The Walking Dead Remains Haunted by Spectres of the Past

The Walking Dead Remains Haunted by Spectres of the Past
Whoever is getting the scoop on the left in the front row is getting screwed. (Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC)

In many ways, AMC’s The Walking Dead is a show stuck with one foot in the past. It’s still trying to ride the coattails of its former popularity. It’s trying to wrap up the series without stepping on the toes of the eventual Rick Grimes movie. But the biggest problem is that the show can’t move on from the same philosophical question it’s been asking since the series premiere: At what point do the ends stop justifying some extremely horrible means? It’s a very boring question at this point, which is why I want to talk about what’s new in tonight’s episode, “On the Inside”: ice cream.

The Commonwealth has ice cream. It has ice cream stands. In fact, it has a bunch of desserts and confections available, as Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Ezekiel (Khary Payton), and Princess (Paola Lázaro) — a.k.a. YEEP — discover after watching a short, cheesy, and oddly ‘90s orientation video about the colony hosted by its smarmy Director of Operations, Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton). Then they step into the Commonwealth and discover a new world from the one they’ve been trying to survive in. Maybe it’s more accurate to say YEEP steps into the old world — the one before the zombie apocalypse.

People are laughing and smiling. Electricity abounds. Kids ride bikes in absolute safety. There’s a fire department. It’s civilisation as they knew it, or close enough. Obviously, there’s an Orwellian bureaucracy backed by an army of off-brand Stormtroopers, but at least at first glance everyone in the Commonwealth seems perfectly content with where they’ve ended up, and that includes Yumiko’s brother Tomi (Ian Anthony Dale), who’s baking cakes in a dessert shop.

The siblings’ reunion doesn’t have much emotional impact since Yumiko quickly chides him for being a baker when he used to be a surgeon, even though he says he’s happier now than he was before the apocalypse. Even Eugene and Stephanie’s (Chelle Ramos) time together, as she takes him on a tour of the community, feels passionless as compared to Eugene and his ice cream cone. I’m serious about this, and I think it’s a genuinely powerful moment, no matter how goof-ily Eugene snarfs down that ice cream.

He looks at it so wistfully, as if it’s more of a memory than something real — an emblem of the world that used to be. As such, it’s a perfect symbol for the ideal the Commonwealth wants to present: Here, the world is normal again. Here, everyone is safe. Here, people have everything — and so much of it they can spend their resources making things as thoroughly inessential as ice cream.

Of course, the Commonwealth would rather people concentrate on the variety of ice cream flavours available than the hilariously fascistic posters covering every wall, or the absurdly labyrinthine levels of the community’s bureaucracy. Unfortunately, YEEP gets an up-close view of the latter when they discover when they were accepted by the Commonwealth, they were also inducted into the Commonwealth — they’ve been assigned jobs, places to live, etc.

They can’t even discuss leaving the settlement until they talk to the appropriate supervisor, who has a five-week waitlist. Eugene, who still doesn’t know how Alexandria fared against the Whisperers, wants to radio home but that takes two weeks to get approved, so he (easily) talks Steph into sneaking him into the communications room, where he’s almost immediately caught and arrested by General Mercer (Michael James Shaw).

However, when Eugene, Ezekiel, and Princess are detained for a trial — the latter two guilty-by-association since Eugene broke the law a mere 45 minutes after being allowed in — that charmer Lance Hornsby bursts in, clearly having been notified by Steph, and demands their release. When the authorities refuse, Lance runs off to speak with the mysterious, unseen Governor.

There’s very obviously something extra-sinister going on inside the Commonwealth beyond its dehumanising bureaucracy and jackbooted thugs, but everything about the settlement — who made it, how it rose to power, what’s the catch — is a tantalising mystery that is far, far more interesting than everything else going on in the episode.

Speaking of! “Out of the Ashes” actually begins in Aaron’s (Ross Marquand) nightmare, as he and his daughter Gracie (Annabelle Holloway) get surrounded by a Whisperer, a Wolf, an actual zombie, and more — there’s even a quick flash of Mays (Robert Patrick), the guy Gabriel murdered after he let them go in “One More.” In the waking world, zombies break through a section of Alexandria’s hastily remade walls, stressing Aaron out even further.

None of this, for my money, justifies his actions after he, Carol (Melissa McBride), Lydia (Cassady McClincy), and Jerry (Cooper Andrews) head to the burned-out husk of Hilltop to see what supplies might have miraculously survived the Whisperers’ assault. But Lydia notices some of the zombies aren’t just milling about, they’re being herded — which means at least one of the Whisperers is still there. It’s no work for the quartet to catch him, rip his mask off, and discover there are also four former Whisperers hiding in the mansion’s basement.

Although the script doesn’t state it outright, it’s hard to see this Whisperer as a threat. He’s herding less than a dozen zombies in a circle. He sobs desperately after being caught by extremely threatening people who clearly want him dead. When he lies about there being no other Whisperers there, it seems obvious that he’s trying to protect the others, just as Daryl (Norman Reedus) did last week when he lied about not knowing the people he was travelling with when the Reapers attacked.

