“The Key” is simultaneously a reminder of how mercilessly boring The Walking Dead can be (another Rick and Negan bro-off, wherein they “I am rubber, you are glue” each other—and the audience—to death about their respectively crappy leadership styles? Oh joy.) and a tantalizing, frustrating glimpse at another version of the show, one that leans into the inherent surreality of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a tale of two tones, and although the show clearly wants us to invest in the supposed intensity of the Rick-Negan bro-off, the B storylines—which chart the rise of Simon’s rebellion, and Maggie and Michonne puzzling over the arrival of a very unique band of misfits—manage to be menacing, hopeful, and, actually, at times, quite funny. At its worst, the show either backslides into oppressively relentless gore or an aggressive earnestness that is just as tedious to watch (and which feels, frankly, close to Hallmark card treacle with a down-home soundtrack) because it is equally flat.
This episode seemed poised to succumb to that earnestness as soon as Rick and company arrive at Hilltop. He and Daryl have a conversation strewn with snippets of Very Profound High School Poetry About, Like, Profound Stuff Like Life and Death™: “I think about the people who are gone and the people who are still here,” Daryl muses, in all his artful griminess. “It ain’t right.” Remember when Daryl had more to do than be a handsome, stoic bad-ass type uttering banalities that Norman Reedus’ graveled delivery almost-but-not-quite elevates into countrified Zen koans? Now he’s been reduced to Rick’s right-hand man, and his steady decline as a character is a testament to the ways that Rick’s stories—the epicenter of earnestness—flatten the show. This isn’t knocking Andrew Lincoln’s performance: He sells Rick’s quiet and then propulsive rage as he plays lookout; spotting the Saviors’ convoy approaching Hilltop, Rick rams his car into Negan’s, running Negan off-road and giving chase into an abandoned home—the problem is that he’s given nothing to play except grief and righteous indignation. The cat-and-mouse through the decrepit old house is utterly devoid of tension because we know that these two will meet yet again, on some grander battle field.
Their volley of insults, some truer than others, is also stale, because we’ve heard it all before. Negan isn’t wrong that, by and large, the people of Hilltop, the Kingdom, and certainly Alexandria would’ve been better off if Rick had never come; Rick is also right that Negan isn’t saving anyone, that he’s a bully and a monster. But this latter point is more compellingly expressed through Simon’s slow-burn revolt—a second-in-command chomping at the bit for a promotion, because he wants to be the Big Man and because he genuinely (and rightly) believes that Negan is slow-walking the final attack out of his own pettiness, a pettiness that is getting Saviors slaughtered. Steven Ogg is a marvelous actor with a wry, rascally canniness that gives his interactions with Dwight a genuine sense of both menace and jocularity. There’s more coiled-spring tension in this friendly walk-and-talk than in this round of Rick and Negan fighting (allegedly) to the death. Dwight knows he’s with a man who could plug him in the skull or pat him on the back—and Austin Amelio plays Dwight’s caginess quite well. But he shades another layer of complexity into Dwight’s reaction; we get a sense of a man finally allowed to exhale. When Simon asks him “top guy to top guy” if he ever thought of killing Negan, Dwight laughs: “Oh, you mean when he took my wife and burned my face? Nah, never.”
The Walking Dead is a much better show, at times, even a great show, when it focuses on its side characters. Simon’s choice to defy Negan, which began, in earnest, when he ordered the wholesale execution of Jadis’ garbage people, would have been worth teasing out far earlier this season: The Saviors have been portrayed as a blandly malevolent monolith enthralled with Negan—but what if the dissent ran far deeper, was more pervasive? What if instead of being a potty-mouthed catchphrase-spouting machine Negan got to be a tyrant fending off external and internal threats? His violence would seem less cartoonish and more rooted in the dark soil of paranoia. Simon and Dwight’s decision to burn Negan’s abandoned car, give up their half-hearted “rescue mission,” and declare him “gone” to the other Saviors represents actual character development and narrative momentum. Given that Negan does make it out of the house (albeit as Jadis’ captive), and he will presumably meet his usurpers in the flesh again, it also raises the stakes—something the show has largely bungled, Carl’s death notwithstanding.
If the Simon and Dwight storyline ratcheted up the intensity on several macro- and micro-levels, then Maggie and Michonne’s encounter with the trio of delightfully odd women who hold the titular key and a lot of food to share (if Maggie provides them with records, “music, not spoken word,” that is) infuses the show with a much-needed sense of humor and humanity. The show has often touted itself as George Romero’s heir apparent in tying the zombie genre to broader social and moral issues, but it’s often done so with a ham-fisted obviousness rather than a deft hand. Case in point, the exchange between Michonne and Enid as they try to persuade Maggie how to handle the trio (Michonne advocates mercy and compassion; Enid wants to steal their stuff): “When Carl saved Siddiq, he brought us a doctor and a friend,” Michonne says. “Carl was brave.” Enid retorts, “And now he’s dead.” This is paint-by-numbers characterization: The dialogue, dripping with earnestness, offers us nothing new or specific to the characters. However, these new women feel incredibly singular and unique, from their antiquated names—Georgie, Hilda, and Midge—to their varied style of dress. For the first time, Maggie is dealing with outsiders who aren’t enemies: She must decide whether to lead with compassion or to act ruthlessly—and both choices have their merits.
Enid isn’t entirely wrong to question how the hell these oddballs have survived, let alone thrived, for so long, but the show is wisely unconcerned with that. It embraces their full-tilt weirdness, and it allows Maggie to do so as well—which yields an improbable yet life-saving bounty. “The key” is Georgie’s guidebook on how to build medieval-style silos and windmills, things that could allow them to build a sustainable homestead and not just live on brute savaging. The show is rewarding mercy in a way that is more powerful for its unexpectedness; it’s far more moving to simply let the characters make beneficial choices, and reap the rewards of those choices, than to let the score swell or make the dialogue maudlin (Danai Gurira deserves far better than “We’ll fight… but there’s gotta be something after”), or turn every interaction into some Philosophy 101 debate on grand morality. Georgie says that she’ll return to Hilltop someday and “I expect great things.” I’m not sure I expect great things out of The Walking Dead at this point, but an episode like this one sure is good enough.