storyline would become the best thing The Walking Dead had going for it, I would have looked at you like you had just grown a third ear, or maybe like you had just decided to write the worst sendoff imaginable for Rick Grimes. And yet here we are, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan reminding everyone why the show hired him in the first place. He’s a terrifically charismatic actor when given even halfway decent material, and by springing him from that damn jail cell, he’s getting a chance to show his chops, without the cartoon-villain silliness he was often forced to deliver as the leader of the Saviors. That was fun, but seeing him as an ambiguously good guy, trying to do right but also continually tempted by the brutality he knows sits just below the surface, is far better. Strolling into the Whisperers’ camp, laughing and threatening Beta, lets him do both. To quote the once-again-leather-jacket-wearing man himself, “Alright, you big-ass freak—let’s do this.”
Not much actually happens in “What It Always Is,” so much as things are set up to get paid off farther down the line. The most promising element of all this table setting is Aaron catching Gamma damming up the creek, tossing her a bandage to wrap her injured hand. What makes this intriguing is how it opens up the possibilities for precisely the kinds of mind games that create intrigue—specifically, the opportunity for Alpha to use Gamma as a Trojan horse of sorts, befriending Aaron because he might be useful to Alpha’s long-term plan of destroying our heroes’ outposts and poaching the smartest and most rugged of the citizens. “Might just have to wear a new mask,” she tells Gamma. The masks have always been the Whisperers’ way of acknowledging the new world and their lowly place in it, but with this line, Alpha reveals that wearing a mask is always just a way of getting what you want. Wearing her real face can be another mask, one that communicates just as false a front, but under the guise of authenticity. Aaron has been a bit of a dick lately, but he still seems very much capable of getting played in this manner.
The moment when Alpha slices a member of her own community to ribbons doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know (outside of the fact she wants new converts to her cause, not a bunch of useless dead bodies), but it’s effective as yet another reminder that her unpredictability is a big part of her appeal. Alpha could have gently hugged that guy, or she could have stuck a knife in his eye, and neither response would have surprised me. Again, it’s a tribute to Samantha Morton that this comes across as manipulative, not inconsistent, and that the Whisperers’ leader can keep revealing different sides to her persona without it becoming jarring or nonsensical. And now that we’re realizing Gamma may not be so steadfast in her devotion to Alpha after all (those waking nightmares don’t exactly shout “Love you, Alpha!”), the series is going to get a chance to tease us with the possibility for the conflicted Whisperer to go either direction—genuinely befriend Aaron and turn on her mask-wearing benefactor, or be used as a puppet for Alpha’s machinations. The line between the two is thinner than it might seem.
The search for Kelly is resolved awfully conveniently, but at least it pushes some intra-group tensions to the fore. Daryl and Connie continue their will-they-won’t-they dance (his story about Meryl yelling at Daryl for forgetting the beer after saving his life is a nice touch), Kelly continues to maybe be losing her hearing, and the episode happily fractures Yumiko and Magna in a significant way. There was never much of a relationship to invest in here anyway, and their exchange this episode is the definition of slipshod characterization. We’re supposed to believe that in the 13 years they’ve known each other, bonded deeply, saved each others’ lives, and become romantically involved, Magna never once told her the story of why she went to prison? That smacks of a manufactured drama of convenience, and rings instantly hollow. Magna stealing the supplies from the root cellar is a far more believable subplot, and one that actually suggests something interesting about her character—she’s still got one foot out the door of this community that’s teetering on the edge of collapse.
Ezekiel and Siddiq both get a chance to lie expose their weaknesses this episode, and while one is abrupt, the other already known to us, it’s an opportunity for two characters who haven’t exactly shared the screen much to get a chance to bond. Ezekiel has been moping the whole season thus far (understandably so), but it still feels capricious to suddenly saddle him with a cancerous tumor. Luckily, Khary Payton plays pitiful awfully well, and his explanation of the weird twist of fate that has turned formerly treatable conditions into fatal diagnoses is one of those world-building moments that actually slots well into the pragmatic structure of this universe. Of course cancers that were easily beaten before the apocalypse are now a death sentence; as Siddiq reveals his PTSD (in an oblique way, admittedly) and the two share a moment of pessimistic bonding, it feels like there’s actually a chance for these two to progress as people. The is The Walking Dead, so let’s hedge our bets; still, it’s a nice thought.
But honestly, all these scenes played like treading water in comparison to Negan’s efforts to get free and clear of his former captors, only to be pulled back in to the cycle of hope and despair that defines anyone who dares to give a shit about people in this world. From the first moments Brandon revealed himself as a Negan sycophant, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father, his obnoxious hero worship scanned as dangerous. But it was legitimately heartbreaking to see Negan put himself out there emotionally, following the path he’s been on since first being captured, and try to bond with a replacement Carl, only to have dumbass Brandon return and murder mother and child alike in the misguided belief it was some sort of test. The monologue where Negan describes what it was like to be on a plane taking off is the sort of richly textured moment that doesn’t pop up nearly enough in this series, and it’s a great sequence, even if it’s then followed by teaching the kid how to flick guys’ nuts. That’s Negan in a nutshell (sorry), though; the caring and crass, great and gross. I’m curious to see where his donning of his old jacket and wielding Lucille takes him next episode—that combination of guilt, guile, and gusto is finally paying off in interesting ways.
- The cliffhanger tactic of ending the pre-credits sequence with what appears to be a mortal threat would be more effective if I thought for even one second that the show would let Kelly die in such a manner. Perhaps a sharp stylistic left turn is in order when it comes to character deaths, Walking Dead.
- Kill of the week: Negan wrapping the barbed wire around the walker’s head and then pulling it off through the jaw was pretty good, and then he followed it up by stomping it into pulp. Nice and gross.
- Thank god Brandon is gone. “Damn! Classic Negan!” Anyone would’ve wanted to kill the odious idiot at that point.
- I realize that having Alden and the other Hilltop folks continue rambling about how they want to take the fight to Alpha is a long-game setup for a really disastrous decision on the part of these people, but I’m already weary of their grumbles. Go ahead and make your ill-fated move, guys.