“Dead Or Alive” is a mostly quotidian episode of The Walking Dead. Daryl Dixon scowls in a most dirty-sexy fashion, and otherwise good people briefly flirt with their darker, crueler impulses, only to reject them (as we knew they would)—though those impulses are, arguably, more pragmatic. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plumbs new depths of hamminess, and there’s a mildly inventive zombie fight and one storyline that becomes genuinely disturbing, even heartbreaking, in a way that the show rarely achieves. That storyline follows Father Gabriel and Doctor Carson on their doomed, desperate escape to the Hilltop and Gabriel’s slow dimming into blindness. It balances the terror of Gabe’s disability with his willful insistence that all things, even bad things, happen for a reason, and that the Good Lord will guide them to safety and salvation.
Even though viewers with Gabriel’s dwindling vision could see the ultimate resolution of that storyline—Doc Carson dead and our poor man of the cloth hauled back to the Sanctuary to spend the rest of his days sorting bullet cases—the writers’ commitment to fully pulling the rug out from under Gabriel, and Gilliam’s marvelous performance, establish a perfect existential dread that the show has long strived for, but rarely achieved, in its more ostentatiously gristly set pieces. The beautiful serendipity of Gabe and Doc Carson finding the radio outpost, the car keys, and the map, and of half-blind Gabriel miraculously firing a shot into the zombie mauling Carson, suggests that maybe the man upstairs really is looking out for them; it is, if nothing else, giving Gabriel the strength to keep going. So, the fact that Gabriel’s miracle shot is what drew the Saviors and led to Carson’s death is Twilight Zone levels of shocking and cruel. Gilliam is wrenching as Gabriel sobs “no,” like some kind of dark prayer.
Father Gabriel’s arc is also so satisfying because it offers some semblance of resolution and because it has true narrative potential. Have we ever seen a story about being disabled in the zombie apocalypse? This is the compelling material the show could offer us, if it weren’t always in such a hurry to get to the epic battle or the next character death designed for maximum WTF-itude. “Alive Or Dead” is, by and large, a place-setting episode that more or less runs in place until we start getting to the epic showdown between Team Negan and Team Rick, a showdown that has already been drawn out so arduously, and for so long, that it’s hard to feel emotionally invested in it except as a means to a merciful end for this season. The episode starts with its blandest, most conventional plot arc: Daryl and company maneuvering through the woods to get to Hilltop, fighting some swamp zombies (kudos to the sound effects department for those truly disgusting squishes of soft, rotted skulls collapsing under knifes and boot heels). Most of this arc is devoted to Tara’s lingering vendetta against Dwight, the man who, of course, killed her beloved Denise—but also the man who is helping her group avoid the Saviors (he knows, for instance, that Negan won’t send his fighters into the swamps).
Tara has always been defined by her brashness and brattiness (she is, after all, the same person who sold out Oceanside, leaving the women who saved her life weaponless against the Saviors). But the ways she lets her personal animus smother her better judgement, leaving the group behind to chase Dwight through the woods—where footfalls snapping branches or the thunder of a firing gun might easily draw hordes of the undead or, worse, a Saviors crew—is particularly selfish. A not-so-merry band of Saviors does enter the scene, sending Tara into the bushes and forcing Dwight to do some fast-talking to direct his former cohorts away from the remaining Alexandrians—which means that, in the guise of a good solider, Dwight will have to follow them back to the Sanctuary. Austin Amelio genuinely sells Dwight’s regret at killing Denise, and his grim resignation that he likely won’t survive the battles to come (and even if he does, he expects either Tara or Daryl to deal him some Alexandrian vengeance). Dwight’s inevitable martyrdom is cast with deep shadows of foreshadowing, but unlike many characters (like, um, Tara), there’s more story in his fumbling toward redemption.
This episode, which is Rick-less and mostly free from the fallout of Carl’s death, reminds us that the show is often at its strongest in delivering smaller, more intimate character moments, moments that derive their unspoken potency from the characters’ histories. There’s not much action in the recurring beats of Carol, Morgan, and young Henry standing watch over the imprisoned Saviors, but there’s potential for drama. Carol and Morgan have become such complex, compelling figures because they’ve been locked in separate and mutual cycles of embracing and rejecting their own capacities for brutality. They are so proficient with violence, able to be soulless when it suits them, because they have each lost a child in spectacularly horrific circumstances. So, making them the de facto parental figures for Henry—a child whose heart is calcifying every day—is an interesting, though mostly unfilled, premise. Especially since Morgan wants to encourage the dark seed muscling up through the soil of Henry’s spirit (“He’s gonna live, because he knows how to kill”), but Carol wants to lay down roots of compassion and humanity (“He’s a child. He’s done too much already”).
This dilemma between humanity and cutthroat survival plays out on a slightly more macro level in Maggie’s story. Rations are running low, and she must decide whether to keep feeding her prisoners in tandem with her people. The Savior prisoners pick a bad time to ask Maggie for a few precious moments outside their pen, even under armed guard. This request pushes Maggie over the edge into denying them rations—and Lauren Cohan really sells Maggie’s exhaustion, exasperation, anger, and determination (when one of the Saviors implores Maggie not to treat them like the enemy, she snarls, “You are the enemy!” in a near-perfect line reading). It’s a damn shame that the show has so focused on the Rick and Negan alpha bro-off that it’s mostly neglected to tell the story of her maturation as a leader and a mother-to-be (though, at this point, the show’s refusal to actually let her look pregnant has veered from the comical to the annoying).
When Daryl arrives at Hilltop and tells them about Carl’s death, Maggie immediately rushes to comfort a weeping Enid. The news of Carl’s death makes Maggie reassess the necessity of showing compassion, even (or, perhaps, especially) to the enemy—she gives them back their rations and gives them exercise privileges. I’d say that we could debate the tactical smarts of her mercy, but that thick brush of foreshadowing suggests that the Savior prisoners will reward her for her kindness and join Hilltop against Negan’s coming attack. Let loose the dogs of war and the zombie-gut catapults.