Whether you loved "Service", or hated it, or more likely felt somewhere in between, I believe there's one thing we can all agree on, and that's that this was yet another Walking Dead episode that absolutely, 100 per cent did not need to be 90 minutes long.
I can sum up the first hour as follows: Negan and the Saviors show up and start taking things. Negan relentlessly bounces back-and-forth between genially belittling Rick and threatening real violence on the Alexandrians. This is broken up by a variety of Alexandrians being super sullen and giving Negan attitude, and Rick trying to keep Negan placated, over and over again.
Negan is a fun villain, but he does only have one shtick, and a little goes a long way. Watching him boss Rick around has diminishing returns, especially after Rick was so completely cowed in the premiere. The same is true with Negan's men, who were all predatory and creepy and petty to the exact same degree. The sassy Alexandrians were extra infuriating, though, because every main character -- that is, the ones who participated in WhoDoesNeganKillGate -- know 1) they have no chance of defeating him, and 2) what happens to people that stand up to Negan. So they always have to capitulate eventually; they know it, the Saviors know it and the audience knows it, too. There are giant scenes that should have been 30-second shots, and they are all boring, all meant to pad out a giant-sized episode that would have been immensely better at 60 minutes.
(To say nothing of why no one other than Father Gabriel manages to come up with the idea to just smile and play along with Negan while a huge band of psychotic killers roamed free through their town, and then wait until after they leave to start grumbling and maybe even formulating a plan beyond "give Negan's troops sass while unarmed and surrounded by them, then get murdered".)
To be fair, there are a few twists in there: Negan brings Daryl along, of course, but doesn't allow Rick or anyone to communicate with him; Dwight is there to demand Daryl's bike, and he's back to being a one-dimensional arsehole immediately after we got to see the conflicted, interesting side of Dwight last week. There's a lengthy segment where two of Alexandria's guns are missing, and Rick has to call a town meeting to ask who has the guns. No one comes forward, and then Rick realises Spencer and Rosita are out, and Spencer (Deanna's idiot kid) is still an idiot. Rick rifles through Spencer's house until he finds a stockpile of food, booze and the two guns, which he obsequiously gives to Negan so that Negan doesn't kill Olivia, the inventory girl.
The silver lining here is that Rick is more human, more likeable than he's been since he first arrived in Alexandria. Burdened with the guilt that he picked a fight with the Saviors, which got Glenn and Abraham murdered and Alexandria into this mess, he's suddenly determined to keep everyone alive again -- including the "native" Alexandrians. He trying to kowtow to the Saviors so they don't kill anyone else; when Negan says he's going to kill Olivia the inventory girl for her poor inventory skills, Rick frantically hunts for the guns to save the woman. And when Negan demands that Spencer die for hiding the guns, Rick instead finds a rifle that was off the books that Michonne had taken out for the day. (In all fairness, Olivia is bad at her job.) Negan is so touched by the extra gun -- or rather Rick's willingness to please his new boss -- that Spencer gets to live, too, although I'm sure that comes as a disappointment to many. And, after forcing Rick to tell him "Thank you" for essentially taking all their guns, medicine and mattresses, Negan departs.
During their impromptu "Who's got the guns?!" town hall, Rick has his line, "I'm not in charge any more." Rick indeed is no longer their leader, so he reverts back into someone we haven't seen since maybe the prison -- Rick the protector. He tried to keep everyone alive and safe, and today he actually succeeded. Has he made this change out of guilt? Surely. Is he so traumatised by his last encounter with Negan that he can't even begin to consider rebelling? Absolutely, just like it's absolutely true that this "peace" won't last.
This comes to the forefront in a startling conversation between Rick and Michonne after Negan and the Saviors leave (which is when all the good stuff happens). Michonne is angry and wants to fight back, but Rick now knows they -- or at least he -- can't beat them. And so he brings up a name TWD fans haven't heard in a very long time: Shane, his partner, the man who saved Carl and his wife Lori's lives when the zombie apocalypse began, while Rick was in a coma and presumed dead in the chaos. Shane, Rick's best friend, who fell in love with Lori and started a relationship with her only for Rick to show up out of nowhere. Shane, who eventually went crazy and tried to kill Rick.
"I know Judith isn't mine," admits Rick, out loud, for the first time, answering a question fans have had since season two. "I had to accept that," he says, "to keep her alive."
And this is why I watch The Walking Dead, people. It can still surprise me. It can draw upon its past, it can take a mystery so old that people didn't even consider it a mystery any more, and suddenly dig it back up in order to reveal a profound truth about its main character, which also has total pertinence with the episodes. Rick is willing to accept some things he doesn't want to, to protect the people he cares about -- it was true with Judith, and now it's true with Alexandria, which he seems to have finally, finally admitted into his heart. And "accept some things he doesn't want to" isn't "killing". Killing is very easy in The Walking Dead, even for the ostensible heroes. But it takes far more. In this world, it's always harder to live, and living with a truth you wish you could make disappear, but can't, makes it even more meaningful.
This is Rick at his most compassionate, a Rick I haven't seen since Herschel was his peglegged Yoda, begging him not to lose his humanity despite the staggering amounts of inhumanity in the world. I've missed him a great deal. Now the question is, as TWD has posed many times over the years, can this Rick protect those he loves? Or will he have to become crazy, murderous Rick in order to protect them? Is there an option in the middle between obsequious Rick and crazy-eyed, covered in blood, gunning down Pete in front of the town and in the middle of the street Rick?
