The Walking Dead 8.01 – Mercy

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When a show reaches a seventh, an eighth, a ninth season, we often begin to notice some changes in the pacing of the story and in the quality of the writing. Truth be told, it’s usually around the fifth season that things start to smell a little funny. This is typically because the show creator, the writers’ room, and the show runners may not, at the very beginning, expected the show to have lasted for so long; the stories become more outlandish and improbable, themes start to repeat themselves, and what may have once been an incendiary and addictive plot begins to wear thin.

This has happened countless times before. When a show proves to be a consistent draw for audiences and ad revenue is consistently high, a show like Dexter or Lost will be renewed for additional seasons again and again, kept on life support until audiences grow weary, until viewership declines and the show dies the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

One antidote to this kind of ‘viewer fatigue’ has been the revitalization of serialized story-telling and television show anthologies like True Detective, American Horror Story, and Fargo, where each season is itself a self-contained story. A story can’t grow old and tiresome if the story only lasts for one season.

The real question for our purposes today is this: Is The Walking Dead beginning to overstay its welcome?

Almost all signs point to “absolutely not.” There have been some misfires along the way, but The Walking Dead seems to have maintained it’s momentum. The most common complaint, stretching all the way back to season two, is about the so-called ‘filler episodes.’ This is a legitimate complaint. The pace of the show slows down, audiences suffer emotionally manipulative cliffhangers, and a tremendous amount of time is spent halting the progress of the story. This has certainly been problematic, but it hasn’t made the story measurably less engaging.

In some regards, these ‘filler-episodes’ have been used to exquisite effect, allowing the writers time to explore the emotional depth and complexity of certain characters. Take, as an example, the season six episode “He’s Not Here,” a flashback episode that reveals Morgan’s journey from the edge of madness and back, after a chance encounter with a lone survivor in the woods. This stand-alone episode, with an extended run time of 62 minutes, was undeniably strong and served to temporarily slow the pace of the show.

One of the main reasons The Walking Dead hasn’t lost its luster is because the story isn’t being improvised season-to-season or episode-to-episode like so many other television shows. Like True Blood and Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead is based on material that existed before plans were ever made to adapt it for television. The narrative connective-tissue is already in place; there is already a tried and true blue-print in place before each episode is scripted and before principle photography begins. In fact, some of the more recent problems with The Walking Dead are directly related to story elements that don’t exist in the graphic novels – like the “heapsters” that live in the landfill. The reason it doesn’t feel like these characters have a place in The Walking Dead is specifically because they didn’t originally exist in the source material.

This is one of the main reasons Fear the Walking Dead has struggled to really get on its feet.

All of that being said, season eight starts things off with a bang, a radical shift from the season seven premier. Where one season ago the group was fragmented, weak, and kneeling in the dirt, we now see unification, strength, and resolve. After the despair at the onset of season seven, this is an interesting way to get things rolling. Shifting back and forth with a bearded Rick in an idyllic suburban home, to Rick standing over the graves of Abraham and Glenn, to Rick delivering a rousing speech before mountain an attack against The Saviors, to Rick with battle-weary red eyes speaking of ‘mercy’ (where the episode gets its title), there is still a pattern of emotional manipulation that most fans will find familiar.

We don’t have a clear idea, with these shifting timelines, precisely what’s going on. We don’t know if ‘old Rick and the cane’ are a fantasy or if they’re a vision of things to come. We don’t know if he’s reflecting on his fallen comrades before the assault on the saviors or reflecting about these events sometime thereafter.

The things this episode does, without digging too deep into the plot, is sets the pace for the ‘All Out War’ narrative from the comic books. It starts things out with a bang, with the unified communities organizing a take-down of Negan and his Saviors. We’re still met with the grinning psychopathic confidence of Negan, and it’s difficult to tell how intense the struggle is going to be. But these are fun questions to ask ourselves – questions that will certainly have people tuning in to see what happens next.

