Is an episode with two great scenes by definition a great episode? If so, last night was great. The opening bit with Negan’s gang terrorizing Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham was one of the most suspenseful the series has ever done and conspicuously well acted. One of the online reviews I read compared the lead biker’s razor’s-edge demeanor to a Gary Oldman performance, which was on the mark. I’m sorry to see him go so soon as he would have made a fine recurring henchman once Negan takes center stage. In fact, for all the grumbling I do about how wooden the main characters have become, TWD has done a nifty job of finding talented actors for memorable bit parts. The lead biker was one; the Dave-Grohl-lookalike Wolf, superbly played by Aussie Benedict Samuel, is another. Last season’s standouts included Morgan’s mentor, who taught him tai chi, and the sinister guy in the baseball cap trapped in the cabin with Tyrese. I’m not going to start whining again that TWD would have been better off as an anthology series but wouldn’t you have rather followed those guys around for an hour instead of enduring the latest tedious deus ex machina in which Glenn escapes the zombies at the last possible moment? Seriously, how many more “oh no, he’s about to get chomped” fake-outs must we endure before Negan finally puts this poor bastard out of his misery?
The killer scene (literally!) last night, though, was Jessie, Sam, and the other kid getting eaten alive right in front of Rick, Michonne, and Carl. Am I correct in thinking that TWD has never actually showed a small child being devoured before? That was one of the few remaining taboos, along with rape, in a show that’s all about rejecting conventions involving extreme gore on TV and the ruthless purging of core characters. You can turn kids into zombies (most memorably, Carol’s daughter Sophia) but you do not turn them into zombie chow. So much for that. The master stroke in that scene was how it forced the survivors to suppress their impulse to intervene at the risk of revealing themselves to the zombies and instead passively and silently watch their friends being torn apart within arm’s reach. It was the most brutal survival lesson they’ve ever done, I think, in that only the hardened survivors from the Grimes gang were able to force themselves to keep quiet in the name of self-preservation. It didn’t ring true — everything we know about Rambo Rick suggests he would have intervened impetuously to try to save his love interest (and succeeded) — but it worked regardless. This was a rare case, though, where I thought the scene would have been more effective if one character wasn’t killed off. Namely, imagine how gut-wrenching it would have been if Jessie had managed to stifle her screams to protect herself as her little boy was ripped to pieces in front of her. She’d showed flashes of having what it takes to become a survivor in the last few episodes; nothing would have crowned her as a core character worthy of the Grimes gang bad-asses quite like restraining herself as her child was cannibalized. I’m surprised the writers cashiered her so soon after investing so much in building her up. Ah well.
As for the rest of the episode, given TWD’s notorious rap for slow pacing and talkiness we can’t grumble much about an hour that was relentlessly active. All I’ll say is that the last 15 minutes, when Rambo Rick returned and he and the rest of the gang ridiculously chopped their way through thousands of zombies in a frenzy, was tolerable only because the two scenes I mentioned above were so strong. Rick going hog wild on the zombies reminded me of the end of “Mars Attacks!”, when Jim Brown’s finally had enough of the aliens’ crap and decides to take them on with his bare hands — and, being the hero, naturally prevails. The difference is that “Mars Attacks!” was goofing on the idea of the alpha-male protagonist who can overcome any odds through sheer will whereas TWD really seems to buy that model. Except, as I say, when it came to Jessie and Rick was forced to stand down. It’ll be awhile before they uncork another scene that good.