Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review
The Walking Dead
each week in a series of letters.
Every so often, The Walking Dead reminds its viewers that it began as a comic book. Sometimes it’s an over-the-top villain like Negan, and sometimes its a dreadlocked king with a pet tiger, who talks like he’s spent a few Saturdays too many at the Renaissance Fair.
These moments can be jarring or off-putting, especially to people who didn’t read Robert Kirkman’s series. Had I not expected a self-proclaimed monarch with 600 pounds of feline predator, I’d be worried that the writers had lost their collective minds.
But the show is also at its best when it can take the ridiculous elements of the comics and flesh them out in a ways that feel real. You argued last week that Negan just doesn’t come across like an actual credible human being, and I have to imagine you were ready to double down on that when you first encountered King Ezekial here. But the episode did its best to make him an interesting, compelling, real character as he dropped the whole Shakespeare in the Park act with Carol.
Negan may also be putting on a bit of an act, but all we’ve gotten so far is his psycho-charmer act, and that may be all we get.
This episode was thankfully a respite from the gruesome violence of last week. The specter of the Saviors still hung over the paradise inside the Kingdom, but we only got a glimpse. Instead, we met another group trying to build something lasting in the wake of the apocalypse. The Kingdom puts Alexandria and Woodbury to shame with gardens, movie night and cobbler at every meal. The only downside is that, like everyone else in this area, they must pay tribute to The Saviors and put up with humiliation from random power-hungry rednecks.
But it was an interesting introduction to another corner of the post-zombie world, and the handful of characters we briefly met were more colorful than those in Alexandria or The Hilltop—especially Ezekial’s weird manservant Jerry who gets really excited about fruit.
I’m curious what you thought of King Ezekial and his Kingdom. I have to think you’re warming to Morgan now that he’s given up his hard-and-fast code of non-violence. But what of the rest of the episode? And what about Shiva?
How it pleases me to receive this missive from thy hand! Thou art famously astute of mind, and such thoughts as make the lonesome journey from the pate to the page, as it were, suffer not e’en the most trifling of dilutions. Thus, all such correspondence as flows forth from head to quill to parchment is doubly—nay, I say trebly—blessed!
It pains me to confirm that aye, thou speakest all too true when reckoning my recent ambivalence, if not outright malaise, for all matters pertaining to that contradictory realm of the lifeless-yet-ambulatory. And yet I must beseech thee, hold thy tongue in matters of our virtuous regent! What is the expression for which I grasp…ah yes! Do not “assume,” lest thou makest the toiling, burdened beast of thyself and thy loyal partisan, which is to say, me.
King Ezekiel as a creature of two dimensions? Heaven forfend, Joshua! Ne’er would I kindle the faintest smoky wisp of such a notion, much less give it voice! He is, I dare say, a gust of bracing wind to this pantomime’s wheezy, pleuritic lungs. Shall I summon the goddess of brevity? Very well—simply spake, Joshua, I love him!
I really, really intended to write the entire email that way, but since those two paragraphs took me about 30 minutes, I think I’m going to have to take the time machine back to modern times and resume my ordinary voice. The main takeaway for me is that King Ezekiel is just what this show needed. I know we don’t totally agree on this, but I see the previously two episodes of The Walking Dead as almost fatally bad, and I think they really, really needed to get as far away from those disasters in both subject and tone as fast as they could.
Yes, Ezekiel is an outrageous character, but there’s a method to his madness—the minute he started speaking, I wondered if his origin story would be that he was an actor of some kind, so I gave myself a little pat on the back when that came true. So there were real dimensions to him, but he was also just fun. You need larger-than-life characters, always, but there’s a difference between bombastic types like Ezekiel who are trying to make the best out of a bad situation, and one-note boring psychopaths like Negan. I don’t know if you saw the “scenes from next week” yet, where Negan is going to try to break Daryl, but I guarantee you it’s going to suck—it will be the same kind of “what’s the darkest thing we can think of??” one-upsmanship, designed to show how TWISTED Negan really is. I think someone mentioned this in the comments of last week’s review, but it really does remind me of that short period on Game of Thrones when they tried to do the same with Ramsay Bolton, and the whole thing quickly devolved into torture porn.
But Ezekiel is terrific. My other big takeaway from this week, on the negative side, is that no matter what Carol does, she always manages to be annoying. Her weird patronizing grin when she met Ezekiel almost took me out of the moment, and this odd, unexplained compulsion to constantly be leaving places is no less annoying now than it was when she first did it (in the fog of prehistory, or season two, or whenever). Just take the fucking fruit, Carol! Stop making your shitty jokes about chocolate, lose the smirk, and eat the man’s goddam fruit, because he’s awesome! YOU ARE NOT THE SHOW!
And honestly, the only negative thing I have to say about Ezekiel is that when you have a secret that compelling, why waste it on Carol? There are way too many people on this show who are weirdly committed to making sure Carol doesn’t die, and none of them seem to realize that if they come down with a runny nose, she’s going to murder them in their sleep.
That aside, I liked this episode. Certainly more than its two predecessors. And there are a few things I’m looking forward to. First, I want the Fiefdom (I refuse to call it the Kingdom while its in thrall to the Saviors) to revolt. Second, I want a long monologue-off between Ezekiel and Negan, because Negan’s monologues are boring as hell and ‘Zeke would whoop his ass. Third, I’m with you on Jerry, and want to learn more about his history with pomegranates. Fourth, I want Morgan’s new protege to become the Darth Vader of sticks, where he goes completely to the dark side. And fifth, I want the rule of Chekhov’s Tiger to be obeyed…that thing better do some eviscerating before this is all said and done.