One prediction I do have is that the red-eyed Rick with the glint of light dancing on his face will be seen again in the season finale. I believe that this is the moment when the battle with The Saviors is won. When Rick whispers “my mercy prevails over my wrath,” I am confident that the mercy he speaks of will be a mercy he bestows upon Negan. This episode went to great lengths to remind us that Rick has promised to kill Negan personally. My prediction is that Rick won’t kill Negan – that Negan will find a new home in the cinder-block jail Morgan began building back in season six.

Mark my words, reader. Let’s see if I’m right.

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The Walking Dead 7.14 – The Other Side

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Two blank slates – Rosita and Jesus – were finally given some back-story. It would take some mental gymnastics to justify why these two characters were neglected for so long, given how central they are to much of this season’s story, but it’s pleasing that we finally have some additional context for them. At this point in The Walking Dead, it isn’t unusual for random outbursts of character development – without warning or lead-up – so it’s easy to assume that these two are going to play a major role in the ‘All Out War’ story-line of season eight.

It will be a breath of fresh air to see Rosita doing something other than being angry at everything and uncooperative because…feelings. Her pouty face and clenched teeth aren’t enough. It looks like the writers are getting ready to give her a lot more to do, and it will be a welcome change of pace. This entire season, she has been a two-dimensional, boring bundle of “I hate life.” It’ll be nice to see her behave like a woman with cunning and agency, rather than a pissed-off teenager.

With regards to Jesus, backstory is nice – in this instance, however, it’s not entirely necessary. I think that the show has established, pretty clearly, that he’s something of a loner, who probably didn’t get along with a lot of people in the world before the fall. Background and motivation is always welcome – and it was touching for him to have a low-key coming-out moment – but audiences already know that he’s something of a loner, and his sexuality is immaterial. Not a tremendous amount of depth or insight, but the character is definitely becoming more three-dimensional and relatable – hopefully this doesn’t mean he’s about to be axed.

(I doubt it does)

Truthfully, not a whole lot happened during this episode, despite tense moments for Maggie & Daryl hiding in the cellar, political power-plays at The Hilltop, and Rosita & Sasha deciding it’d be a great idea to try and single-handedly assassinate Negan. This episode was about little moments, between Daryl and Maggie, Sasha and Rosita. It’s a reinforcement of Eugene’s cowardice, and it buttresses our understanding of how shaky the politics of The Hilltop are. If you think that Sasha is going to make it out alive, I’ll go ahead and leave you with this:

Actress Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Sasha, has signed a contract and will be a recurring cast member in the next Star Trek television series. No wonder her behavior at the end of this episode seemed so painfully shoe-horned. Gee-willickers, I wonder what’s going to happen…

Sigh…

And, dollars to donuts, the crossbow-wielding silhouette isn’t Daryl. That’s Dwight. Guaranteed. And he’s willing to join the Alexandrians in their upcoming conflict with Negan. I’d place a very stiff bet on it.

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The Walking Dead 7.13 – Bury Me Here

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If you haven’t watched the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, I’d advise you to stop reading. As we approach the final episodes of the season, we are definitely in ‘spoiler’ territory.

You’ve been warned.

As I’ve mentioned in previous analyses, it always seemed to me that Benjamin’s character was doomed – doomed right from the beginning. The writers were excessive in their attempt to make his character the most tragic, sympathetic, hopeful, and kind character in the show, especially for a tertiary character. At the top of the episode, I actually wrote in my ledger “this is the episode where he dies.” What was the clue that did it for me? Not only have we established that his father died in battle, that he is the caregiver for his younger brother, and that he has taken up the bo-staff under Morgan’s tutelage, but now we learn that there’s a girl in his life, too.

Final nail in the coffin. There’s nothing more that could be added to the pile a saccharine sweetness that is Benjamin. Time for the firing squad.

Predictability aside – and I could spent the rest of this review on that topic – this is one of the best episodes of the season, from the framework construction in the episode’s editing (it’s refreshing to have an opening ask more questions than it answers, and I kept wondering what the deal was with one single melon) right down to the acting. Lennie James, who plays Morgan, was the stand-out performance; just about every episode that focuses on Morgan’s character has been pretty phenomenal. After the death of Benjamin, after Morgan left Carol’s cottage, the audience knew that Morgan was a broken man – again. When the show takes the time to build complex, layered, and motivated characters, we wind up with exceptional writing and acting – Carol and Daryl would be another fine example.

