Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

It’s difficult to assess an episode like “Do Not Send Us Astray,” because it’s more like two separate installments back to back. There’s the first part, which is arguably the most entertaining and purely kinetic sequence of the back half of season eight, and then there’s what happens after, which is a forehead-slapping stupid-fest.

It’s always a relief to realize the Walking Dead episode you’re watching has actual stakes and moves the story forward in a tangible way, and the Saviors’ assault on Hilltop is nothing if not a definitive shake-up of the status quo. With plentiful loss of life on both sides, including a few minor characters of note eating it (well, just Tobin really, and even with him I had to go back and look up his name again), the Hilltop manor gets transformed into a walker feeding frenzy. The entire pen of Savior prisoners either escapes or joins the Hilltop team, it’s firmly established that Simon has control of the House That Negan Built, and our protagonists have finally realized that walker blood has other uses than simply makeup when you need to pass through somewhere unnoticed by the undead. Sure, it requires forgetting all those times the blood did nothing (e.g., Daryl licking his arrowheads clean), but given the unevenness of this season, let’s borrow a page from Maggie’s book, and claim a win wherever we can take it.

And honestly, the showdown at Hilltop was a terrific battle. For all the complaints people have about the show’s tendency toward prolonging narratives with endless “when do we get to the fireworks factory” stalling between actual story beats—and those complaints aren’t wrong—the series can still deliver great action. And despite it ending with the Saviors retreating to lick their wounds and regroup, the fact that Simon is now in command means something. There’s an element of unpredictability and nuance to our antagonists, and not just because it’s fun to watch Simon improvise ideas and responses on the fly like a normal person, rather than Negan’s grade-school Shakespearean grandstanding. It lends an air of fraught uncertainty to this battle, because Simon isn’t above doing something impulsively. When Maggie confronts him with her host of captured Saviors, his response is immediate and foolish, and broadcast straight into the ears of the hostages: “Screw them!” That’s how you lose a war.

After getting their tires blown out by spikes, Daryl’s risky but enjoyable machine-gun taunt lures Simon’s crew inside, only to blockade them with the school bus and open fire. What made it great was seeing both sides bust out unexpected tactics and surprises, so it wasn’t just another round of butting heads and or lopsided displays of brilliant maneuvers from only one side or the other. Simon really did unsettle Hilltop with the archers, so despite Maggie’s plan working and effectively penning in the Saviors, then opening fire on them from front and behind, it didn’t feel like a foregone conclusion that Hilltop would definitively win. Even Dwight’s saving of Tara—slicing her up with an arrow flesh wound before Simon could kill her—maintained a subtlety that preserved the illusion of ambiguity for anyone watching. (Well, almost anyone: more on that shortly.)

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Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Rick is a repetition machine here, reiterating the same point over and over, but to be fair, he just buried his son, so his zombie-like state is understandable. The conversation between Maggie and him is curt and single-minded: They want Negan dead, and everything else comes second. Michonne and Rick exchange even fewer words, but he owes her more: “I had to try,” he says again, giving her the only indication that he knows he’s not well right now. Carol and Tobin have their little heart-to-heart, which should’ve been his warning sign of mortality, and Maggie gets some nice reassurances she’s a good leader after freeing Alden to go bury his fellow Saviors.

Less acceptable is the sudden and inexplicable role-reversal that takes place between Tara and Daryl. Suddenly she’s the forgiving one, and he’s out for blood? Especially coming on the heels of being shot, it doesn’t make sense for her character, regardless of watching Dwight keep her safe in the woods. It’s even more inexplicable on Daryl’s part, given his endless stressing of the fact that Dwight is an invaluable asset to winning the fight. This felt like the show trying to maintain tension by just inverting their viewpoints, rather than arriving at these perspectives organically. At least when Henry steals away with a machine gun, you know it’s because he’s a dumb, fucked-up kid, and doing something so stupid is wholly appropriate.

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But then, the walkers attack. And everything goes to shit in more ways than one.

Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Where to begin with the laundry list of inexplicable moments that characterize the death and rebirth of the walkers who lay waste to the Hilltop survivors? The show is careful to display the clock moving forward a little more than an hour between the death of Tobin and his resurrection into a flesh-hungry monster, meaning Walking Dead is taking pains to show it’s aware of the need to not just have people instantly come back as walkers. Too bad that doesn’t explain why everyone else shot or stuck with a blood-infected instrument suddenly died and turned at roughly the same time. That’s never been the case for people bitten, who presumably got a much bigger dose of the walker infection at once; hell, Carl lived for more than a day. True, looking for in-universe coherence regarding the rules of the disease is a fool’s game at this point, but to see them manipulated so blatantly is still irritating.

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And that criticism doesn’t even factor in the gobsmackingly dumb choices made here. In what world would Hilltop, having just been attacked by the Saviors and still uncertain of the safety of the grounds, not post a guard or two throughout the house, paths, and elsewhere to keep watch through the night? Nobody had even a little trouble sleeping? How about when a newly turned walker goes falling down the wooden stairs several feet away from where you’re resting? That wouldn’t maybe wake up one or two folks? What about the screams of the nurse being bitten? No? Okay, then. Once more, you know it’s not the most thought-through of episodes when the infuriatingly dumb Henry unlocks the Saviors’ pen and starts threatening everyone, and my response is, “Well, at least he has a reason for being that idiotic. What’s everyone else’s excuse?”

Thankfully, once you get past the flawed premises of the entire sequence, what’s left is an agreeably dramatic rearranging of the state of affairs. Everyone puts together what happened, and there’s a good chance this will be the big clue revealing Dwight as still on their side, so long as Tara can refrain from committing suicide long enough to discover she’s not going to turn. (I’m just assuming Dwight didn’t dose his arrows because he’s still on Team Rick. I’ll happily eat crow if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.) The lost Hilltop population is replenished somewhat thanks to Alden and the other remaining Saviors. Rick may have no desire to hear the prayer “Do Not Send Us Astray,” but this episode sent the overall season arc in the right direction.

Stray observations

  • Looks like we’re back to crazy Morgan. Gavin keeps appearing, blood dripping from his fatal wound, insisting, “You know what it is!” If “it” means “a rehashing of Morgan’s old psychological struggles,” then yes, we do know.
  • Carol: “I don’t think it ends.” Tobin: “The end of the fight is what we’re fighting for.” Carol: “Winning… just means we get tomorrow. After that, no guarantees.” Always curious to watch the writers find new ways to state the show’s central motto.
  • Cutting the power, then blinding the Saviors in headlights, was a nice touch.
  • Siddiq earns the respect of his colleague just in time for her to be murdered. Welcome to Hilltop, Siddiq.
  • My guess? Henry either ran off with or was taken by the Saviors, who saw something useful in the budding little sociopath.

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