What The Hell Is The Walking Dead Even Doing?

What The Hell Is The Walking Dead Even Doing?

Actually, I know what they’re doing, I just have no idea why they’re doing it. I don’t know who, when planning the aftermath of WhoDoesNeganKillGate, decided to spend a quarter of season seven dividing the main characters into four almost wholly separate groups, forget about telling a story for an interminable amount of set-up and then still go, “You know which character deserves an entire episode to herself? Tara.”

I actually liked “Swear” in the same sense I liked the other episodes this season where we saw new communities and their uniquely messed-up lives, as opposed to watching Rick slowly process his Negan feelings. I even like Tara — it helps that since Glenn and Abraham are dead, she’s basically become one of the series’ most well-developed characters by default — although she can be a bit much. But I also imagine my tolerance for Tara exceeds that of most Walking Dead fans.

I don’t think this is news to showrunner Scott Gimple or the producers, which means a decision to give Tara a 60-minute spotlight (it was an extended episode!) is either bold or a bit contemptuous. I’d say this is a recurring mystery for most of season seven: What the hell is The Walking Dead trying to accomplish here?

Having told us what’s going on in Alexandria, the Kingdom, Hilltop and even Sanctuary after the season premiere, “Swear” decides to check in on Tara and Heath, two characters who hadn’t been seen since they went out on a supply run back in episode 12 of last season. (In case the show didn’t make it clear to you, Tara has been gone so long she had no idea Alexandria’s doctor/her love interest Denise had been killed by the Saviors in episode 14 of season six.) After springing what is either a very bizarre accident or the most hilariously elaborate zombie trap the post-apocalypse has had yet to offer, Heath and Tara get separated, and Tara ends up on a beach where she is found by a murderous adolescent named Rachel and a less-murderous teen named Cyndie.

The two girls are from Oceanside, yet another new colony with several distinguishing characteristics: 1) it’s basically a fishing village, presumably somewhere on the Virginia coast; 2) it is made up entirely or almost entirely by women; and 3) they kill every single new person they see. As is eventually revealed, they had another community, but crossed the Saviors, and the Saviors retaliated by killing every single man and boy over 10. The women fled and have tried to keep Oceanside hidden, and they aren’t taking any chances by allowing anyone who sees them to live.

But between Cyndie’s pleas not to murder someone in cold blood without an actual reason as opposed to a potential reason, and the fact that Tara, while trying to escape chooses not to murder one of her pursuers when she has the chance, and suddenly Tara is the exception to Oceanside’s “kill on sight” rule. It take about five minutes for Tara to go from handcuffed prisoner to a guest at the community leader Natania’s dinner table, and about maybe two more minutes for them to offer Tara a chance to stay there in their beachfront property.

After lying (poorly) about her origins, Tara is forced to come clean about Alexandria, and says they should work together. She also inexplicably tells the women of Oceanside about how her group proactively found and murdered a bunch of bad guys called the Saviors, which seems to me to be an odd way to pitch working with Alexandria (“We kill people, but only people we think are bad!”) which is how we get the Oceanside backstory. Natania decides to let Tara return to Alexandra with a guide to explore their options; the guide, as was clearly arranged with Natania, tries to kill Tara as soon as they’re out of earshot of the village, but Cyndie rescues her and helps her get back to where she and Heath got separated. Happily, it appears Heath had managed to escape the zombie sandbox trap, so Tara moseys back to Alexandria during a montage — a montage during which she is also told that her girlfriend Denise died while she was gone, and then processes her grief off-screen. The fact that we got an episode solely devoted to Tara and yet she found out about Denise’s murder and emotionally processed it over a three-minute montage — most of which was about her finding wack-arse sunglasses — is both insane and terrible. (If the show didn’t feel the character had earned, at minimum, that scene, then there’s no way she should have been given her own episode.)

Which brings me back to my initial question: What is The Walking Dead trying to accomplish? Is the first half of season seven really going to just be set-up for… the second half of season seven? Because we just watched episode six, (of the eight-episode half-season) and other than the premiere, all the show has done is introduce new locales and check in on established places post WhoDoesNeganKillGate. There are plenty of specific characters and people who want the inevitable conflict with the Saviors to begin, but they — like the show — are waiting on Rick to decide to go to war. Which is taking a while.

Again, I’ve enjoyed seeing these new colonies, as weird/goofy/one-dimensional as they may be, because they’re new, and because I’m excited by the storytelling possibilities they bring. Hilltop may only include two new characters, one of which is hilariously, obsequiously evil, but it’s still new — I’ve seen Rick pull his “I’m not in charge any more!” shtick several times over the last six and half years, and I doubt it’s going anywhere new.

Which brings me to my even bigger question: Does Walking Dead actually think what Rick and the others did by killing that compound full of Saviors, without the Saviors being an imminent threat, was justified, or that it was morally indefensible?

This is what has been driving me crazy since Rick led the Alexandria Death Squad back in season six. I feel like I could write 3000 words on how TWD has toyed with this issue — not explored, or questioned, but toyed with — but if we look at the issue just through this episode, it begins with Heath having total regrets about being complicit in the butchery of Negan’s compound. And remember, at this point he doesn’t know they only killed a small portion of the Saviors, or of the violence that resulted from their attack.

Tara, apparently oblivious to the moral quandary, tells Heath, “We had to do it.” But that’s objectively untrue, and Heath knows it, and we the audience know it too. Rick and the gang can spin it how they want — that they need Hilltop’s food and had to kill the Saviors to get it, or that the Saviors would find them and be a threat eventually, so they “had” to take care of it before the problem actually existed — but taken at its most optimistic they decided to deal with a potential problem before it became an actual problem (with murder), at worst they simply murdered a bunch of people for pay, the pay being food.