The episode isn’t explicit, but my suspicion – as it has been for weeks – is that the death of Benjamin will be the trigger that motivates The Kingdom to take up arms against The Saviors. Now that Morgan has explained to Carol exactly what The Saviors have done, and how many of her friends and loved ones have died at the hands of Negan, I imagine that she’s going to become Ezekiel’s general in the fight to come. Her character has been neutered for far too long, and we all know what she’s capable of.

Unlike some characters (Daryl, Rosita, or Sasha, to name a few) Carol isn’t impulsive. It was a striking moment when she learned the dreadful news and didn’t immediately grab her gun and storm out into the forest half-cocked. Sadness washed over her, but she remained calm as she absorbed the news. This is incredibly effective story-telling, the scene pregnant with tension. I can only guess that she will meet with Ezekiel and help formulate an attack plan. It’s this kind of character development that we like to see. Contrast it with Rosita’s pouty face and gnashing teeth, and you’ll know what I mean.

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The Walking Dead 7.12 – Say Yes

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The last several episodes, in my humble opinion, have been misfires. This is pretty apparent if you’ve read through my previous write-ups. It isn’t as though fans aren’t aware of the abundance of “filler episodes” in the show, and it isn’t as though any of us are unaware that there can be an effective use for these episodes when it comes to illustrating the growing connections and tensions between the show’s characters. The trend that I’ve noticed is that all of the material invented specifically for the show – rather than material taken directly from the comic books – straight-up isn’t as dynamic, interesting, or well-thought-out. And no, this isn’t “fan boy” territory, as though I personally would want to see on television exactly what I’ve already read in the comics; that’d make watching the show exceedingly boring. I adore that the writers and show-runners are actively trying to make the television show distinct from the comics in several inventive ways in order to maintain interest among pre-existing fans, create suspense, and keep audience members guessing.

The point is this: the “Oceanside” and “Garbage Picker” (as I’ve come to call them) communities have absolutely no personality to speak of, no heart or soul, and no reasonable explanation as to how they even exist. They deserve little, if any, sympathy from the show’s established communities, or from the audience. How does Oceanside surveil their town? And why haven’t they migrated to territory further away from Negan’s clutches, where they’re less likely to be discovered by scavengers under Negan’s employ? And no men, you say? At some point, this community is going to realize that the trauma delivered by The Saviors won’t be enough to quell a woman’s need for sexual intimacy – at least not indefinitely. And what of the Garbage Pickers? Surviving after making a home in the most unsanitary place they could find, a landfill, despite a massive shortage of medical professionals, medical supplies, not to mention clean food and water? In a landscape filled with rusted nails, rotting food, pack rats, and flies? Yeah – that makes perfect sense. And how are we to honestly believe that they’ve forgotten how to speak English less than two years after the collapse of civilization? No linguist is going to accept that any new form of distinct English dialect would surface from a semi-isolated community in such a painfully short period of time.

The following is a transcript, verbatim, of the words spoken by Jadis, the inexplicable leader of the Garbage Pickers, at the time when Rick delivers several dozen new firearms: “Operational? All? Yes, yes. But operational? No. Not enough. Enough to fight your fight. Us. Nearly twice. Need nearly twice. No. Our guns to take. Our deal. Still on.”

Following that ridiculous, truncated word salad is a negotiation between Rick and Jadis regarding how many of the guns Rick can keep in order to protect his people while they search for even more guns. During the negotiation – as a part of the negotiation – Jadis demands Rick give back the wire cat sculpture he took from the dump – the dump! – after his gladiatorial fight with pin-head, to give to Michonne as a gift. How could such a trivial, stupid goddamn thing enter into a serious negotiation about armaments?

Because of these things – and many, man more – these communities haven’t really earned any empathy; audiences aren’t devastatingly concerned about what’s going to happen to them. This is specifically why I think both communities are going to be decimated in the war to come. The introduction of these new communities feels almost like an afterthought. They absolutely reek of the same wooden, unsympathetic personalities that we see in Fear The Walking Dead, the ill-begotten spin-off series. Why do these things – the Garbage Pickers/Oceanside characters and the Fear The Walking Dead characters – feel so similar, you might ask? Once again,  because they aren’t inventions of Robert Kirkman, who created the whole Walking Dead universe. With no solid source material, there are no solid characters.

