In "The Well," The Walking Dead's first episode since its hugely rated, incredibly controversial season seven premiere, the show ... didn’t follow up on that premiere at all. The Saviors popped in for a short scene to remind you they exist, but the episode mostly concerned Morgan and Carol hanging out with their new best friend King Ezekiel and a CGI tiger named Shiva.
Fans of the show won’t be surprised by this. (You may recall how last fall’s eight episodes stretched what amounted to roughly half a day of real time to a full half-season of television, continually filling in the same events from different perspectives and leaving cliffhangers hanging for weeks at a time.) The Walking Dead’s diffuse narrative is, at this point, probably its greatest strength. If one plot isn’t working — and I guess I would say that’s definitely true at this point — it can just scoot over to another one for weeks at a time.
I’m sure some Walking Dead fans will roll their eyes at not seeing the immediate aftermath of Negan’s execution of Abraham and Glenn and, instead, spending an hour with a CGI tiger.
But I am not one of them! I was happy to have an hour like this, even if it suffered many of the same problems as the premiere. (For instance: repetition. How many times have we seen a "Carol leaves the group for good!" storyline, only for Carol to come right back a few episodes later? Even the show seems a little over it.)
The degree to which I didn’t care about what was happening to Morgan and Carol in "The Well" — even though they’re probably my two favorite characters at this point — is indicative, I think, of how hard the show will have to work to win me back. But the episode also reminded me of one of the versions of The Walking Dead I like best: a completely out-there retelling of Watership Down.
Yes, Watership Down, as in "the book about the rabbits"
If you’ve never read Watership Down, by English author Richard Adams, its similarities to The Walking Dead are kind of eerie. (They even have the same initials, give or take a The.)
A group of rabbits, realizing the onset of the apocalypse — in the form of a development that tears up their meadow — embark upon a voyage to find a safe home on the titular hill, Watership Down. Along the way, they encounter numerous other rabbit warrens, which may or may not represent various responses to fascism during World War II. (I come down on the side of "may not," but hey, symbolism is fun.)
The rabbits, led by ordinary bun Hazel and his psychic brother Fiver, build a new society atop Watership Down, then raid an ultra-fascistic warren led by General Woundwort in order to help some of the female rabbits who live there escape and join them for breeding purposes. (This is not the best novel to read if you’re looking for strong female characters, but I still love it, and I promise I have an actual point to make.)
Watership Down, being a novel, is able to build to a climactic battle between Hazel’s warren and Woundwort’s warren; during the fray, Hazel nearly dies and his pal Bigwig faces off with Woundwort in bun-to-bun combat. It’s pretty amazing. After that, there’s a brief denouement, and the book is over.
You can see where I’m going with this. If The Walking Dead had somehow built to the confrontation with Negan, and if the show were going to end once the final battle with Negan is said and done, then the two works would be just about perfectly matched. (We’d have to pretend The Walking Dead’s Governor arc hadn’t happened, but, hey, when’s the last time the show mentioned it?)
Indeed, there’s something really Woundwort-y about the showdown with Negan. As in the novel, Rick and his friends infiltrated the enemy’s territory to execute a daring plan. And as in the novel, Rick and his friends gravely underestimated their opponents’ response — in this case, how persistent Negan would be in tracking them down and spreading his gospel of death.
What I’m most struck by, however, is the way the various warrens Hazel and his friends encounter are similar to the various communities Rick and his friends have visited on The Walking Dead.
Every other one seems too good to be true, until the dark secret at its core is exposed. (The ones in between "every other one" are all run by murderous psychopaths.) Rick and company imagine staying at each of them for a bit, until they realize it’s time to move on. But in Watership Down, the "let’s sample other warrens" element of the story occupies roughly the first third of the novel, and that’s it. The Walking Dead keeps trying variations on it, to diminishing returns.
Which finally — finally! — brings me back to the CGI tiger.
Been there, done that
As I’ve pointed out in the past, the many problems with Negan’s storyline are exacerbated by a simple feeling that The Walking Dead has been to Negantown before, with a more compelling villain named the Governor. Because that faint fog of repetition hangs over everything, Negan has to be even bigger and badder to compensate.
Part of the issue stems from The Walking Dead being a TV show in its seventh season. No matter how creative your showrunner, how original your premise, it is hard to wring seven seasons of original stories from the same basic set of ideas. This goes doubly for the zombie apocalypse, which necessarily limits your storytelling capabilities. The Walking Dead can’t suddenly become a legal drama or something.
So while I very much enjoyed seeing Khary Payton play the pragmatic but optimistic King Ezekiel — and appreciated the effort of the less talented sister of the tiger from the movie Life of Pi in the role of Shiva — I couldn’t help but feel like the events of "The Well" were a repetition of stories we’d seen before, with slightly weirder stuff around the edges to make it seem "different."
And don’t get me wrong. Listening to Ezekiel speak in ostentatious, faux-royal language was fun, as were the doleful strains of the a cappella choir singing Bob Dylan’s "Don’t Think Twice." (Hey, if any musical artist is going to survive via choral tradition in the post-apocalypse, it’s Bob Dylan.)
But even with all of the quirky oddness, the episode seemed like a conscious combination of elements from other warrens ... er ... communities we’d come across before.
The recipe seems simple: a little dash of the peacefulness of Alexandria, wedded to some of the "willing to overlook horrors in the name of relative sanctuary" from that season five hospital, with just a pinch of the "I guess all anybody does here is finish jigsaw puzzles" somnambulant quality of Herschel’s farm.
And if the rest of The Walking Dead weren’t bugging me so much, that might be fine. I would be content to watch Melissa McBride and Lennie James goof around with computer-generated tigers, former zookeepers turned kings, and your college glee club for a few weeks, especially if they suddenly started jousting or something.
But the appearance of the Saviors reminded me that, hey, the rest of the show is pretty much at the bottom of a ditch right now. That makes it harder to forgive "The Well" for having basically no story beyond "look at this weird new community we found!" It makes it harder to forgive The Walking Dead’s writers for penning a Carol arc that still doesn’t make much sense on any level — even though, under different circumstances, I probably would’ve been willing to overlook both transgressions, for McBride and James’s sake.
Maybe that’s not fair to "The Well," but I’d say the rest of the show isn’t being very fair to what few pleasures the series has left. I’m starting to realize why Watership Down wasn’t an episodic TV show.