Well, That Was a Thoroughly Unpleasant Episode of The Walking Dead

Well, That Was a Thoroughly Unpleasant Episode of The Walking Dead
Maggie (Lauren Cohan) tells a story. An awful, awful story. (Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC)

I can’t count all the times The Walking Dead has disappointed me. I think the show has infuriated me even more so. But I don’t think I’ve even been so disgusted, so disappointed, and so fed up as I am after tonight’s episode.

If there’s a thesis statement the show wanted to make in season 11’s second episode, “Acheron, Part II,” I presume it’s that virtually every human being still living in the zombie apocalypse is depraved to some extent or another; while some are merely selfish, many others are cruel to an utterly reprehensible level. And to survive and protect their loved ones out in the new world, people need to get rid of their humanity and their compassion. It’s a sentiment AMC’s The Walking Dead has espoused many times in many ways, some more graphically violent than others. This was much, much worse.

In hopes of offering The Walking Dead some constructive criticism, which will of course never reach its ears, let me say something nice about “Acheron, Part II.” Running after his dog Dog, Daryl comes across a den of sorts where people were hiding immediately after the dead rose; there’s a man who has a suitcase of abandoned, useless cash handcuffed to his (severed) arm, mysterious murals of a royal family and an uprising, and most poignantly, Daryl finds a note left by two kids for their father, saying they’d left the subway per instructions after the dad hadn’t returned after three weeks.

As TWD has gotten long in the tooth — apparently 12 years have passed in TV time — getting these brief glimpses of what life was like before or during the zombie plague are fascinating looks at the show’s past, and at people who still had some sort of hope. It’s a powerful reminder of where these characters have been, which is a very neat way to kick off the show’s final season. Anyway, Daryl finds one of the dudes who fled with the group’s ammo, gets Chekhov’s Grenade, and eventually makes his way back to Maggie and the others.

Meanwhile, over at the Commonwealth, the group returned to their cells after their jailbreak in hopes of finding Yumiko’s brother Tomi. However, Ezekiel was dragged away. When Yumiko demands to see the guard’s “manager” to ask about her brother, she disappears. While Eugene and Princess wait fruitlessly for her to return, Princess asks to use the restroom and then she doesn’t return.

It all gives Eugene a massive panic attack, and when he’s finally brought in front of the Suits again, including General Mercer (the man in the red Commontrooper armour), Mercer wants to know where his settlement is, natch, and why he and his people were at the trainyards. Eugene breaks down and tells Mercer the truth which is far more benign and pathetic than the general was expecting. Eugene tells him about chancing upon Stephanie on the radio, their long conversations, falling in love with her, how they arranged to meet in Charleston, WV.

But Eugene also confesses something he hasn’t told the others: While some level of cooperation between Alexandria would be nice, the real reason Eugene wanted to meet Stephanie was that he fell in love with her…and is a virgin. It’s pathetic and trite, but man, Josh McDermitt just acts the hell out of the scene and makes it work anyway. And then all four of them are peacefully reunited and approved to enter the Commonwealth.

Image: Josh Stringer/AMC Image: Josh Stringer/AMC

The problem comes in the main storyline, where Maggie’s group (and Negan) have entered a subway car through a ceiling hatch only to discover both doors are jammed. Maggie — seemingly left for dead last week but who is fine here as expected — rejoins them via a floor hatch and yells how Negan tried to kill her. Negan calmly points out that’s not the case: he chose to not endanger himself to save a woman who within the last half-hour had talked at length about how much she wanted to murder him. It’s a fair point, but pretty much everyone in the group wants to kill Negan anyway.

However, there’s a knock at one of the doors — it’s Gage, one of the dudes who ran away with the ammo last week. He’s being followed by zombies and begs to be let in, but Maggie stops them from trying to pry open the door to rescue him. Instead, she announces they don’t have enough ammo to take out all the dead (this is true), so everyone has to sit there and just watch as the zombies slowly approach the kid. Eventually, he stabs himself in the heart and comes back as a zombie himself. (Only Alden tries to save Gage, but the others held him back.)