None of this means there isn’t an awful lot to celebrate about The Walking Dead, and it would be overly cynical of me not to admit that this week’s episode definitely got a lot right.

The series has spent far too many episodes neglecting the impact of Abraham and Glenn’s deaths on Rick’s emotional well-being. In some ways, I suspect that the season premiere – focused predominantly on Negan breaking Rick’s spirit – was intended to do just that. At the same time, I think it would’ve been better to sporadically reinforce how Rick is (or isn’t) managing his emotions in a few little ‘reminder moments’ scattered throughout the season. He is, after all, the main character of the series, and the audience largely sees the world through his eyes. It was a breath of fresh air to finally see him opening up about that sarcastic young pizza delivery boy, Glenn, who saved his life in the very first episode, when he was trapped inside that immobilized combat tank.

This episode made for wonderful character progression for Rick and Michonne. It has been a long time since we’ve been able to feel this kind of sympathy for Rick. He’s typically written in such a way that we almost always know he’s going to survive: outliving his wife, outliving a rival in love (Shane), making it through the governor’s assault, the swine flu, the hacking off of his girlfriend’s arm when Alexandria was overrun by walkers, and persevering when he had to fight that ridiculous pin-head super-walker for the Garbage Pickers earlier this season – and that’s just to name a few. A very few. And it even happens again in this episode, when that love-struck fool tries to shoot a deer in the middle of a walker assault and gets himself trapped by an encroaching wall of the stumbling but savage undead. The saving grace here is that the majority of the episode was executed incredibly well.

We are finally reinvigorated, seduced yet again into wishing for success for Rick and the gang. We want them to overcome the horrors they’ve endured. Episodes of The Walking Dead are always wonderful when they remember to let the audience see the characters smile and enjoy a small victory, despite their bleak surroundings. It’s affecting to have a moment of levity in an episode (or a whole season) mired in struggle and heartache.

How often do we actually see Michonne smile in The Walking Dead? We see her smile just about as often as we ever hear any character actually laugh (unless, of course, it’s a mustache-twirling villain preparing to bash somebody’s brains in). Hearing Rick and Michonne cackling just after falling through the roof is arguably one of my favorite moments of the episode. It was unexpected bliss, rather than an unexpected jump-scare or a tragic and untimely death.

The episode ends with the Garbage Pickers insisting they still need more guns, despite the cache delivered by Rick and Michonne. And, how convenient that we have Tara at the end of the episode – the only one who knows about those well-armed ladies in Oceanside – with something important to confess. How unutterably convenient. Ten bucks says that this plot-line won’t be addressed, at all, in next week’s episode. We’ll have to wait a week or two, if not several months into the future when the next season begins.

Cliffhangers aren’t even cliffhangers anymore. Not in The Walking Dead. You won’t tune in next week at the same bat-time, same bat-channel, and learn what happens to our heroes next. No, no. We’re all going to learn something completely unrelated, in one of the other communities, about a whole group of other characters.

In the words of foghorn leghorn: I ga-rohn-teeeee!

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The Walking Dead – “East”

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Carol and Daryl, taking things into their own hands, are the catalyst for a host of poor decision-making among the Alexandrians in this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” Carol, broken and weary, leaves a note behind announcing her departure, insisting that nobody come looking for her. Daryl, on the other hand, heads off in another direction, recklessly in pursuit of Dwight to avenge the needless slaughter of Doctor Denise. Rick and Morgan head out to find Carol while Rosita, Michonne, and Sasha head out to stop Daryl.

