Josh Jackson and Jim Vorel review each week’s episode of The Walking Dead in a series of letters
There aren’t a ton of constants in The Walking Dead’s universe, but one of them is certainly that nobody gets to say something as stupid as “we will lose not one of our ranks” without fate immediately and irreversibly shoving said statement down their throat sometime in the next 60 minutes. That’s just a given. So the second King Ezekiel makes such a foolhardy boast in the name of “inspiring” his men with artificial bravura, it’s clear that most of them are ending up dead sooner rather than later. If we’re being honest, they were lucky to make it as far as they did, instead of just being gunned down in the crossfire they created during the show’s initial (badly edited) ambush sequence. How do you have people firing fully automatic weapons from both sides without hitting the group of your own fighters in the middle, anyway?
But forget that. Although it’s fairly faint praise at this point, I think we can call “Monsters” the best, or at least the most entertaining, episode of The Walking Dead’s season 8 so far. The narrative is still monumentally confused on all sides, but at least tonight’s episode had nuggets of both pathos and exciting action, rather than the procession of dreary gunfights we’ve seen for the first two episodes. Lord help me, I was entertained.
To begin with, you were completely right in one of your assumptions from last week—Rick and Daryl were indeed in the same location as Aaron’s squad, sneaking inside during the big battle raging out in the courtyard. What they were planning on accomplishing after finding a cache of (extremely heavy and bulky) .50 caliber machine guns, I have no idea. They weren’t just going to be carrying those things out of there while the battle rages on—nor should the leader of this war be the one sneaking in on a weird side mission. I couldn’t help but laugh when Norman Reedus seemingly cast shade on this very idea by calling the concept “another one of Rick’s great plans” while seated on the Talking Dead couch afterward. When even your own cast members are publicly lampooning the quality of the writing, that’s not a good sign. But it was all necessary to give us our little reunion with Morales, after all. I for one will miss Morales; a voice of reason in a world gone mad who we were able to become reacquainted with for a short little while.
I kid, above—the return of Morales was as pointless as it was unexpected. We get it; the characters have changed since they first met in Atlanta. Surely we would be expected to understand that in season 8. Hell, we’ve seen Morgan alone waffle between three or four distinctively different personas.
Which brings us to that showdown in the woods between Morgan and Jesus. Did it make a lick of sense for Morgan to suddenly start taking a swing at one of his allies, despite Jesus’ superhuman level of rationality and understanding? Nope, it certainly did not. But did I very much enjoy watching Kung Fu Jesus bust out some of his sweetest moves? You bet your ass I did. It was like the act of throwing a spin-kick somehow transformed this show into Into the Badlands for the space of 60 seconds. Every episode should just be Jesus practicing wing chun in the woods.
With that said, here are some things I actually enjoyed about “Monsters”:
— Squirrelly Gregory at the gates of The Hilltop, pathetically begging to be let in and trying to think of excuses on the spot, as if he never thought to spend any time on the ride to The Hilltop coming up with something he might want to say about selling his community out to The Saviors. His character is so cringeworthy that I actually find myself loving his idiocy. He’s like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm or Will Forte on The Last Man on Earth, forever digging himself in deeper. But it must be said, Maggie is dumber than I thought she was for letting him inside those gates. Zero good things will come from Gregory remaining alive.
— The whole Aaron and Eric arc. This, I thought, was genuinely one of the better bits of Walking Dead pathos we’ve seen in a while. Aaron has never managed to be (in the comics and the show) more than a second or third-tier character, despite having the unusual distinction of being a representation of gay culture in a world of zombies. But this week, his parting with Eric and eventual discovery of him as a reanimated corpse carried more weight than I would have expected for characters we’ve never known all that well. Credit due to actor Ross Marquand, a handsome man who possesses what is perhaps the best of the show’s many, many post-apocalypse 5-day beards. This is probably his best moment on the show, portraying a character who has now been around for longer than we may remember.
Before I go, I’ve also got some questions for you, Josh:
— We’ve seen Rick with his Polaroid camera in two episodes now, snapping photos of the carnage. What is he doing? Making a macabre scrapbook? Documenting this war in the hope that these photos will someday be part of a post-zombie history book? Or will he simply be sending said photos to Negan, in a box with a big turd in it? All three seem equally likely to me at this point.
— How many different outposts have we already seen conquered? How many hundreds of Saviors have already died? Considering the casualty ratio, wouldn’t you expect the remaining Saviors in the Sanctuary to just surrender, or deliver Negan’s head on a spike? And yet, I fully expect to be told again next week that The Saviors still badly outnumber our heroes. How many of them are there, 10,000?
— Excepting a possible scene where Aaron shows up at The Hilltop, will we ever see baby Gracie again? Or is she just a disposable lump of mobile pathos?
When Gregory came back to the Hilltop and starting banging on the gate, all I could think of was The Holy Grail. I really hoped that Kal, or whoever else happened to be on watch duty, would yell, “We’ve already got one!” in a French accent and throw down some elderberry-related shade.
But that moment was a signifier. If Maggie could spare the life of Gregory, who actively betrayed the Hilltop, there was no way she was going to condemn the captured Saviors to death. Jesus, despite the return of “Clear”-era Morgan, has certainly won that battle.
But it won’t be without cost as nine members of the Saviors are now on the run, thanks to the Morgan v. Jesus title-card bout. That includes Jared, the least likable member of Negan’s gang, who seems destined to cause the Hilltop some real pain before someone, probably Jesus, ends his miserable existence.
The Morales moment was indeed a bit of a throwaway—bring back an early-season character in a moment of enormous coincidence only to have him dispatched minutes later. But I guess it’s part of hammering home the point that Daryl has lost all sense of mercy since his capture by Negan’s army. Fat Joey, Morales, and “Why Should I Trust You?” Todd are all now dead by Daryl’s uncaring hand. It’s not as crazy a turn to the dark side as Morgan, but something Daryl is probably going to have to deal with when the war ends.
