On The Walking Dead, a Return to Normalcy Is Anything But Normal

On The Walking Dead, a Return to Normalcy Is Anything But Normal
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

The first Governor was a madman. The people of Terminus were cannibals. Negan and the Saviors murdered the show’s most beloved character. The Whisperers were a cult of killers. And yet, of all of The Walking Dead’s many villains, has there been an antagonist you’ve wanted to feed to zombies more than Sebastian Milton, the impossibly entitled, douchebag son of Commonwealth leader Pam Milton? I can answer for you: No.

Sebastian (Teo Rapp-Olsson) — whose real name, as we all know, is Kingsley St. Buffingsworth of the Cape Cod Buffingsworths — causes me such emotional agony that I can only watch his reprehensible bullshit for about 15 seconds at a time, then I have to pause the show. It’s more gut-churning to watch his nonsense than the most graphic on-screen death, and yet “New Haunts” is still a great episode of The Walking Dead that may presage some fascinating storytelling through the rest of its final season.

On The Walking Dead, a Return to Normalcy Is Anything But Normal

That’s all thanks to the Commonwealth, which is fucked up on multiple levels, and which The Walking Dead uses to fantastic effect. On the surface level, it’s weird because it’s an honest-to-goodness, pre-apocalyptic small town, full of creature comforts and people who seem to have completely forgotten the dead are walking around outside the Commonwealth’s walls. Maybe it’s more accurate to say these people don’t care about zombies, as they don’t expect them to be their problem ever again. After watching our protagonists spend more than a decade suffering through the worst the post-apocalypse had to offer, the Commonwealth seems completely surreal — not just to viewers, but to the characters themselves, who look wildly uncomfortable in their new Disney Main Street of a town, even a full month later, which is when the episode begins.

The outstanding cold open of the episode perfectly encapsulates the strangeness of this strange new world. Daryl (Norman Reedus), Judith (Cailey Fleming), and R.J. (Antony Azor) walk cautiously down a hall. Although there are fences on each side, zombies reach out at the trio, constantly menacing them. And when a zombie bursts through the door in front of the kids, Daryl tells the zombie to take it back a little… because they’re not in danger; they’re in a Haunted House at the Commonwealth’s Halloween celebration. Is there a better way to show the incredible gulf between the life the Alexandrians had versus life now? The hallway was Daryl and the others’ reality for so long, but in the Commonwealth, zombies aren’t a threat. They’re literally entertainment.

Photo: Josh Stringer/AMCPhoto: Josh Stringer/AMC

A lot of Alexandrians have relocated to the Commonwealth, in addition to Daryl and the kids. Carol (Melissa McBride), Magna (Nadia Hilker), Connie (Lauren Ridloff), Kelly (Angel Theory), Rosita (Christan Serranos), and Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) have all made the jump, joining Princess (Paola Lazaro), Ezekiel (Khary Payton), and Yumiko (Eleanora Matsuura). It’s incredibly jarring to see some of these people leading entirely different, completely mundane lives than the hard-scrabble ones we’ve been watching for years. It’s weird to see Ezekiel running a petting zoo for children. It’s weird to watch Judith purchase a record at a record store. Hell, it’s incredibly jarring just to see Daryl in a clean shirt.

As we learned in the first third of season 11, the Commonwealth assigns people jobs upon entry. Daryl and Rosita are in training to become Commontroopers. Carol’s baking (and scheming). Connie is a journalist and has an interview with Governor Milton (Laila Robins). Magna is forced to work as a waiter at the evening’s Halloween Ball. All of these characters have promising storylines: pre-apocalypse, Connie got the new Governor’s uncle kicked out of Congress. Carol teams up with Deputy Governor Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) to appease Milton in hopes of having him move the dying Ezekiel up the lengthy list of surgical candidates. We’ll get to Magna in a second, because it’s time to talk about Daryl, Rosita, and… Kingsley.

While the episode’s intro wonderfully showed the massive difference between the reality the Alexandrians have been living in and the Commonwealth’s reality, the return of the cartoonishly snobby and reprehensible Kingsley reveals the true sickness at the heart of the colony. After some training, Daryl and Rosita are summoned to assist in one of Kingsley’s zombie-fighting training sessions, along with Commontrooper commander Mercer (Michael James Show). First, Kingsley says something sexist to Rosita, gets his greasy hands all over Daryl’s crossbow, then tries to swings a morning star and looks like an idiot, at which he declares, “That thing’s pathetic!” Daryl and Rosita’s job is mainly to unleash two zombies, at a lengthy interval, so Kingsley can dispose of them. He manages the first, which I was surprised by, but of course botches the second, plunging his knife into the zombie’s throat instead of its head, necessitating a lengthy struggle.