This is an interesting and frustrating moment in the show because it hammers home how hypocritical Maggie and the others are. They blast Negan for not putting himself in danger by rescuing Maggie, then support Maggie when she doesn’t rescue Gage so she doesn’t put the group in danger. Honestly, Negan’s got the stronger case; Gage never threatened to kill Maggie. (Also, the scene is badly edited, so it seems like Maggie and the others had oodles of time to rescue the kid.)

What’s so frustrating is that even if The Walking Dead is purposefully trying to show us this double standard — and I’m very unsure it’s self-aware enough for that — none of the characters have any idea of the hypocrisy here. No one brings it up. No one even has a puzzled or contemplative look on their faces. Instead, Maggie tells a story to explain why it’s so important to be callous, cutthroat, and so desensitised you feel absolutely nothing when a dumb, scared teen dies in front of you.

Image: Josh Stringer/AMC Image: Josh Stringer/AMC

This story is, to my memory, the vilest scenario The Walking Dead has ever brought up, even though it’s solely audio. It’s certainly worse than any visual the show has put on-screen. It’s so bad I was going to bring up the spoiler bar and trigger warnings so you readers could avoid it if you wanted to, but now I feel it’s so awful that I don’t even want to tell anyone about it. Suffice it to say, Maggie talks about encountering the evilest, depraved men in the zombie apocalypse and their victims, and only wondering where their food supply was. Her response is, and I don’t say this lightly, sociopathic.

At its base level, the story is just another chance for a “hero” to remind everyone that compassion is a weakness and will get you killed. I’ve talked at length about how much I dislike this, but it’s the final season and I’ve made my peace with it. What sucks is the content of the story, which is so purposefully vile — I’m sorry to repeat myself, it’s the only appropriate word for it — that it’s purely for shock value, and nothing else.

The story feels like three horny 16-year-olds came up with it after they saw The Human Centipede or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or something and decided to create something even more reprehensible. I know The Walking Dead has always been a show about murder and death and how awful people can/will be in civilisation collapses, but this is about nine bridges too far.

So at the end of the show, when Maggie and her posse leave the tunnels only to be attacked by the show’s new Big Bad, the Reapers, it’s very hard to get upset. We know from experience these guys are baddies — they seemingly exist just to be cruel and murder people — exactly the sort of people that almost exclusively populate the world of The Walking Dead. The show has made that point repeatedly, but never more upsettingly than this. Consider the lesson learned, TWD — empathy is a weakness that gets people killed. But if not caring about anybody is such a good thing, why on Earth should I care about whether these characters live or die?

Image: Josh Stringer/AMC Image: Josh Stringer/AMC

Assorted Musings:

  • Bleah. What are you doing, TWD? What are we even doing here anymore?
  • Daryl uses Chekhov’s Grenade to blow up a lot of zombies which allows everyone to escape the subway. He sticks it directly in a zombie’s mouth, but it looks like he shoves his fingers in there, too. Would this be the most embarrassing way to be bitten by a zombie? It’s gotta be up there, right?
  • Like Princess, it turns out Yumiko’s got some mad Sherlock Holmes skills, too. Realising that the Suits’ freak-out over Princess’ $US2 ($3) bill meant the Commonwealth still uses cash is pretty impressive, I must say.
  • Did Eugene give up the location of Alexandria? The cut wants us to think that Eugene’s blubbering confession frees him, but since he completely spilled his guts in terror I have a hard time imagining he wouldn’t have also answered Mercer’s other question.
  • I think it’s high time Dog got a leash.
  • Oh, and we finally got to meet Stephanie! I hope she’s not secretly an amoral monster who will murder Eugene and countless others, but she probably is. Shame, really.
  • Of all the ways TWD has envisioned living in a long-term zombie apocalypse, nothing feels truer than Princess’ utter joy at the chance to use real toilet paper again. Again, it’s been more than a decade.