In Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, not much happens, but what does happen is entertaining, generally fun TV. That is to say: “Say Yes” is mainly about Rick and Michonne fighting zombies together and being in love.
As season seven inches incrementally in the direction we’ve been heading all year — all-out war with Negan — “Say Yes” is a break from the incessant torture and nihilism of our heroes’ interactions with the Saviors.
But it’s also a study in complacency. While I’m not sure that idea works as a theme, it works well enough as a respite from the rest of the season’s storylines.
Rick and Michonne fight zombies for the future (but mostly because fighting zombies is fun)
“Say Yes” focuses on Rick and Michonne as they scavenge for weapons in order to fulfill their deal with the Junkyard gang. It’s clear that Rick is treating this outing like a vacation. He’s avoiding going back to Alexandria, and Michonne knows it. But she enjoys kicking zombie ass and being alone with Rick too much to call him out on it.
TWD special effects guru Greg Nicotero has directed some of the show’s best and worst episodes, but his installments are most enjoyable when he embraces one of the show’s greatest strengths: pitting the main cast against zombies in impressive set pieces. In “Say Yes,” the set is an abandoned carnival teeming, inexplicably, with militarized gun-toting zombies — soldiers and civilians who faced off at one point and universally wound up as zombie fodder. The guns are in perfect working order and helpfully come with bullets; one zombie inadvertently fires a round to demonstrate.
The sequences in which Rick and Michonne have to figure out how to divide and conquer the zombie pack aren’t quite as thrilling as the sequence from a few weeks back when the two of them took out a horde with two cars and a cable, but they illustrate how well the two leaders work together.
And they show our heroes having fun. These sequences also feel comic-book-like, with Nicotero conjuring some great shots of Michonne doing her best samurai impression, including artistic blood spatters and zombie carnage tastefully silhouetted against a wall. It’s the kind of subtle directorial style that prompts us to ask why the show doesn’t do this kind of thing more often.
The larger point of all the fun zombie fights, however, is that they can’t last forever, and the episode has several moments of reckoning. When Michonne thinks for a horrible moment that Rick has died, she freezes. It’s a strange sight to see Michonne at a loss, but it’s also a brief mirror of the paralysis of grief Rick has struggled to break out of all year.
Fortunately, Rick is alive and well, and the two successfully complete the fight. Later Michonne confesses to him that she doesn’t think she can lose him. Rick responds — with a conviction I’m not entirely sure he feels anymore — that she can lose him, and he can lose her, because their lives aren’t as important as what they are fighting for: a peaceful future.
As much as The Walking Dead is a vague, often jumbled metaphor for fighting social ills, this exchange is almost a bit too on the nose for the current cultural moment. But it’s complicated a bit by the show’s other major subplot — Tara finally coming around to breaking the promise she made to Cyndie in episode six not to reveal the location of Oceanside to her people — or tell them about the full arsenal of weapons the women in Oceanside carry.
Vows of fealty don’t mean much these days
Tara must have been internally wrestling with herself over the idea of breaking her promise for the past six episodes, but we only get to hear the final resolution of that internal debate, which she helpfully spells out to Baby Judith so we can hear it, too.
“What makes our life worth more than theirs? Because we want to stop the people that are hurting us, who will hurt other people,” she asks and answers rhetorically.
The moral conflict surrounding Tara’s decision to tell Rick about Oceanside is much more complicated than this self-exchange would imply. The fact that Tara’s character has always been presented as someone who believes in fairly simplistic notions of what’s right and wrong doesn’t change all that we know about how fraught this situation is.
The Oceansiders’ isolationism is a direct result of what Negan did to their community by slaughtering every male in the group before they fled him and went into hiding. If the Alexandrians invade Oceanside, they’d be knowingly forcing Oceanside to re-engage with Negan after he essentially committed mass genocide and left behind a community of traumatized women and children desperate to escape him. Plus, since the Oceansiders have vowed to fight anyone who comes near them, the Alexandrians would likely have to both inflict and endure a number of casualties on both sides just to gain access to the guns.
In the long run, maybe there’s nowhere for the Oceansiders to run, but right now, they’re traumatized and trigger-happy and just want to be left alone. The show has done no real work to convince the audience that Tara’s rationale is the correct one either for her or for Alexandria, and it seems like the worst option for Oceanside.
Tara sticking firmly to her promise of secrecy, no matter the cost, might have been a far more interesting choice than the path the show has inevitably taken, which could be predicted from the moment Tara agreed to keep Oceanside’s existence a secret. And the fact that we all knew her decision was inevitable speaks to how predictable and lethargic the show has become.
The Walking Dead has made the characters “breaking out of complacency” into a boring, complacent plot point
The curse of The Walking Dead, as many have pointed out, is its endless repetition.
Much of this slowly moving season has involved people slowly reaching conclusions we knew they would have to reach to keep the story moving forward: Rick slowly waking up from his grief and concluding (again) that he needs to man up and fight the Saviors; King Ezekiel slowly concluding that he needs to join with the Alexandrians and fight; Tara slowly concluding that she has to break her promise to the women of Oceanside; Dwight slowly concluding he doesn’t like being Negan’s whipping boy. Heck, even Daryl had to think about it a few times before he was ready to escape the Saviors’ compound.
The problem with these beats is not only that we’ve explored the basic idea of “needing to wake up and fight” in previous seasons. It’s that they have taken forever to play out.
In nearly every episode so far, one of our protagonists has failed to make a major decision or else reneged on a decision they previously made. Meanwhile nearly every episode has also seen Negan do something horrific, whether that was ironing someone’s face, making a fat woman cry, taking someone hostage, burning someone alive, or any other number of awful actions. Unfortunately, this disparity has shifted season seven into a glorification of Negan’s violence, because nothing else is actually going on.
When Rosita finally approaches Sasha at the end of “Say Yes” and asks her to help her launch an attack against Negan, the show treats this like a dark new turn for the worse. But it’s hard to care because we already know their attack is going to fail. We know because we still have four episodes left to go; we know because the entire season is full of failed or aborted attempts to kill Negan. We know, we know, we know.
At this point is that I’m not sure if the show’s writers — in this case Matthew Negrete — realize how many thematic nods to the show being stuck in a rut it needs to get out of it they’ve built into their episodes. Take, for example, the episode where characters kept repeating themselves. Is this the show being self-aware, or is it just pacing itself so slowly that it doesn’t recognize how transparent its need to keep stalling through the Negan arc has become?
In “Say Yes,” each focal character has a mini-moment of paralysis followed by action. As an episode theme, the idea of the characters growing complacent is strong, a good reminder that The Walking Dead can still deliver an effective hour of TV.
But when considered as a part of the show’s overall narrative, it’s just one more reminder of how tired and cyclical this never-ending season has been.