Instead of our usual recap this week, Walking Dead recapper and web culture reporter Aja Romano and critic at large Todd VanDerWerff got together to talk about “Something They Need,” season seven’s next-to-last episode, and why the season as a whole has struggled to take flight. Spoilers follow.
The Walking Dead has forgotten a cardinal rule of storytelling in season seven — show, don’t tell
Todd VanDerWerff: I fell behind on The Walking Dead as you covered it, Aja, which meant I had to watch most of this season's second half in one big, five-episode gulp one afternoon. And it was both better and worse than I expected.
I say "better" because this show usually plays a little better in a binge, where you can ignore most of its glaring faults and focus on its handful of strengths (a few performances, the zombies, etc.). I also say "worse," because seriously: Has anything happened this half-season?
Rick and company are at least moving toward some sort of battle with Negan's crew, but it appears that whatever it is will be confined entirely to the finale (or, more likely, the finale will be all buildup, and then next season's premiere will see war kick off). And that movement hasn't been interesting enough to justify how much time has been spent on it.
Some of the story arcs have been basically okay — I don't buy Eugene's metamorphosis into a Negan supporter, but whatever, it was a story at least — but most of the others have involved the characters staring sadly at each other and talking about, like, what it means to kill a human being. I get it, but come on.
This is especially true in an episode that seems like it wants to feel ambivalent about the Alexandrians stripping Oceanside’s women of all of their weapons but can't actually bring itself to manage that much ambiguity. Like most of the rest of the season, it's a half-idea, never fully sketched into a complete idea. What did you think?
Aja Romano: The most interesting story arcs seem to have been shunted to the side this season.
I realize a lot of that sidelining might be down to budget concerns — it's understandable that it might not have been in the production budget to show Sasha full-scale blitzing Negan's compound, for example — but I've been continually baffled that the Walking Dead writers can't find any other way to take us on these journeys than by telling us after the fact that they happened.
Many of the most portentous plot points that have happened this half-season, like Sherry freeing Daryl and escaping herself, or Ezekiel finally deciding to join the Alexandrians, or Sasha's suicide run, have been narrated by the characters afterward when they could have made for compelling moments of drama if actually depicted. The show's handling of them has contributed to the overall feeling of ambivalence and lethargy.
With so little showing-not-telling, it's been hard to buy Eugene's metamorphosis, Tara's guilty decisions regarding Oceanside, and Carol's crying jags. I'm not sure I even care what's going on with Rick and Daryl at this point. The only character development I’ve bought all season was Morgan's reversion to a morally ambivalent stance on killing, mainly because we got an entire episode devoted to laying out his moral shift for us.
I've been speculating for a few episodes now that the show is putting off the big battle for next season's premiere. If it does so, that will only add to the overall feeling of turpitude.
When did everybody on The Walking Dead become so comfortable with authoritarianism?
Todd: Your point about how much stuff has happened offscreen this season is a good one that I hadn't really thought about until just now. It's almost as if the series has become a giant series of one-act plays.
The plays I've liked are the ones that have some dramatic tension inherent to them. Take, for example, Eugene hanging out with Negan's wives, who subsequently try to talk him into making a suicide pill for their friend — a pill that he slips to Sasha in this episode, so she might kill herself rather than betray her friends. That was a story that didn't require big action beats and toyed around with every character's true motivations. As such, it was a great choice for a smaller scene like this.
But then you have scenes like "Suddenly Sasha is being held captive," where I too often feel like I've completely missed a major storyline. I think you're probably right that the show is trying to conserve its budget for whatever war breaks out (or just to slather those zombies from the shipwreck near Oceanside in barnacle makeup straight out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie), but it leaves everything feeling so airless.
One of the things that's most bugged me about The Walking Dead from its earliest days is the casual way it assumes the characters we're following are in the right, an idea it only fitfully interrogates. The world of The Walking Dead is one where there are only hard choices, but the show seems unwilling to really, truly contemplate the hard choices the characters make. Once Rick makes up his mind, that's that.
I call this the protagonist bonus: If the characters lived in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, they would get a standard value added to all of their dice rolls to reflect that they are the almighty, all-knowing protagonists, who win most fights.
And the protagonist bonus really had me rolling my eyes in “Something They Need.” The show still hasn't credibly sold Negan as an antagonist beyond his big talk and occasional bat swings, but it's also scared of the fact that when it comes to raw numbers, Rick's crew has killed far more Saviors than the Saviors have killed Alexandrians, so it can't delve credibly into its own morality. Similarly, when Rick and company take Oceanside's guns, it's presented as the Only Option, without really examining how it's kind of a shitty deal for the Oceansiders.
Maybe it's because I've been rereading George Orwell’s 1984 recently, but The Walking Dead increasingly strikes me as a show about not what kind of leadership is best, but what kind of authoritarian leadership is best. Negan is a hard-line authoritarian who demands absolute fealty, but is he that different from Rick or (hilariously incompetent) Gregory or King Ezekiel? At least Jadis has gladiator zombies. If I'm going to live in a post-apocalyptic authoritarian society at least give me that!
