As The Walking Dead has staggered through its seventh season, it’s drawn frequent criticisms for what has seemed to be a total abandonment of the ethical questions it struggled with throughout the early years of its run.
That’s why the show’s choice to spend “Swear” weighing a militant all-female conclave’s decision not to kill an intruder is an honest surprise. After multiple encounters with bands of survivors prone to violence and mistrust, “Swear” is a reminder that somewhere beneath all its recent sadism, The Walking Dead still has a heart.
Of course, the episode also sets us up for some serious betrayal later on (more on that in a bit). But on its own, “Swear” is an almost gentle break from the monotony of Negan’s endless torture.
“Swear” picks up a story last mentioned half a season ago
The opening of the episode finds us on a rocky beach where a young girl, Rachel, and a young woman, Cyndie (Sydney Park), are scouting for walkers when they discover a washed-up body. Surprise! It’s Tara (Alanna Masterson). We haven’t seen Tara since episode 12 of season six, when she and Heath left Alexandria for a supply hunt.
In practical terms, Tara and Heath’s absences are a result of Masterson taking a break from The Walking Dead after having a baby, and Corey Hawkins, who plays Heath, stepping away to play the lead role in Fox’s new reboot of 24. But in show terms, Tara’s return is a stark reminder of just how little time has passed since we saw her bid goodbye to Denise — just two weeks in the show’s universe.
While the rest of the Alexandrians have experienced one traumatic event after another in that fortnight, Tara and Heath have been out scavenging for supplies. They’ve barely found anything, but Tara remains hopeful that there’s something out there that will make the trip worth it: “There’s nothing out there that stays hidden; we just have to find it,” she says.
In flashbacks, “Swear” reveals that Heath has wrestled with guilt over what Rick’s group did to the Saviors, attacking them as they slept. But Tara, believing the mission successfully eliminated a threat, insists they did the right thing. Shortly after this conversation, the two run into a horde of zombies on a bridge and get separated when Tara is knocked into the water below. That’s presumably how she ends up on the beach, where we find her at the start of the episode.
When Tara wakes up in Cyndie and Rachel’s presence, Cyndie is kind to her. She stops the younger Rachel from gleefully killing Tara, sneaks her some food, and later protects her from the rest of the women in Cyndie and Rachel’s women-only village. The village is hidden deep in the woods and heavily armed, and its residents have sworn to kill anyone who intrudes upon their hideout in order to protect it from discovery. But because Cyndie is the granddaughter of the group’s leader, Natania (Deborah May), she is granted the opportunity to make a case for letting Tara live.
From there, “Swear” largely concerns itself with the question of whether the women will decide to kill Tara or spare her life despite their vow. Though the episode suffers from the same strangely leisurely pace that has defined season seven so far, it also offers relief in the form of a group of survivors who seem to be actively questioning whether their kill-on-sight policy is a good one.
The Walking Dead is now so consistently dystopian that the new survivors’ transparency is kind of refreshing
The show’s previous moral dilemmas about the best way to maintain peaceful societies in the post-apocalypse have fallen prey to a basic requirement of keeping the show going for season after season: The narrative can’t allow peace to be a commonly held goal. Sure, Rick’s preemptive strike against the Saviors may have been an unwise decision that led to Glenn’s death, Rick’s humiliation, and the subsequent abjection of the Alexandrians to the Savior’s demands. But The Walking Dead has made it clear through its endless, boring posturing from Negan that the Saviors would have come for them eventually. And as the show has previously seemed to argue, at least Rick wasn’t passive in managing the Saviors’ threat.
But “Swear” questions that logic a bit. The women in the woods have opted to run and hide from Negan rather than fight him; they’re very upfront about their reasons for living the way they do, and their motives for choosing to kill any intruders on sight. In the universe of The Walking Dead, it’s almost more of a stretch that they don’t immediately kill Tara, even as it’s nice to meet a group of people who yearn to trust and believe in humanity again. While Rachel’s delight at the prospect of murdering Tara reminds us to spare a thought for Lizzie, the show’s late child psychopath, the rest of the group is more or less not so much down with the idea. (We aren’t told whether Tara is the first person to come along and test the group’s stated MO, but we are told that “normally” they “shoot strangers on sight.”)