As to your questions, Rick’s Polaroids certainly recall the photos found in that first Savior outpost of all the people killed by one of the Saviors. It’s a habit picked up from Negan, who showed Rick a Polaroid of Glenn with his head bashed in. This can only be part of Rick’s vengeance—a way to get back at Negan for Glenn, Abraham, Olivia and all the others lost to the Saviors during this war.
It’s still unclear to me how big Negan’s army is or even how many “workers” they have captive. We keep finding outpost after outpost with new villains. But with the Kingdom’s soldiers getting slaughtered in that final scene last night, there also shouldn’t be that many of the good guys left. This war has taken a toll on both sides, but we’ll see where that leaves us in the coming weeks.
Along with Judith, Baby Gracie now represents the peace that Jesus was talking about. I think we’ll see more of her and her new dad, Aaron, after the war.
We haven’t yet returned to that dark trailer where Negan and Gabriel are surrounded by walkers. Do you think we’ll get to see some resolution there soon? Or has Negan disappeared until the mid-season finale? And is Morgan off hunting Saviors by himself or is he going to find another cabin in the woods? And most importantly, will Shiva get to avenge Ezekiel’s followers who just got mowed down by heavy guns? Or will the tiger be one of the casualties?
You’re right, Josh—Maggie sparing Gregory was an obvious indicator meant to show the audience that despite everything that’s happened to her, she still possesses a compassionate heart. There’s no way that she was going to execute all of those Savior prisoners when they arrived at The Hilltop, and it’s only bad writing that make the likes of Morgan and Tara think that she will. Maggie is the most level-headed of all the show’s leaders. If anyone can be counted upon to be a voice of reason at any given moment, it’s going to be her.
In that vein, I actually have to agree with Jesus about taking prisoners in the first place—it’s a good idea, rather than a bad one. Yes, it’s logistically more complicated, but it’s one of the ONLY bargaining chips that a group like the Grimes Coalition have in this war. Jesus is thinking about the long game, which seemingly makes him one of the only people doing so. He’s imagining a time after the end of hostilities, when perhaps The Saviors, or a remnant of them, are a group they might have cordial contact with—this is obviously after the death or removal of Negan, which is a must. The whole point of taking the prisoners is to eventually have a bargaining chip for the Saviors surrender, or a good-faith exchange after the war. Imagine you’re a Savior worker or soldier. If your husband or wife has been captured as a POW, you’re a lot more likely to want to continue fighting if they’ve been executed, rather than if the other side is offering to return them unharmed. This is like Military Tactics 101, here, and it’s the kind of thing that Rick, Maggie, Ezekiel and the group’s other leaders should all have discussed and agreed upon before the war even began.
But this is The Walking Dead, and characters here are subject to different rules, one of the most prominent being: Never spare anyone, because it will always come back to bite you in the ass. So it is with the long-haired Savior Jared, who I failed to recognize last week. This week, I remembered why Morgan hates the guy so much—he was directly responsible for the death of young Benjamin, Morgan’s padawan learner/stick-wielding novice at The Kingdom. As a result, I’m sure that’s where Morgan is right now. His beef with Jared is far too personal (and he is far too crazy) to be anywhere else rather than hunting down those remaining escapees. I’m not sure if we’ll see that, but if not, he’ll pop back up unexpectedly a few episodes from now to save one of the Grimes Gang as a Savior or walker is bending over them, in typical Walking Dead fashion.
I think perhaps we’ll return to Negan and Gabriel next week, now that the battle with Daryl/Rick/Aaron’s forces has wrapped up, although we may also see them high-tail it to the location where they think those .50 cal machineguns are waiting … which also seems to be where Ezekiel and co. are about to get chewed up. We might be looking at an episode of Ezekiel pinned down, losing many more than “not one,” until Rick arrives in a blaze of glory in the final 10 minutes. But after two Negan-less episodes, it will start feeling weird if the show’s current Big Bad isn’t involved for three hours of screentime.
As for Shiva, you and I both know that cat is not long for this world. You don’t just bring a 600 lb big cat on these kinds of expeditions without it ending up as an orange and black-striped bullet sponge. Honestly, it’s a miracle that Shiva has somehow survived this long in The Walking Dead’s world; she may be the last Siberian Tiger on Earth at this point. The only thing that may keep her alive is that they’re saving her death for something Negan does himself, but this is a big, symbolic loss that Ezekiel will most definitely have to bear sometime this season.
Above, I made a case for Maggie probably being the best overall leader to live under during this zombie apocalypse. Who would you pick? Impetuous, determined Rick? Theatrical Ezekiel, who has built quite a nice little community? Psychopathic but surprisingly reasonable (as long as you follow the rules) Negan? Wet blanket Gregory, if only because his antics are amusing?
Maggie is the only one one I’d reasonably want to follow. King Ezekiel seems like a wise enough guy, but I’m not sure I could play Renaissance Fair in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Rick is doing fine at the moment, but the swings in mood and philosophy would be hard to bear. And this last year in America has hopefully cured us all of our desire to be led by a pathological narcissist; can’t you hear Negan saying “I’m the only one who matters?” As for Gregory, Shiva needs a lot of calories.
I do hope our “orange-and-black-striped bullet sponge” survives a little longer. King Ezekiel loses some of his magic without his pet tiger. Maybe the gunfire scared her off. But I’m afraid you might be right about the King eventually losing his Destroyer. I just hope she gets to make a CGI cameo on Chris Hardwick’s couch.
Please don’t die Dark Daryl Dixon.