What better way to ease into Election Day than with a thread about terror and madness in a post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’d need to think more systematically about this before I commit to it but I’m tempted to call last night a top-ten “Walking Dead” episode. I think that’s because it came close to granting my forlorn wish that the series had been an anthology rather than an endless slog through rural Georgia with mopey Rick Grimes and his gang of not-very-interesting misfits. Daryl was the only core cast member to turn up and he was ancillary: That hour was about Dwight, an average joe who’d committed to the principle that any compromise was worth making in the name of staying alive and who’d had the misfortune to run into a figure in Negan willing to test how far that principle extended. The efficiency of the writing was unusual too. For a show that too often descends into blather, this one made its point with effective montage and understatement. The opening sequence of Dwight watching “Who’s the Boss?”, playing air hockey, etc, while the show bounced along to “Town Called Malice” was an economical way of illustrating how little he got from his deal with the devil. He traded his wife and his manhood for a safe but pitiful existence whose main luxury seems to involve egg sandwiches. In his own way, he’s been beaten worse than Glenn was.

The biggest departure from the usual formula was the show touching on the reality of rape in the Zompocalypse, a topic they’ve stayed far away from over many seasons even though sex slavery would be standard practice for every degenerate warlord character they’ve encountered. It’s a dilemma: How can a show famous for making entertainment out of graphic violence address a type of violence that no one would find entertaining? Until now they’ve simply sidestepped the subject. Last night they finally went at it, and did a surprisingly fine job. Again, the writing was efficient and understated: Sherry’s mysterious pregnancy test early on, Negan’s invitation to Dwight to “dine for free at the p***y bar” as a reward for work well done, and then the reveal where Negan explains the arrangement with Sherry to Daryl with Dwight standing right there was an elegant way of unraveling what Dwight and Sherry had been through. (TWD has … not been known for its skillful pacing in seasons past.) Their awkward encounter on the stairs after Dwight returns to the Sanctuary was one of the most gut-wrenching scenes the show’s ever done. Normally they need to cave in a core character’s skull to make you feel something on this program. Not last night. They had 45 minutes to convincingly explain how a man’s spirit might be broken. They pulled it off.

And then there was one last affecting surprise at the end. When Dwight shoots his runaway friend in the road, it plays as a mercy killing. Dwight knows what’s in store for the friend back at the Sanctuary so he spares him. But then comes the twist. Ever loyal to Negan, he felt compelled to bring his friend’s body back to HQ and put him into service as a zombie chained to the fence. TWD likes to analogize between the dehumanization experienced by the zombies and the survivors, but it usually comes off as heavy handed. No one who watched Rick stupidly mutter “We are the walking dead” a season or two ago will forget the chills they got from the sheer corniness of that moment. Last night was all about economy, though. All they needed was one shot of Dwight considering what he’d reduced his friend to and the point was made. (Well, two shots. Dwight watching the zombie at the beginning struggling to free himself from the stake he was impaled on was another, more heavy-handed analogy to his own predicament.) Obviously this guy is going to melt down down the road at some point and either attack Negan himself or plot with Daryl to take him out. They laid the groundwork expertly last night for that development.