At this point in the story, “The Walking Dead” isn’t really a horror-genre narrative – it’s a study on survival on recovery. That being said, there are certainly horror tropes that persist, lest we forget that dead cannibalistic corpses continue to roam the countryside. Every character in the show that we have come to know as capable, dependable, and intelligent does the one thing you never do in a horror film: they split up, leaving Alexandria vulnerable. None of this is really in-character, but one might surmise that the storytellers are trying to cement the notion that the Alexandrians are prepared, have united as a community, can face any problem together, et al. But it falls flat. When all is said and done, the audience recognizes that this is an excuse to fragment the group, push forward with the character drama, and leave the principle characters in an exposed position for the [likely] explosive season finale.

The heart of this episode’s themes exist in the interaction between Morgan and Rick. We are reminded of the flimsy morality in the new world as the two characters explain why they have chosen their own particular path toward survival. Morgan refuses to kill the living and Rick sees killing as an inevitability; one message seems sage-like, the other authoritarian. As Morgan expresses how he sees everything as cyclical, explaining to Rick how he saved the Wolf who, in turn, saved Denise, it’s difficult not to view Morgan as the more sympathetic, morally upright person.

“We didn’t finish it like we thought we did, with The Saviors,” Rick says midway through the episode.
“No,” Morgan says. “You started something.”

And we know that Morgan is absolutely correct.

Watching these two talk reminds us that they represent far opposite ends of a moral spectrum. As members of the audience, we know that both of them are right in their thinking, and that it’s the circumstance that lets us know which course of action is the correct one. That’s what the jail cell Morgan built is all about: creating an option other than falling on routine and regular summary execution. The set designers didn’t build that room just for one small scene in last week’s episode – that jail cell is going to get some use. At least, that’s my prediction.

We’re also reminded that, even though Rick and Morgan view the world from radically different lenses, they are on the same side. There are several paths that can lead to the same destination. Thankfully, the end their conversation on peaceful terms instead of thrown punches; they know that they can learn something from one another, temper their philosophies, and survive together, even if this conclusion is explicitly presented.

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Is Daryl Dixon dead? Don’t count on it. That spray of blood was pretty spectacular, but super-fans have Zaprudered it, as have I, and there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the advertisement for the season finale clearly shows Daryl in a scene, so he at the very least isn’t dead yet. More importantly, he is a fan favorite with plenty of qualities rife for further exploration in this increasingly character-driven narrative. I have long predicted that Daryl would eventually be killed because he is one of the few characters who only exists in the television series (not the source material of the graphic novel), but I have actually reversed my position on this. As the show veers further and further away form the source material, characters like Daryl and Carol and Morgan are actually more essential than ever, allowing the show-runners and the writer’s room to keep the story distinct enough from the graphic novel as to keep the show unique.

Who was the man in the barn that Rick and Morgan happen across? He had a spear that was clearly forged by the blacksmith at The Hilltop, and Rick concludes that he must be one of The Saviors. But what about the peculiar armor he’s wearing? It’s my guess that this is the first hint at yet another community wrapped-up in the trade agreement with The Hilltop and The Saviors. It’s my hope that the seed is planted in the season finale – and the brief glimpse of an armored man on horseback in the season finale preview metes this out – and we start to learn more about The Kingdom. There’s no need to spoil anything here, because I could just as easily be wrong, but it’s certainly one of my hopes.

See you next time, after Negan crushes a few skulls with his barb-wired wrapped baseball bat, Lucille.
I’m guessing she’s pretty thirsty…

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Carl – We Have An Eye Donor For You

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It didn’t take long for the inter-webs to begin flooding with outcry after the latest gruesome death in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but this outcry is a little different than usual. Most of the time, the audience is saddened by the unexpected loss, or horrified when pivotal characters are presumed dead – let us not forget the miserable weeks when Glenn’s fate was left completely up in the air. While several plot-lines have been changed in order, presumably, to keep the narrative fresh for fans – and to prevent comic book enthusiasts like myself from spoiling upcoming events – Mr. Abraham Ford was spared the eyeball-skewering he was destined for.

Abraham Death

The problem? His replacement on the post-apocalyptic chopping block was Doctor Denise, one of the series’ only gay characters. If fact, it was only two episodes ago that Denise told her girlfriend Tara before an extended supply run that she can’t go. “I need to be here,” she said. “I’m the only doctor now. I can’t. But I want to.” This week, Denise admits that she could have gone, that she could have confessed her love to Tara, but was unable to because she was afraid. The moment she appears to arrive at romantic clarity – and the humorous macguffin of the orange soda is satisfied – Denise is killed.