This brings us to Oceanside, who has such a firm policy about killing literally anyone they see who isn’t a member of their community that even the children are instructed to murder these intruders if possible. They’re afraid of someone finding them and revealing their location to others, which is certainly a valid fear in the world of The Walking Dead in general and for them specifically. But murdering every single person you see is about stopping potential problems, not actual problems, and that’s clearly presented as wrong.

I mean, Tara may grate on some people’s nerves (I, for one, am glad someone in the world is still trying to crack wise, even if her results aren’t always A+ material) but there’s no question the show wants us to want her to live. So as a result, we’re supposed to feel Oceanside’s blanket policy to “murder anyone we see” is wrong. If the compassionate Cyndie hadn’t stepped in (like, nine times) Tara would be dead, and the show would want us to think that was bad. It wouldn’t want us to say, “Well, it’s sad Tara died, but the Oceanside policy was sensible, and their decision to murder anyone they see if reasonable and justified.”

So Tara explaining and defending Rick/Alexandria’s attack on the Saviors feels super-weird. As does Cyndie’s Morgan-like appreciation for life, although it’s welcome. Against her teaching and the values of her community, she allows Tara to live and helps her to survive on multiple occasions. Are we really supposed to feel like Cyndie is the wrong one here? That she’s making a terrible decision? Of course not, as evidenced by the fact that when Tara finally gets home to Alexandria she keeps her mouth shut and doesn’t tell anyone about Oceanside’s existence, not even its bizarrely huge amount of automatic weaponry.

If Oceanside indiscriminately killing people who happen upon it is wrong, are we truly to believe that Rick ordering a hit on a small portion of the Saviors was right? Especially when he hubristically assumed that they couldn’t possibly have more men than the one outpost he hit? And because the real reason he did it was because Alexandria needed food, and this was the price? (A price that Rick suggested, by the way.)

But if the show believes this to have been wrong, why is it that only the most minor of characters on the show are pointing this out? I don’t know that Heath had more than a couple of lines before guest-starring in Tara’s Big Adventure last night, but he’s still infinitely more endeared to the audience than the last person to call out Rick for murdering a bunch of guys who didn’t know Alexandria existed — the last person being Spencer, the post-apocalypse’s biggest douchebag. By having Heath and Spencer make these arguments against Rick’s actions, the show undermines them; and the fact that none of the show’s main characters seem to have a problem with the raid on the Saviors compound seems like the show thinks Rick’s actions were wholly justified.

But then why does the show keep bringing up the moral indefensibility of Rick’s actions over and over again? If the show doesn’t think Rick did anything wrong, why does it still have the most minor character continually remind us that Rick killed a ton of people without provocation? How can Oceanside’s policy of murdering everyone they see be wrong while Rick’s decision to murder the Saviors be right? If Cyndie is sad to have murdered people who accidentally came upon Oceanside, is she just supposed to get over it?

And, most importantly, where the hell is this going? Will Rick and the group finally admit their raid was wrong? Will they learn a lesson from it? Will they try to become better people, if only to prevent them from being morally conflated with the Saviors? Or — as I fear — will nothing happen, and Rick and the others will continue their post-apocalyptic lives without ever confronting that what they did was evil, while minor characters keep muttering about it under their breath?

I think The Walking Dead thinks that it’s getting at the indeterminate, ephemeral notion of morality here, but in fact it’s just being confusing. Either Rick and Oceanside are both right to kill anyone they think may be a problem, or neither of them are. The show is trying to have it both ways, and it’s maddeningly inconsistent.

Maybe The Walking Dead is leading up to something with this — maybe Rick is due for a revelation in time to lead the combined forces of these four communities against the Saviors — but if so, it’s obviously not in any hurry to get there. Maybe they’re saving it for the mid-season finale, just like they’re saving having an actual plot. At least, I hope they’re saving it for the mid-season finale… and not season eight.

Assorted Musings:

• Between the beach and the total, “What the fuck is going on here?!” that was a very Lost opening to me.

• So let’s talk about the sand trap (full of zombies). A dumptruck has poured a giant pile of sand, maybe 2.5m high, on the middle of a bridge. Tara spies a bag half poking out of the bottom of the pile, and when she tries to pull it out, the sand pile collapses, revealing two dozen zombies had just been chilling in there. Again, I don’t know if someone in the past had panicked and buried a bunch of zombies by dumping a truck full of sand on them to stop them, or if it was a trap designed specifically to catch anyone who may have tried to cross the bridge. Either way, it was hilariously over-elaborate. The way Heath yells for Tara to stop right as she’s pulling the bag, I almost expected Ewoks to come out, tie them to large poles and then roast Tara and Heath alive for their dinner.

• Whatever qualms I had about the episode, Tara “sneaking” around Oceanside was deeply, deeply funny. I feel like everyone in Oceanside would have seen and heard her almost constantly. That said, if Tara can wander into Oceanside, their defence are terrible.

• The gun that Tara had — from one of the Saviors, with Negan’s bat Lucille etched on the handle, seems like a nice touch to me. It’s like what a primitive culture would do, etching symbols of power on weapons, which seems appropriate for the Saviors.

• I am genuinely curious to know why Oceanside has so many guns, and why they still didn’t think they could fight back against the Saviors. Did they find the guns later?

• Is there a good liar in TWD‘s post-apocalypse? Discuss.