Those four Whisperers also look frightened out of their minds when they’re discovered, and even when the dude attacks Aaron, it seems purely to give his haggard companions an opportunity to escape. These people are utterly terrified, and the episode very clearly paints Aaron and the others as the violent aggressors in this scenario (although they certainly have reasons for distrusting and hating Whisperers). But even if these guys were revealed at any point to have been a mastermind with a plan to ensure Alexandria’s downfall with a secret army of thousands, it would not make Aaron’s actions excusable.

After the remaining Whisperer is tied and strung up, Aaron keeps thrusting a zombie at him, pulling it away a mere second before it bites the dude’s flesh. He continues asking questions the guy repeatedly pleads he can’t answer but in between his piteous sobs, he finally chokes out a pretty damning statement: “I was right about you people. You pretend you’re better than the dead, but dead is honest.” It’s a convoluted way of saying “You people are horrible and Alpha was right to attack you,” but it drives Aaron into such a frenzy that he finally lets the zombie gnaw on the guy’s fingers, at least partially proving the Whisperer correct.

The dead eat the living because they’re driven to by their nature; Aaron used the dead to inflict pain and misery on his victim. Now the guy is infected and going to die unless Aaron severs the hand — which Aaron will only do if the guy confesses something.

I believe this is the first time on the show that a living person has actively and purposefully used a zombie bite as a weapon — effectively pushing a zombie’s open mouth on someone’s flesh to let it eat. It’s honestly reprehensible, especially for someone who is usually one of the show’s most likable characters. One, I might add, who was quite recently shocked and appalled when Gabriel killed Mays in cold blood back in the tail-end of season 10. And one who has met not one but two Whisperers that were shown to be good people stuck in a bad situation, namely Lydia and Mary (Thora Birch).

Even Carol (Carol!) thinks Aaron’s gone too far and shoots the zombie with an arrow before it can be used to assault the Whisperer a second time. She tells Aaron don’t go down this “dark path,” so he reluctantly lets his prisoner go, saying he can amputate the hand or the Whisperer can do it himself. Gee, thanks.

Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Do the potential ends justify Aaron’s means? The show keeps asking this question over and over again, either intentionally like tonight or inadvertently through its writing, but because the characters are so inconsistent about the moral lines they will or won’t cross, the answers are meaningless. This time, freeing the Whisperer allows him to tell Carol and the others that he saw Connie escape the cave way back when — she’s alive! (Or was alive. At any rate, Carol didn’t inadvertently kill her while trying to purposefully kill Alpha.)

And it should be noteworthy that if the Whisperer wasn’t masterminding an attack on Alexandria before they found him, Aaron did everything in his power to inspire the Whisperer to start formulating a plan of attack. Plus, if this dude does seek vengeance, I know the show will inevitably blame Aaron for letting the guy go.

Perhaps the worst part about this whole storyline is that our main characters have walked down the “dark path” so often, on multiple occasions, that it’s incredibly boring to watch. It’s been made abundantly clear over the last 11 years that these are flawed individuals who have endured horrific experiences that can make them act morally dubious at best, so these little storylines don’t tell us anything, they just pad out the episodes and offer occasional bursts of graphic violence.

There is a silver lining, though: This repetition is what makes anything new that comes to The Walking Dead — the Reapers, the Commonwealth, even the Saviors and Whisperers way back when — seem so interesting in comparison. And since we’re in season 11, maybe the Commonwealth and the Reapers will stay interesting enough to bring the show to a strong finish.

If not, at least there’s ice cream.

Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Assorted Musings:

  • There are two other mostly meaningless plots going on in “Out of the Ashes.” The first is that Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Maggie (Lauren Cohen) reach the ruins of Meridian. They have the same dumb fight they’ve been having, where Negan asks her to trust him despite proving untrustworthy while Maggie’s determined to ignore his advice to head home instead of staying to see if any of the other survivors from the Reaper attack show up, even though it’s endangering the mission (something she wasn’t willing to entertain when Roy was screaming for help). Eventually, Gabriel makes it along with another dude. Yay.
  • The other is Judith (Cailey Fleming), who starts by awesomely teaching the kids of Alexandria some sword work (with wooden swords) and then tells a bunch of idiot teens to stop sticking their fingers at an essentially prone zombie’s mouth. I’m not sure how the kids in World Beyond are, but in TWD Prime teens are still idiots who have somehow still not internalized how fucking dangerous zombies are.
  • I guess there is one more notable thing about the Judith scene. The teens mock Judith by saying her mum abandoned her, which causes her to threaten the teens and then walk away, stifling her sadness. Later, Rosita (Christian Serratos) gives her a comforting pep-talk… and I’m not 100% sure these two have ever had a scene alone together? It’s possible I’m forgetting something, but Rosita playing “mum” to Judith out of nowhere was kind of unsettling. On the other hand, Fleming does some tremendous work as Judith throughout the episode.
  • I got excited when the Wolf showed and was immediately disappointed when it turned out Aaron was only having a dream. I’d love to see the Reapers take on the Wolves. Two groups of murderous nitwits enter! None leave!
  • Seeing a herd of zombies shamble into town while you’re taking your morning piss is a hell of a rough way to wake up in the morning, so good on Jerry for soldiering through.
  • As someone who has expected to die almost immediately once the dead start rising from their graves, the discovery that the Commonwealth is based in or around my current location of Charleston, West Virginia is extremely good news.