Two weeks ago, The Walking Dead offered an episode that was its version of a political thriller. Last week, there was a multiple murder mystery, beginning with a fatally wounded kid arriving at Hilltop’s door. But The Walking Dead still isn’t done messing around with genres, because tonight’s episode was a heist, pulled off by a resentful Daryl and Rosita on behalf of the zombie apocalypse’s most awful inhabitant.
“The Rotten Core” isn’t going to challenge Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead as major zombie-heist entertainment—it’s extremely low-key, and only takes up half of the episode anyway—but it did nicely escalate the conflict between Our Heroes and the increasingly obvious menace lurking inside the Commonwealth. But first let’s get to the other half of the episode, which picks up exactly where last week’s installment ended: with Commonwealth commander/assassin Carlson (Jason Butler Harner) murdering the people of Riverbend in an attempt to find the stolen cache of weapons Deputy Governor Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) had squirreled away for some unknown but surely nefarious purpose.
It’s all pretty straightforward. Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Lydia (Cassady McClincy), Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari), and Aaron (Ross Marquand) reunite with Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), as well as Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), to Maggie’s dismay. To her further dismay, Maggie also learns that not only has Negan been living at Riverbend the last several months, but he’s gotten married to Annie (Medina Singhore), who is also having his baby. Maggie is utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone would accept the man who killed her husband Glenn all those years ago, but Annie succinctly tells her they’ve all done horrible things in the past, and she loves the man he is now—a man the Riverbenders trust to defend them from the Commonwealth’s assault.
I think this umpteenth scene of Maggie reckoning with Negan went down easier than the last dozen because we’ve had a solid break from them. But “The Rotten Core” finally adds a new development to their eternal conflict by bringing Maggie’s son Hershel (Kien Michael Spiller), who stowed away on Maggie’s truck, into the mix. Negan rescues the kid before the Commontroopers can spot him, and Hershel, after a few polite questions, realizes Negan is the person who killed his father, and draws a gun on him. To his credit, Negan does not lie to Hershel, but tells him if a gun is fired now, the soldiers will hear and hurt all the innocent people hiding with them. Hershel, truly his father’s son, puts the gun down.
All that’s left is for the group to kill all the Commontroopers roaming the building, then (very easily) trap Carlson on the roof. As Carlson begs for his life like a chump, Aaron shoots him, causing him to fall to the pavement below—where he lives just long enough to be devoured by the fresh zombies of the Riverbenders he’d pushed off last week. Later, once things have calmed down, Negan kindly tells little Hershel to find him once he’s grown up some, telling him they can settle things then—clearly implying Negan’s willing to atone for his greatest sin, even if it means his death.
We’ve seen Negan change from the swaggering asshole who led the Saviors to an ostracized, third-class citizen of Alexandria to someone who genuinely wanted to help others, but this is a new Negan entirely. He’s warmer, more whole, more content, kinder. He clearly loves Annie, and he truly cares about the Riverbenders. He’s no longer trying to be a good person, he is a good person. Whether that will end up mattering to Maggie in the slightest—if past is prologue, absolutely not—remains to be seen, but I’m still happy to see the Negan-Maggie story move beyond where it’s been for the past couple of years (at least for now).
Meanwhile, it’s heist time! Sebastian (Teo Rapp-Olsen), aka Kingsley St. Buffingsworth of the Cape Cod Buffingsworths, aka the biggest douchebag in the zombie apocalypse, continues being the biggest douchebag in the zombie apocalypse by conscripting Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) into breaking into the panic room of his old friend’s rich dad’s mansion. The reason: There’s loads of cash inside, which Kingsley needs after Governor-Mommy Pam cut off his allowance. When Daryl and Rosita refuse this incredibly stupid assignment, Kingsley passive-aggressively threatens their kids, Judith, R.J., and Socorro, which results in a mild throttling of Kingsley but also the begrudging acceptance of the two new Commontroopers.
There’re some zombie shenanigans on the way, but Daryl and Rosita make it to the panic room where they discover someone trapped inside. Her name is April, the lone survivor of a previous attempt by Kingsley to procure the cash, who got locked inside the room when the generator went out. They free her and grab the cash, inadvertently setting off the alarm which attracts a great many zombies, and are rescued by the sudden, barely explained arrival of General Mercer (Michael James Shaw) and Carol (Melissa McBride). The Walking Dead then engages in one of my pet peeves, which is when everyone acts super-nervous to encounter a bunch of zombies, but then they still kill them with ease because they’re all badasses. (Well, except April, who doesn’t make it out of the zombie-filled house alive.)
When Mercer asks Kingsley’s goons how many people were sent to the house before today, they flippantly answer “About 30?” at which point Mercer gratifyingly kills them. He then tells Daryl and Rosita to give Kingsley the money, or else the brat will use his status and privilege to make their life at the Commonwealth hell. Thirty people died just so a rich asshole could maintain his rich asshole lifestyle, but it gets worse. Later, Carol comes to Hornsby to tattle on Kingsley, but Hornsby already knew. Hell, he’s complicit—he helped Kingsley by sending him citizens who “put themselves in bad situations,” who needed to atone for something, or had to be punished for not “playing by the rules.” Although Carol doesn’t say it, the expression on her face as she leaves indicates the fact that Hornsby and Kingsley are the ones making those rules is not lost on her.
There’s not much else to say about “The Rotten Core.” I was overjoyed with the (apparent) Maggie and Negan development, it’s always tortuously fun to see Kingsley be the worst, and now that the majority of Our Heroes are painfully aware of the dark side of the Commonwealth, things should start to heat up—especially since the episode ends with the reveal of who really stole all those weapons two weeks ago, and killed the three Commontroopers who guarded it: Leah (Lynn Collins)! I don’t know how she plans on using what are presumably dozens of assault rifles simultaneously, but I do know they’ll be aimed at the woman who murdered her squadmates down in cold blood those many months ago. Hopefully, Maggie decides to finally cut Negan some slack, because she’s going to need all the help she can get.
- Lydia thinks the Commonwealth is just like the Whisperers because they both wanted to take over and absorb communities. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that was very much not the mission statement of the Whisperers. They were devoted to walking among zombies and murdering anyone who looked at them funny.
- Maggie: “If something happens to him…” Negan: “…it’ll have to happen to me first.” A great line, and a great line read by JDM.
- I mentioned this last time, but the Riverbenders are still very funny to me. How ludicrous is it to imagine a bunch of perfectly normal people who were somehow living normal lives, but while an unhinged lunatic was technically in charge of the entire… oh. Never mind.
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