This week’s episode of “The Walking Dead” demonstrates precisely how a ‘bottle episode’ should be executed. Almost all forty-two minutes take place on a single cramped set, but the emotional complexity and character-driven dialogue keeps the pace lively and the tension palpable. With Maggie and Carol held hostage by a small contingent of Negan’s foot soldiers, the entire episode concerns itself with how they are going to escape. What distinguishes this episode is how Negan’s group is portrayed. These aren’t throw-away two-dimensional “bad guys.” Rather, they motivate us to consider, for just a moment, that this group may be no better or worse than the Alexandrians.
This is also an episode that focuses on a predominantly female cast, with the leader of Negan’s group serving as a dramatic foil to Carol. The two women have been traumatized by the loss of their children, have both traveled down a blood-drenched path of self-interested survival, and have both managed to make it this far. The only difference? Carol still struggles with her morality, she has a strong attachment to her people, she is riddled with remorse. So, just as we began to suspect that Carol has crossed into territory from which she will be unable to return, the past two episodes of “The Walking Dead” have provided her with some sharp turns. Struggling with the people she’s killed, once again forced into violent confrontation, she escapes her captors wracked with sadness; she doesn’t want to kill any more, even though she knows she has to. She intentionally wounded her male captor, rather than kill him outright. She wanted to give Paula a chance, and was devastated when her hand was forced.
We already know how brutal characters like Carol and Maggie can be, but this episode was relentless. Trapping and burning people alive, Maggie caving-in the skull of one of her captors with the butt of a handgun. The violence of this episode is counterbalanced by constant reminders of Maggie’s pregnancy, and reminders of Carol and Paula’s lost children. These are all mothers, and we see how each of them reacts to their situation based on their individual experiences as nurturers. Paula lost her soul along with her children, Carol struggles with her morality in a world without her family, and Maggie fights tooth-and-nail to defend her unborn child.
This was an emotionally charged episode, revealing a growing exhaustion among the Alexandrians. And we haven’t even met Negan, seen his camp, or have any idea how many people he has.