Spoilers ahead. This episode was one of the darkest ever. In a way, the undead are to The Walking Dead what stormtroopers are to Star Wars: they’re dangerous, but also cannon-fodder. I found the last few episodes at times deeply unsettling because of how scary they were and the violence, but it was obvious who the bad guys were: the zombies and the Wolves. Even when Rick and the gang murdered the Termites, I felt they kind of deserved it because they ate people. But this episode turns that upside down, and gives Rick, his plan, and the Alexandrians an anti-hero edge: where first Daryl kills “Negan’s” people with a rocket launcher (though admittedly they were threatning his friends) and next Rick kills more of “Negan’s” people for food.
The argument over striking first
One of the best parts of The Walking Dead is the moral conflict: Shane and Herschel and Dale, all with their own morality, all in conflict with Rick. This plot device re-surfaces this season, where the perfectly pacifist Morgan is the only detractor at striking first at the Saviors. While the storytelling has set Morgan up to be on the opposite side of the viewer’s feelings, it remains to be seen whether he’s right. In fact, a point that was not addressed in Rick’s town hall was: how do we know Negan and his Saviors are bad? In fact, quite to the contrary, it’s Jesus and the Hilltop that’s supplied all information regarding Negan and the Saviors, and how do we know they’re not framing the situation in their own favor?
Sure, there are some fairly damning signs: Negan seems to have evidently killed a teenager to prove a point, the Saviors seem to pit Hilltop against itself and kidnap people, and finally his name is Negan, as if it couldn’t be any more Dickensianly evil. But I hope that The Walking Dead plays on (to bring back the Star Wars analogy) the notion of “the Empire did nothing wrong”, where sure, Negan’s henchman threatened Daryl, and extorted Hilltop, but perhaps they never intended to harm Daryl and co. And in the end, it was Daryl that struck first, and with a rocket launcher. Even given this, Morgan’s plea for non-violence was ineffective, and at least in part because it was so weak. Morgan should have appealed to practical reasons that the gang shouldn’t murder an entire compound of people. Here’s Nick Statt from the Verge on this point:
There should be a counter-argument to Rick’s belligerent and hawkish approach to diplomacy, but Morgan is more often than not making nonsensical appeals to non-violence. He doesn’t articulate why characters shouldn’t kill, so viewers are tempted to show him the same disdain as Carol does. At least he’s building a jail — Warden Morgan would at least have a purpose.
In any case, there are plenty of reasons that Rick and the gang might be in the wrong here. If I were Rick, I’d have wanted more information before needing to commit to his plan, but I’d probably also have been eaten in season 1. I look forward to seeing this moral debate continue, I imagine Negan will be sure to bring it up when we meet him.
The pre-emptive strike
The invasion on Negan’s compound was all-around well-executed: on a meta-level, the direction and acting were exciting and believable, with regards to the story, the plan was ambitious and ruthless. Here’s Brian Bishop of the Verge on this point:
… [I]t’s all brilliantly executed both in front of and behind the camera, and as the second guard is taken out and the team pours into the compound it’s clear that director Greg Nicotero has been doing his action movie homework.
But this comes at a terrible cost, because as entertaining and wild as this scene was, Rick, Glenn, and the gang that are so known to have a moral compass in an evil world, murder people in their sleep. It was unsettling to watch Glenn slide a knife through (even a henchman’s) eye. Here’s Zack Handlen of A.V. Club on this point:
Some sort of line is being crossed here, albeit one that will inevitably become less important once we get first hand proof of just how vile Negan actually is. (I’m guessing.) But it’s chilling to watch Rick and Glenn murder dudes in their sleep, even as we’re offered ample proof that those dudes weren’t very nice at all.
Clearly the emotion we were meant to feel when we saw those Polaroids was that what Rick was doing was right, but for me, it did little to help. Again, it’s a very bad sign, but it’s no evidence that can’t be reasonably doubted. Clearly, at least Glenn feels this. Matt Fowler of IGN:
The fight, though, was really intense. First a walker head (complete with busted nose) to stand in for Gregory’s melon. Then some stealth kills. Then the rescue. Then…the sweep inside to collect guns and kill everyone on site. And sure, you’re not going to mourn much a guy who keeps polaroids of bashed in faces taped above his bed, but offing a stranger in their slumber is stilla heavy deal. So much so that Heath couldn’t do it. Glenn had to take over. And even he had severe qualms.
I think we’re going to see this plan horribly backfire: I don’t yet fully trust Hilltop to be telling the truth, it’s clear that this wasn’t Negan’s only lair (nice try, “I wonder which one was Negan?”), and Rick and co. are so clearly in the wrong.
And now they have Maggie
Matters have already taken a turn for the worse, where the unarguably unneeded Maggie was captured becaused Carol didn’t want the future mother to get her hands dirty. The gang already seem outgunned, and I look forward to finding out how they get out of this one.