I'm almost willing to think that The Walking Dead is leading us to this, especially in the ways the show reminds us the similarities between Rick's groups and the Saviors -- Negan pointing out he's stealing his own guns back after Rick stole them from him (and murdered a great many men); Negan's delight at seeing the video of Deanna's old interview with Full-Beard Rick, and exclaiming how he "wouldn't want to mess with that guy!" Or even just the similarities between the Saviors taking Alexandria's stuff as payment, just as the Alexandrians took Hilltop's food as payment to take out the Saviors. Both Rick and Negan are using their power to take what they want; Rick offered to murder some people in recompense, while Negan promised not to murder anyone as long as no one gave him trouble. This isn't exactly black and white.
But however much I want to think that Rick, being the protagonist of the show, would continually struggle to maintain his humanity in an increasingly brutal world, I don't think that's what The Walking Dead has in mind. Late in the episode, Rick goes to confront Spencer about the guns he'd hidden in his house. He's not upset about the guns -- honestly, after the zombie horde and the Wolves, everyone in town should be keeping a firearm in their home -- he does berate Spencer for stealing food and booze from the community, calling him "small" and "weak", belittling him in front of everyone. "You're lucky to have us," he says.
Spencer, who had previously been complaining to Rosita about how the Saviors coming to Alexandria was all Rick's fault for attacking them first, bristles at this, telling him he should have made a deal with the Saviors and gotten better terms by instantly acquiescing instead of fighting (like the Kingdom, presumably). Here's the thing: Spencer is a wholly unlikable douchebag. But that doesn't mean he's wrong. Of course, because he's a douchebag, he continues: "Yeah, we're so lucky! I guess Glenn and Abraham were lucky, too!"
Rick stops dead in his tracks, and with a quiet rage tells Spencer that if he says anything like that to him again he'll break his jaw and knock out all his teeth. "Do you understand?" he asks Spencer, who's too shocked to respond. "Say yes," Rick commands. Spencer obsequiously complies.
Just as Rick obsequiously said what Negan commanded him to speak in the other 85 minutes of the episode. Over and over again.
Rick has still some fight inside him, which would be more gratifying if he didn't so clearly also have some Negan inside him -- and has arguably had some Negan inside him long before he finally made his grand debut. The former is what will inevitably lead to the big Alexandria-Hilltop-Kingdom-Sanctuary war which I assume is coming, after Rick realises that the only way to truly protect his people is to remove the threat of Negan once and for all.
But does Rick need to become a monster himself to fight? Or can he defeat Negan without sacrificing the humanity that has suddenly reappeared within him? Has he finally, actually grown, or is this the beginning of yet another cycle that inevitably ends with Rick determining reality is so horrible that violence is the only worthwhile solution to any problem?
I'm afraid I know the answer, but maybe something's different this time. Maybe it's because he'll be working with Hilltop and the Kingdom, and they will be very quick to notice if Rick is looking like Negan 2.0. Maybe he'll finally realise his son is becoming a budding psychopath by following his example. Or maybe it's because this time Rick isn't fighting a monster -- he's fighting a man. A brutal, terrible man, but still a man.
So if Rick becomes a monster to fight him, he has no one to blame but himself.
• Judith's gotten pretty big! The episode begins with Rick picking the toddler up for the morning, a subtle and effective way to remind viewers of Rick's fatherly affection for her to lay the seed for the Shane reveal.
• Hey. So an army of arseholes is coming to your town. Theoretically in a week, but you know these bastards have just killed two of your most popular neighbours, so chances are you would hold some kind of town meeting to figure out how to deal with them as soon as possible, yes? You know they're coming to take stuff, so you could plan to hide food, guns, medicine, whatever. Not a ton -- obviously they will need to take enough that they feel satisfied -- but all it would take is a tiny bit of preparation to mitigate the disaster of the Saviors' arrival. Which it appears the Alexandrians did not do in the least.
• But say Negan comes extremely early, before you've had time to hide things, or make a firm plan. Would it still be that hard to hide the damn notebook that listed every single gun in town? It's the apocalypse, does there really need to be exact record-keeping when you have a giant arsenal? Food, sure. But handing Negan an inventory list was just crazy.
• Father Gabriel is delightful this episode. He appears out of nowhere to ask Negan, "Have you come to pay your respects?" freaking him right out, which was delightful. Negan's fantastic response: "You are freaky as shit!"
• That said, creating graves for Maggie and (presumably) Sasha (who went with her) so Negan thinks she's dead seems like it wasn't necessary at best and a bad move at worst. As we learned from next week's preview, Maggie did make it to Hilltop Colony and is OK. So if Negan and/or the Saviors learn Maggie is alive -- which seems very plausible -- they're going to know Rick and Gabriel lied, and its going to go worse for everybody. Why not just tell Negan the truth: "We left her in the woods and we have no idea where she is or if she's alive"?
• Zombie kill of the week: Rosita pushing a zombie headfirst into a sharpened treestump.
• That said, I don't think The Walking Dead could have found two characters I was less interested in seeing together than Rosita and Spencer. Even Enid would have been preferable.
• The Saviors stealing the mattresses just to burn them down the road is such a petty move I actually laughed.
• Carl's giant-sized man-balls are dwarfed only by Carl's giant, beautiful, lustrous hair.