For a lot of liberals — and even a lot of traditional conservatives — season seven of The Walking Dead has taken on added resonance in the wake of the presidential election.
The series has always centered on questions of leadership. Who gets to be the leader? What is their responsibility to the people they lead? How do leaders make good decisions? Its answers to those questions are too often, "Rick is the leader because he’s the protagonist," but it will occasionally dig into why, say, his decision to declare preemptive war against the Saviors blew up in his face. (It will only do this for a scene or two at a time, but I’ll take what I can get.)
Since Negan came on the scene, however, these questions have taken on even more urgency. Now, the question isn’t just what makes a good leader, but what one does when forced to live under a leader they believe to be a genuine threat to their lives and livelihood. And the show has presented a variety of answers to that question.
King Ezekiel lets his people turn a blind eye, while he works out the messy deals that keep the Saviors off his back. Rick seems to have simply rolled over and given up. (I suspect he’s up to something.) And Gregory goes even further than that — he more or less says any resistance to Negan is a terrible idea, full stop.
So "Go Getters" makes for an interesting parable in the current political climate, especially because much of it focuses on Maggie, who knows firsthand how terrible Negan can be. She refuses to roll over — but also knows she’s unlikely to suddenly upend the system she lives in. So what’s her solution to this question? It involves working locally.
First, though: This episode is really, really boring
I actually watched "Go Getters" twice, because the first time through, I was a little surprised to learn how little actually happened in it. I kept getting distracted by other things. But my second viewing confirmed that, yep, this was one lackadaisical episode of TV.
I don’t mind when Walking Dead goes a little ruminative. Indeed, some of my favorite episodes adopt that tone. But "Go Getters" doesn’t, well, go anywhere. It asks and answers the same questions, in the same ways, multiple times. Is Gregory a coward? Yes. Does Maggie possess leadership material? Also yes. Are Carl and Enid part of the most boring teen romance imaginable? You’d better believe it.
If nothing else, it works as a solid showcase for Lauren Cohan as Maggie and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sasha. The two characters stay behind at the Hilltop in the wake of the season premiere, where their love interests died. (Maggie, of course, had been with Glenn since season two; Sasha and Abraham had only recently become a thing.) Maggie needed serious medical attention for her baby, but all turns out to be well as she wakes up to open this episode. Things are going to be okay, right?
Nah. The Saviors are still out there, opening up the Hilltop’s gates to let zombies stream in, making Gregory kneel after he gives them a bunch of scotch, and even taking his beloved painting.
As with all things Savior, they get a little harder to buy with every passing episode. Their power stems from the way they keep zombies cleared up outside these various colonies — this is the "service" they provide — but if there’s anything this show has essentially proved over seven seasons, it’s that zombies aren’t that tough to kill.
Intellectually, I can jump to "colonies like Hilltop may not be as good at killing zombies as Rick’s crew is," but it’s harder to feel that on a visceral level. Everything that’s happened on the show gets in the way.
Anyway, it’s obvious where we’re heading with all of this (to war), and I actually appreciate the way the show fills in some of the connective tissue the comics leave out. (There, Jesus just shows up and says he knows where Negan’s compound is; here, he’s on an explicit mission to find it.) But the story keeps going in circles, where everybody worries about the Saviors, and then they show up and do something bad. There’s no build to it, just an endless string of repetition.
Still, it’s nice to see Maggie given something like this to do
Cohan has long been one of the show’s strongest performers, able to pull off everything from action-movie heroics to big tear-jerking moments. She joined the series at a time of maximum uncertainty — during its first showrunner switch in the second season — and has ended up becoming one of its most stable elements. If she’s in a scene, she’s going to be pretty good, at the very least.
And "Go Getters" makes the subtle argument that she’s been building, all this time, toward becoming a leader who might even surpass Rick’s skills. Leadership on The Walking Dead is usually about making the best possible decisions on the fly, and Maggie more than shows she’s capable of that when she orchestrates a turning back of the zombie horde that invades the Hilltop.
But what makes "Go Getters" such a good episode for her is that it returns to one of the core truths of The Walking Dead: What makes our heroes worth following is that they don’t give up the spirit of what was good about the pre-zombie apocalypse world. They may not always agree, but they’re trying to build a place where people can live and work peacefully. And that’s a worthy goal in and of itself.
Maggie’s response to the Saviors isn’t necessarily to fight back immediately, but it’s also not to roll over in the face of them. It’s to sit back and wait for an opening, all the while planning her response.
But it’s also to make sure that the people around her are safe and provided for. And, most importantly, she doesn’t shirk that duty, even when she has a good medical reason to do so. Her fight is the same as her community’s fight, and vice versa.
It would be easy to read too much into how The Walking Dead is talking about life after Donald Trump’s election. After all, the character of Negan in the comics made his first appearance during Obama’s first term, long before Donald Trump’s run for president seemed even slightly plausible. He’s always been an over-the-top cartoon bad guy, almost certainly not intended as a political metaphor.
But for progressives who watch the show, it’s harder and harder to ignore the resonances with modern life. If you really believe Trump will build a worse, more unjust United States, then you’re obligated to push back in some way. But you’re also just one person, in one place, and it can be easy to feel voiceless. In "Go Getters," The Walking Dead suggests that the best way to fight back isn’t to fight at all, but to try, even slightly, to make your immediate world a better place.