“Swear” doesn’t quite lead to a happy Thanksgiving meal between friends (one dream Thanksgiving this season was probably enough), but Tara and Cyndie’s immediate connection and trust in one another show us how rare trust has become in this world.
To make the women-only village work as a concept, The Walking Dead has to make the Saviors even more inconsistent
Because Tara doesn’t know the Saviors are still a threat, “Swear” concerns itself with her gradual realization that Rick’s group’s mission to kill the Saviors was in vain. The women in Cyndie and Rachel’s village are still clearly living in terror of Negan and his followers, and no wonder: After the Saviors discovered their previous settlement, Negan strategically killed every male in their group over age 10, spurring the women to pack up their bags and escape in the middle of night. At that point, they relocated and formed the Shyamalan-esque village in the woods where Tara ends up.
As horrifying as it is to discover that Negan murdered all the men in their group, it also makes no sense. Based on what we’ve seen of Negan so far, he’s mainly been interested in mining Alexandria for resources, weapons, and strong-bodied men to break. However, the women in the woods have a small arsenal at their disposal, suggesting that Negan took a completely different approach when he first happened upon them than he did when slowly and systematically disarming the Alexandrians.
We can buy that Negan slaughtered all the men in order to farm himself a ready sexual harem, but it’s a huge stretch to accept that he wouldn’t have immediately taken the villagers’ guns. This revelation also makes his obsession with breaking Rick and Daryl seem even weirder; why didn’t he just kill all the men of Alexandria and be done with it, as he did to the men in the other settlement? What can he possibly want with Rick as an individual at this point, when he’s been content to slaughter a whole village presumably full of able-bodied and resourceful male leaders?
Thus, in introducing the village in the woods, The Walking Dead turns the Saviors into an ever-more-unwieldy plot device. While the obvious reason for Negan’s inconsistent behavior is that Rick and Daryl are our heroes, increasingly both Negan and the specter of the Saviors feel more bizarre than menacing. Negan is supposed to loom larger than life and appear unpredictable and terrifying, but in a world where the mechanisms of life and death are already so cruel and random, his particular brand of cruel randomness just feels like weird plot inconsistency.
In any case, The Walking Dead is clearly setting us up for an eventual unification between Rick’s group and the women in the woods. Rick’s people need guns, and the women in the woods have plenty. We already know hiding won’t work; Tara told us so herself at the beginning of the episode. And “Swear,” in its very title, foreshadows vows being broken.
In fact, the entire episode revolves around avowal: Heath recalls that he and Tara only promised to spend two weeks hunting, not a moment more; when she finally makes her way back to the bridge, the point of their separation, it seems as though he may have headed for the hills. During her conference with the village leaders, Tara learns that she may be the sole exception to their shoot-first policy; later, however, after promising to help her return to the bridge, her escorts apparently break their promise and turn their guns on her.
After Tara escapes from them one last time with Cyndie’s assistance, she asks why Cyndie’s not like the other women in the village — why she’s so determined to trust Tara and spare her life. “Why aren’t you?” Cyndie responds. Cyndie takes a huge chance on Tara not to give up the women’s location — and when Tara returns to Alexandria, she returns the favor. In the final scene, she refuses to disclose that she found anything, much less another band of survivors and a potential source of help, out in the woods.
The exchange of trust between Cyndie and Tara is a crucial reminder that in the world of The Walking Dead, hope and trust in the pacifist side of the human spirit are vanishingly rare. But the final moments of the episode, when Tara chooses not to betray Cyndie’s trust, are framed as a betrayal of her own people instead — a refusal to give them info they desperately need. It’s a cruel twist on an episode that attempted to wrench hope and optimism out of a set of increasingly dire circumstances.
Tara’s friendship with Cyndie now joins Morgan’s unflagging optimism as one of the series’ few bright spots at the moment. But like all bright spots on The Walking Dead, it probably won’t remain untarnished for long.