As I kick it back you, a few questions—what’s going on with these pigs? Why did the Kingdom get off so easy, while Alexandria had to endure all that weird psychological torment? Also, with new “kingdoms” and people who speak medieval and the tiger (ahem dragon *ahem), the Walking Dead is basically trying to become Game of Thrones, right?
I think I’m mostly just glad to meet a decent leader in this world. Aside from Rick, the best we could do so far was Deanna, and she had her head buried pretty deep in the sand. Everyone else has been either a psychopath or just really, really dumb. But I’d leave Rick in a second to go follow the guy with the tiger. He may be putting on an act, but it’s for his people. He’s doing everything he can to keep his people safe and happy. In that way, he’s least like any ruler from Game of Thrones. Maybe Daenerys, but she’d never have bowed to the Saviors or accepted defeat.
The pigs were an interesting touch. Stuff them full of Walkers and ship them off to the Saviors, a subtle form of protest in a difficult situation. I’m like you—I can’t wait for these people to join forces with Rick and fight back, and I can’t wait for the tiger to do some serious damage, even if it adds CGI to one of the best practical-effects shows on TV. I don’t think Ezekiel’s people have it easy. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that those fighters who “died clearing a house of walkers” were actually victims of The Kingdom’s first encounters with the Saviors. There may be a revenge tale about to unfold with Morgan’s young protege. But now they just keep their heads down and pay tribute every week.
This ostensibly was a character building episode for Morgan and Carol, but Morgan’s subtle shifting was more interesting to me than Carol’s repeat of the happy homemaker act. And getting caught by Ezekiel revealed more about the King than it did Carol, who still just wants to be left alone.
Like you, I was also a little disappointed to see scenes from next week’s episode. An hour of Negan trying to break Daryl sounds, er, torturous to all involved. I don’t want to wallow in the darkness inside men’s souls when we could hang out with King Ezekiel. Or even Jesus. I know the writers have to continue to establish the dominance of Negan’s group, but I can’t wait to see these new characters help Rick take down yet another post-apocalyptic tyrant. But I imagine it’ll be a while before we get to return to the fairytale land where the local glee club covers Bob Dylan and lush red pomegranates magically grow in Virginia.
So my final question to you: Is it time to shift focus away from the original gang to the more interesting characters they’ve introduced recently or will that just dilute our emotional attachment to the show? Morgan, Carol, Daryl and the Grimes family are all that’s left from Season 1. We’ve got four very different communities, including whatever settlement the Saviors call home. Portraying that as a functioning society rather than just a place of torment and misery will be key in making this season enjoyable and believable. But how much can we dwell on those outside Alexandria before this morphs into something too unfamiliar for longtime fans?
I think you’ve hit on the knotty problem that could plague this entire season. It’s almost certain that the writers feel that they need to establish Savior dominance before they can bring us to the inevitable Kingdom-Alexandria union that fights them and brings them down. Which means we’re going to have to see next week’s episode with Daryl to prove that Negan and his boys are super evil, and we’re going to have to go back to Alexandria afterward to see Rick tell his people that they need to submit, and basically we’re going to have to endure probably a full half-season (or more) of the new status quo before anything interesting happens. And it makes sense why they’re doing this—in theory, you can’t just spend an entire season introducing a gang of villains and then wipe them out with a snap of the fingers.
But here’s my thing…maybe they should. Again, this is all my opinion, but I think that the introduction of the Saviors has been such a profound and total failure that we’re entering “sunk cost fallacy” territory now. They’ve invested so much in Negan that they can’t really get away from him too quickly, but every second they stay with him is going to be awful too. Inevitably, they’re going to throw good money after bad, and there are going to be a lot of duds this season. (Can we just give next week’s episode a 1.0 and be done with it?)
What we have to hope for, in the interval, is a few fun episodes like this one, and the introduction of new characters that aren’t terrible bores. There won’t be very many for the exact reason you pointed out—there’s only so far we can get from Alexandria, and the fact is that minus Abraham and Glenn, the cast is pretty much the same as we left them last year. We have to resolve the whole “Maggie’s baby” thing, we have to watch Rick capitulate and then eventually rise again, and there’s probably some secondary drama we’ll have to endure with Eugene and Rosita and possibly Carl and Enid.
So the answer is no, you can’t stray too far from the main group. Even in this fun episode with King Ezekiel, the Saviors make an appearance, which tells us that the worlds are going to connect sooner rather than later. (Good call on the eight dead Kingdom men being Saviors victims, by the way…you’re almost definitely right.)
My worry is that the catharsis isn’t going to hit with any impact when Negan and the others finally get theirs. I’m already tired of them, and I think if we accept that there’s no way we’re getting a quick Saviors defeat, the really important question for the show’s writers is, “how do we make the Saviors more intriguing?” Unfortunately, I think we got our answer tonight—with 1-D villains like the long-haired dude who picked a fight for no reason. Expect more of the same, because from everything we’ve seen, nuance is not part of the menu when it comes to the Saviors.
Which is why I remain bearish on the rest of the season. I think the missteps from last year’s finale and this season’s premiere are going to haunt the show for a long while—there’s no salvation until the Saviors are gone.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.