The macho alpha-male is spared his scripted death, replaced by one of the only gay characters on the show. Given the nature of the show, one likely has nothing to do with the other, but that doesn’t prevent message boards and conspiracy theorists from beating their chests about what this may possibly imply.

The show has gone off-script in a variety of ways, in a calculated and creative attempt to make the content as surprising and narratively strong as possible. In this instance, the turn of events may be as easily explained as the availability of an actor on set. Tara (played by Alanna Masterson) is off for the foreseeably near-future because of a pregnancy, preventing any resolution with the Tara/Denise subplot by the end of the current season.

It ought also be noted that Denise doesn’t survive the comic book, either. She makes it much further on the written page, sure, but she is no more immune than any other beloved character. Additionally, the Denise character is straight in the graphic novel, not gay. But a little bird tells me these tidbits likely won’t quell the current outrage.

I can’t speak for the writers, producers, show-runners, or anybody else on “The Walking Dead,” but I’m guessing that the current insult was unintentional. Besides, there’s still that lingering speculation that Daryl is gay, so we may yet be able to reexamine this topic as the story continues to unfold. And what’s that, I hear? Jesus – you know, that devilishly handsome blue-eyed little thing – might be gay? Time will tell, I suppose…

For the time being, let’s raise a glass while we mourn the loss of yet another undeserving victim. The loss is always hardest to accept when the character is so intrinsically good. Let’s hope she is avenged. It couldn’t happen soon enough.

Cheers.

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The Walking Dead – “Twice As Far”

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With only two episodes left in the season, I think it’s safe to assume that the terror that is Negan won’t be revealed until the season finale – probably during the final act of the episode. This defied expectations that the “All-Out War” narrative from the comic books would consume the back-end of this season. This is not wholly disappointing – it shows that the producers and writers are deliberately building tension and plan on spending more than half a season on the group’s confrontation with Negan and The Saviors. Chances are, “All Out War” will take up the full-run of season seven.

This week’s episode, titled “Twice As Far,” has revealed that the writers have completely flipped the script, leaning further and further away from the source material in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to keep the story engaging. After last week’s encounter with The Saviors, the episode opens with a ‘clockwork’ montage, showing the guards at their posts, doing rounds, keeping watch on inventories, and exchanging knowing glances with one another. Alexandria is keeping watch on the walls, and things take on a slightly tense, ‘business as usual’ tone.

Morgan has built a jail cell in his downtime, an obvious attempt to inject some civilization into the violence of Alexandria’s leadership. In a brief exchange, Rick looks around at the cinder-block cell and asks Morgan why he built it. “It’ll give us some choices next time,” Morgan responds. We’re reminded what happened with the Alpha Wold that Morgan captured, the division it created, and the danger it presented when the Wold absconded with Doctor Denise.

The world is getting bigger, and it dawns on us that a holding cell, an interrogation room, even a permanent prisoner residence may eventually become necessary. Summary execution is a quick solution, but the world has gotten bigger. The exchange between Morgan and Rick transitions back to Carol, fingering her crucifix, smoking cigarettes on the porch swing, clearly conflicted after slaughtering the small holdout of Saviors in the previous episode.

There’s a lot of heavy-lifting with the narrative of “The Walking Dead,” but the show transitions between Eugene and Abraham over to Rosita and Daryl, escorting Doctor Denise on a pharmacy run, with ease. With so many characters getting screen time this week, we’re reminded of how securely the fates of the Alexandrians are tethered together. Father Gabriel with his rifle, Sasha at her guard tower, Morgan practicing his martial arts in the grass, Eugene thinking much more ‘big picture’ with his plan to manufacture bullets, the newly-erected jail cell – this episode, despite some spoiler-heavy action, is largely quiet, representing the planing stages, the quiet before the storm.

Dwight knows where Alexandria is, we discover during a tragic encounter on the train-tracks outside of town. If Dwight knows where Alexandria is, Negan won’t be too far behind.

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