I thought we’d never see a moment more embarrassing than Rick mumbling, “We are the walking dead.” But, God love ’em, these writers keep raising the bar.
Reaction to this episode last night on Twitter wasn’t good but I didn’t hate it as much as most did. Yeah, the hour had a romantic comedy vibe to it at times (like “Shaun of the Dead,” you could call it a “zom rom com”), but I don’t begrudge them the occasional ray of sunshine to break up the monotony of relentless bleakness. If anything, the show needs more of that — not because levity is the missing ingredient but because people in Rick’s and Michonne’s situation would grasp for moments of happiness even in the worst circumstances to keep themselves sane. It’s a nod to realism. I didn’t mind either how easy it was for the two of them, as seasoned zombie-killers, to lay waste to dozens of walkers with nothing more than a sword, a hatchet, and whatever blunt instruments they could pick up. To me, that was the show winking at how far it’s strayed from its core premise of survivors threatened by the undead, but that too had an air of realism about it. At this point in the zombie apocalypse, killing walkers really would be a turkey shoot for anyone who’d managed to survive. The carnival setting seemed appropriate: Zombie-killing is really just an unusually high-stakes version of an amusement park game.
But then came the sword toss, which you can watch below and which would have been bad enough even without the gratuitous “Is Rick dead?” fake-out that no one believed. That’s where the clip picks up, with the revelation that no, you dummy, of course he’s not dead. Rick has just climbed a ferris wheel to take a shot at a deer that’s wandered into the park, knowing that the zombies will be drawn to the carcass. But something gives way and he falls, and before you know it he’s on the ground surrounded by walkers, firing desperately to hold them off — and then he runs out of bullets. The zombies fall to their knees, a feeding frenzy ensues, and it sure looks like Rick Grimes is being devoured in front of his girlfriend. But of course he isn’t, for the same reason that Rambo wouldn’t be killed on a tripwire in the Vietnamese jungle and Indiana Jones wouldn’t slip on a rock and fall off a cliff while chasing Nazis. The first rule of heroic melodrama: The hero may die, but only with the grandeur befitting his status. Rick sacrificing himself to save Michonne while taking out Negan is acceptable. Rick having one moment of bad luck and getting ripped apart ignominiously beside a merry-go-round isn’t, even though it’s totally plausible, maybe even likely, as a manner of death in this universe.
If you try hard, you can let them off the hook for the Rick fake-out on the theory that there has to be at least one moment of suspense during this jaunty little adventure Rick and Michonne are having, even if the “suspense” is a centimeter deep. But how do you justify the sword toss? As a Twitter pal said, all that was missing was the “Six Million Dollar Man” sound effect. It’s a fake-out on top of a fake-out: Seconds after we learn no, you dummy, of course he’s not dead, a momentarily disarmed Michonne has her weapon restored in the nick of time to save herself, the oldest cliche in the adventure playbook. They may have set an American television record for the quickest succession of deus ex machinas; why they didn’t go for a trifecta by having Daryl suddenly appear out of nowhere at the last second to kill the remaining zombies just before Rick and Michonne are eaten, I don’t know. This is what continues to confuse me about the show: Having just devoted an hour to a semi-realistic look at what married life might be like for a couple several years after the planet was overrun by zombies, why resort to the cheesiest gimmicks from the adventure genre? How does this show go from episode after episode of aimless scenery-chewing by Jeffrey Dean Morgan to last week’s thoughtful hour about minor characters like Eugene and Dwight trying to function in a society governed by ruthless authoritarian rules? It’s uneven not only week by week and hour by hour but, as we saw last night, minute by minute.
Still, they left us with a pretty newsy omen of what’s to come when Rick and Michonne had that heart to heart about carrying on if one of them dies in the attack on the Saviors. One of them’s going to buy the farm, it appears, and given that this show can’t seem to imagine life without Rick, that probably means Michonne. Too bad. She’s the more interesting character. But then, virtually all of the women on this show are more interesting than the men.