The 17th episode of season 10 of The Walking Dead doesn’t play coy with the purpose of its existence. Right from the start, the first thing we see is Maggie Rhee, headed back toward Hilltop, the place she ran for a number of years, accompanied by Judith Grimes. Maggie’s return dictates not just the arc of this episode, but sets up what looks to be the next major threat to our heroes—and potentially the last true villains they’ll face, given how close we are to the final season and the end of the series. Yes, to the list of nicknamed menaces like the Wolves, the Saviors, and the Whisperers, we can add one more group of still-breathing antagonists: the Reapers. Maybe Maggie’s homecoming wasn’t such a welcome one, after all.
It was an especially unwelcome appearance if you’re not a fan of watching Lauren Cohan walk in slow motion, because boy, they pressed that visual button repeatedly throughout “Home Sweet Home.” True, it was important to give some weight to the return of the longest-running character on the show outside of Carol and Daryl, and overall, the episode did a fine job making the reintroduction of Maggie feel both earned and deliberate, giving her a nice heart-to-heart with Daryl and even an unexpected bond over sisterhood with Kelly. (Though the latter may have been as much for the viewer’s benefit when it came to learning who Kelly was and where she was at, given how little of her we saw last season, especially in the back half.) Maggie’s story was predictable—she and her son Herschel traveled around, losing touch with Georgia and finally ending up with a nice community before an attack forced them back this way, along with new friends Cole and Elijah—yet her reunion with Daryl was undeniably touching, just as her realization that Carol was responsible for Negan’s freedom made that an icy exchange. But while the implacable pace of her march away from Hilltop was a nice way to signify how she took her former home’s destruction like a gut punch, it also got us to the next danger awfully soon—one that arrived in a hail of bullets.
If anything, the episode stumbled by rushing to reintroduce a new threat so quickly, rather than giving us a chance to re-enter this world and take stock of where everyone left off. The Walking Dead often comes across like it’s insecure about going too long without putting our heroes in peril in the woods against a garden-variety human menace, and this was the latest evidence the show is still scared to take risks, even when granted an extra six episodes to essentially do whatever the hell it wants. I was hoping for a little more experimentation; instead, the introduction of the Reaper actually had the unintended effect of making this feel more like a standard-issue episode; we could’ve used a little more “just spending time” with these people. Especially when the Reapers, so far, basically come across like a militarized version of the Saviors, or any other dangerous group we’ve encountered.
Speaking of awkward introductions, the show decided to quickly undercut what could’ve been an intriguing new character. Don’t get me wrong: I sort of admire the decision to take the mask-wearing question mark, Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari), and immediately reveal him to be nothing but a scared young man, hiding his trauma and fears behind his mysterious costume. And there’s some potential to explore what sent the guy down this path, much the same way the show decided to hold back whatever disastrous encounter with the Reapers sent Maggie and her few remaining companions back toward Alexandria in the first place. But it came across as uneven and jarring—suddenly the character we’ve seen do nothing but kick ass without batting a (metaphorical) eye gets too scared to move and needs a pep talk from Kelly? (A pretty bad pep talk, at that.) It’s not that it doesn’t necessarily track for the character; it’s that we don’t know him at all, let alone well enough for it to play as meaningful in any real way. The series will have to spend some time peeling back his protective layers before any of that means much.
Part of what made the episode a bit lackluster is that the entire thing is based on a question we already know the answer to—“Are you coming home, Maggie?”—so structuring it as though the outcome is in doubt made some scenes feel more like treading water than they needed to. Especially when there’s so much rich stuff to play with: Maggie’s realization that Negan is free and a part of the community, the arc of her journey that led her back here, the friction with Carol… all of it holds promise. If nothing else, Maggie’s return is a nice reminder of just how rife with character study the series could be after 10 seasons. Here’s hoping the remaining bonus episodes do something more with the freedom they have to experiment.
I will say, one of the most interesting aspects of “Home Sweet Home” was watching how The Walking Dead dealt with the new COVID-19 reality. When these bonus episodes were first announced, showrunner Angela Kang acknowledged that the big, zombie-horde-filled sequences for which the series is known just aren’t feasible during a time when people need to stay six feet apart. And other than the speaking roles, everyone did seem to be keeping their distance; when Maggie and company enter the parking lot to clear out a bunch of walkers, episode director David Boyd’s orchestration managed to artfully imply groups of the undead without actually showing them, via use of shadows, container doors ajar, and so on. It was a nifty, low-budget workaround to what will doubtless be a pressing problem for the show until everyone’s vaccinated.
- Negan’s “Well, shit” after Maggie walks right by him in the pre-credits sequence was maybe the best possible way to reintroduce her to everything that’s gone down in her absence.
- I liked the way the Reaper was essentially introduced as a horror-movie villain, first showing his wide-open eyes hiden in the underbrush, and then having him march around like a camoflaged Jason Voorhees, knocking down Maggie and flinging Daryl against a tree.
- Confession time: I rewound it a good half-dozen times, and could never quite make out what Mr. Military Reaper Guy’s final words were. It sounds like, “Pope ball chip”? Commenters, any insight would be appreciated.
- Elijah must constantly be on the verge of passing out from heat stroke in that getup, no?
- The final song playing as they approach Alexandria is “You Want It Darker” by Anita Lester.