I’m not sure I’ve ever followed another show that devotes entire episodes to doing nothing more than setting up future, more consequential episodes. In most dramas exposition flows steadily — a few major dramatic events happen each week that propel the narrative forward while subplots lay the groundwork for future dramatic arcs to emerge. It’s a steady current. On TWD the drama flows like the tides. You’ll have a week when the tide rushes in and suddenly everything’s in motion, then two weeks when it recedes and gathers itself for another run at shore.
Last night was low tide.
Not a disaster, though. It had an organizing theme, at least — mercy, a quality that’s highly strained in the zompocalypse. Carl showed mercy to Sadiq in inviting him to Alexandria; Jesus and Maggie showed mercy to the captured Saviors in not executing them; even Rick, in extending an olive branch to the Scavengers, showed mercy by offering them a second chance at an alliance after they’d betrayed him terribly once before. That’s a lotta unearned trust in a world where trust is rarely rewarded. Rick in particular must be suffering from some sort of head injury as I don’t know how else to explain why he’d visit the Scavengers’ junkyard by himself. He’s public enemy number one for Negan. The Scavengers would be richly rewarded for handing him over. To make things extra stupid, Rick threatened them with annihilation if they didn’t ally with him. They have no reason not to behead him and box up his noggin as an early Christmas present for the Saviors. The Alexandrians would never know what happened to him.
Don’t read too much into the “A” scrawled on Rick’s makeshift cell either. That keeps popping up on the show, but as you might expect, the writers apparently haven’t put much thought into it:
Show writer Angela Kang explained the meaning behind the letter on the show’s season seven Blu-ray commentary for “The Cell.”
“Randomly, people ask me all the time if the ‘A’ stands for anything, and I was like it just means ‘a–hole,” said Kang. “They’re being juvenile. Like an a—— and an ‘F’ and ‘S’ for f—face and s—head.”
It’s worth noting that Kang wrote Sunday’s episode as well.
I’m on Kang’s side, honestly. “A” for “a**hole” is as lazy as it gets, but if you’re scrutinizing the minutiae of this dopey show for deep meanings, you’re the a**hole.
At least we’re set up now with two potentially interesting subplots. The conundrum about what to do with the Savior POWs has all sorts of possibilities. Jesus clearly wants to keep them alive indefinitely, Maggie seems to want to keep them alive only so long as they might be used in a prisoner exchange. If Negan doesn’t want them back, presumably we’re going to end up with a standoff between Jesus and Maggie to decide their fate. For all of its pretenses to moral complexity in a state of anarchy, the show almost never risks turning the audience against its core heroes by having them make truly morally dubious decisions. You’ll never see Rick beat someone’s head in with a bat to scare an enemy settlement; you’ll never see Daryl shoot a survivor he stumbles across in his daily travels simply to loot the man’s supplies. The last core character on the show to occupy a moral gray zone may have been … Shane. If Maggie turns hard-ass and has the Savior prisoners executed over Jesus’s objection, that’ll lend her some intriguing depth (and give her something meaningful to do, which Lauren Cohan almost never gets) and raise the possibility of Maggie becoming a tyrant after having gotten her first taste of power. Just explain one thing to me: Why is Maggie in charge of the Hilltop in the first place instead of Jesus? I know she helped the Hilltoppers fend off a raid by the Saviors after she moved there but he’s an original Hilltopper and at least as much of a badass as she is, having recently held his own in a fight with Morgan. I don’t get why he’s taking orders from her. Maybe he won’t be before long.
The other interesting subplot is Daryl being inexplicably hellbent on ending the war with the Saviors asap even though the various settlements have agreed on a plan that’ll take only two more days. I suppose it’s a revenge thing, with Daryl having experienced Negan’s cruelty personally and insistent upon killing Dwight even though Dwight’s been a valuable double agent for Alexandria. It sure looks like he’s about to screw everything up by acting rashly, against the express advice of the Prophet Rick, which would be unheard of on the show. Daryl is one of the two pillars of the core cast; he doesn’t screw up, at least not in significant ways. If he ends up getting Michonne killed or inadvertently freeing Negan from the siege of the walkers, he and Rick are going to rumble. How does the show resolve that? Banishment from Alexandria for Daryl? Daryl starting his own settlement and clashing with the Grimes gang? If anything could bring viewers back to the show, a civil war among the fan favorites would be it. Would you rather watch Negan swan around doing his Apocalypse Fonzie shtick or watch Rick and Daryl spend a half-season waging war on each other before the inevitable tender reconciliation? Just blow up the Sanctuary already and let Daryl do a heel turn.