Photo: Josh Stringer/AMCPhoto: Josh Stringer/AMC

Eventually, it goes on long enough to worry Daryl, and he dispatches the zombie to Kingsley’s furious disapproval, much like he was irate when Eugene saved him and his girlfriend Daisy Richiricherton for “interrupting his date” by rescuing them from zombies. It was cartoonishly evil then, and it’s cartoonishly evil now, except now Kingsley becomes such a douchebag he stops making sense. “This is the future soldier of the Commonwealth?” he asks with scorn. You mean, the guy who just effectively killed a zombie you couldn’t, Mr. St. Buffingsworth? The show isn’t even trying to make Kingsley three-dimensional, let alone sympathetic.

And then The Walking Dead doubles down on the awfulness of the Commonwealth, Kingsley, and pretty much everything else, because it’s the time for the Halloween Ball held by Governor Milton! The elite of the community gathers, wearing suits and fancy dresses, to eat fine hors d’oeuvres and drink countless bottles of good wine (served by Magna, among others). A literal red carpet is rolled out to receive the most important guests, including Kingsley. There are even paparazzi there, guys, frantically snapping pics. (How many publications could this post-apocalyptic city possibly contain that would necessitate multiple photographers? How many “celebrities” could this place possibly have?)

Compared to everything we’ve ever seen on The Walking Dead, including flashbacks, this lavish party is like a hedonistic display of ostentatious wealth and debauchery. Honestly, having seen what our protagonists have gone through, how much they’ve sacrificed just to stay alive, the extravagance of the Governor’s party feels genuinely depraved. So when a server grabs a knife, grabs Milton’s assistant, and starts screaming about the inequities of the Commonwealth’s extremely blatant class system, it’s not that surprising.

Photo: Josh Stringer/AMCPhoto: Josh Stringer/AMC

The server, named Tyler, briefly manages to escape, but Daryl tracks him down in the Haunted House. Tyler explains that he was a guard who lost everything when a prisoner beat him up and escaped (that would be Princess, seen earlier in the season), and can now no longer support his sister and her kids. Daryl handcuffs the poor kid but gives him to Kingsley so the douchebag can take the credit. It absolutely sucks to see the most obnoxious member of the Commonwealth’s elite get an opportunity to shine handed to him, but Daryl wants to placate his new “boss” because Judith and R.J. want to stay in their new, safe home. Why wouldn’t they? And Daryl sees an opportunity for them to experience a normal, safe, nontraumatic childhood (for a bit, at least). But as Kingsley pushes the prisoner through the reception hall, Tyler screams, “There are a thousand more like me! Resist the Commonwealth!” And Governor Milton worries.

We knew the Commonwealth was a fascist hand in a velvet glove, metaphorically speaking, but it’s never been so obvious when, a few days later, the recently promoted Daryl and Rosita (in Commontrooper armour) burst into Tyler’s apartment and discover a secret door to a small HQ covered in pro-workers, anti-elite propaganda. There might not be a thousand revolutionaries ready to destroy the Commonwealth’s upper class, but there’s definitely more than one. (Magna is definitely ready to smash the plutocracy.)

In certain ways, I guess I could see people being consternated that The Walking Dead has suddenly pivoted to become a story about class warfare, but I love it. Only a show as venerable as TWD could poignantly explore whether the dangerous but fair life at Alexandria is better or worse than at the Commonwealth, where safety and exploitation go hand-in-hand. Moreover, what’s made the show unique is its depiction of how depraved people might become after civilisation falls. Now we get to see how depraved people can become once civilisation comes back.

Assorted Musings:

  • I don’t how I feel about Ezekiel keeping Shiva’s leash, or why Jerry’s (Cooper Andrews) kid was so thrilled to be playing with it. However, Jerry’s family all dressing up as tigers for the Halloween festival was great.
  • Mercer brings Princess into the party, even though she’s wearing her princess costume and there’s a fancy dress code. Between this and a scene where he opens up a bit to Daryl post-Kingsley hissyfit, Mercer may be becoming an all-right guy.
  • Why did Carol know where there was a million secret bottles of wine? I’m glad she was able to help Hornsby to (eventually) help Ezekiel, but I’d be pissed if I learned she’d been holding out on everyone else.
  • The record Judith gets (well, is given) is Motörhead’s Rock n’ Roll, all so their song “Eat the Rich” can blast in the background as Daryl, Rosita, and the other Commontroopers burst into Tyler’s hidden revolutionary HQ. It’s on the nose as hell, and I love it mainly because on The Walking Dead, there’s a very decent shot that the rich will be genuinely eaten! Here’s hoping!