Aja: I think the show does want the viewer to recognize that Rick's tactics, his demanding that the Oceansiders hand over their guns, is a slippery slope en route to something far worse. Negan's line about how people "following rules and working together" was "all this was originally about" is a giveaway there.
The problem for me is that I don't quite understand how we got here. There's a moment in this episode when Daryl casually tosses out the line, “There’s a whole lot of people still gotta die,” as he's laying down an explosive. I found that line and its presentation really disturbing, especially coming from Daryl of all people! Given how seriously the decision to attack the Saviors was treated by the group last season, it seems as though they've now just become largely callous versions of the thing they're trying to defeat, and they kinda know but don't really care.
As Tara walks away after breaking her promise and pulling a gun on Cindy (who I hope will be her next girlfriend at some point), she says something like, "You're right, I don't have to feel bad," to Rick. Not only have our heroes failed to earn that moral certainty, but I don't even know how or when they collectively talked themselves into this level of authoritarianism. Which is hilarious, since all they've done this season is talk!
The stories I've liked are the ones in which the ethical choices have felt real and urgent rather than just plastered on for effect. I've written a bit about how the real, urgent danger the women in Negan's harem are facing has been used as background texture for all the manpain Daryl, Dwight, and Eugene have felt this season; that's been a constant annoyance for me, that the women are off actually facing real problems and getting shit done but we're rarely allowed to see it.
This kind of thing made Tara's arc, Morgan's arc, and Rosita's arc all feel really meaningful to me — they each had immediately obvious moral hurdles to deal with and resolve. (And Eugene, too, but he's in his own category at this point.)
I think that's a bit like your comment that the show works best when there are small-scale, immediate zombie hordes to fight. At this point, The Walking Dead can't do larger arcs engaging deeper moral questions because it's so committed to Negan that it routinely has to stop and burn someone alive.
But along the way, at least it can decapitate some zombies with a car!
At least Eugene is still sort of interesting
Todd: It's been fascinating to watch the critical reception to these episodes from afar, because it continually acknowledges that the series on the macro isn't all that great but can still indulge in micro pleasures, like killing zombies with steel cables or letting Rick and Michonne flirt. Everybody knows The Walking Dead has lost its way, but so much of what once made it engaging is still clicking along. It's like a perfectly engineered car that has a bum engine.
Hence the focus on Negan as the source of the show's ills, I guess. And that's true, so far as it goes, but I think just as much of it stems from the endless focus on Rick, who's simply out of story to tell at this point. The most engaging arc this season has been Morgan's, precisely because it's not clear which way he'll turn in the end. Similarly, Carol's arc has been the best over the course of the series because she's the show's one truly morally complex character.
The common linkage between Morgan and Carol? They're both dead in the comics at this point — but still alive on TV. That means the show's writers aren't hindered by needing to position them for things that come later, which means they can do all sorts of wacky things. But as we head into the finale, the biggest question mark remains Eugene and his true loyalties, so perhaps it's appropriate we end this chat with him.
Aja: Eugene! What a surprise!
I feel like he's the unlikely trickster the show wants you to forget about until it's time to use him, but that makes it harder to buy his chilling declaration of loyalty to Negan. (Rosita even lampshades this when she assumes he's just pulling some long con.)
I hated the parallel between Dwight and Eugene we were treated to in episode 11, but if it leads to a genuine payoff where Eugene overcomes his cowardice, it will maybe have been worth it! (I don't care about Dwight.)
Todd: The kind of character complexity that would be required to believably portray Eugene's shift in allegiances is probably beyond this show's abilities, but God bless Josh McDermitt, he's trying. And I did buy his wrestling with whether he should help Sasha kill herself or continue trying to convince her joining the Saviors is the way to go.
I will agree, however, that if the show is going to trade Eugene to the Saviors in exchange for a Savior to join the Alexandrians, I'd rather it be anybody other than Dwight. I mean literally anyone. Like I'd take Negan's unexpectedly revealed good twin over Dwight. (You know Jeffrey Dean Morgan would give his all to playing a dual role!)
Hire me, The Walking Dead! These are great ideas!
Aja: I would take the decimated corpse of the burnt doctor over Dwight. And that's a shame, because we've had so many good actors throwing themselves at their arcs this season to no avail — shoutout to Karl Makinen's “grieving father” soliloquy! — because the writing has just been so stagnant.
Even Carol has been relegated to crying her way through the season, and she's a character we actually love. The opposite is also true: The show keeps insisting I should like and care about Dwight without telling me why.
At least with Eugene, McDermitt has managed to make the character’s improbable moral descent interesting, if confusing. Maybe this storyline is a sign the show still has some tricks — or at least more fun times with baseball bats — up its sleeve.