Even though this is The Walking Dead’s final season, it doesn’t seem to be building up to anything particularly spectacular. Sure, there’s very likely going to be a battle between Alexandria and the faux Stormtroopers of the fascist Commonwealth, but it’s clearly not going to drag on like the series’ other wars. Maybe that’s a bummer for some, but I’m digging the show’s current trend of simply being solid zombie entertainment—and tonight’s part two premiere (of three) keeps the streak alive.
“No Other Way” concluded the War of Meridian, where Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Elijah (Okea Eme-Akbari), and Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) are still in battle with the Reapers who seized the settlement and murdered so many of its inhabitants. The Reapers are being led by Daryl’s ex Leah (Lynn Collins), who took charge after murdering their insane commander Pope to protect her remaining comrades, but she’s also out to exact some revenge for the fallen. Maggie’s still in charge of the Alexandrians, who are fighting to get Meridian’s food stores to bring back to the starving people in Alexandria, but she’s mainly dead set on avenging the Meridians the Reapers killed. Honestly, I’d say Maggie is 60 percent looking for revenge and 40 percent survival, while Leah is vice versa.
If it’s dawned on you that if the two sides just called a truce everyone on both sides could walk away and survive, congratulations, because you and Daryl (Norman Reedus) are the only ones interested in that particular scenario. The episode begins with Leah firing that ridiculous multiple-bottle rocket launcher into the courtyard in hopes of killing Maggie and the rest. Mostly, she just hits a zillion zombies who explode in showers of gore, as well as inadvertently killing a Reaper while he was fighting Maggie. (The fact that Leah murdered Pope to stop this exact scenario got a chuckle out of me.)
Much of the rest of the episode is made up of encounters between the Alexandrians and the remaining members of the Reapers. Daryl has an ugly, savage, and very impressive knife fight with one and wins. Gabriel encounters the priest he saw and spared in a few episodes ago; the priest pities Gabe for no longer hearing the voice of God and sets his weapons down; Gabe, as per his standard procedure, kills the unarmed Reaper because mercy, forgiveness, and trust have no room in his current belief system.
The best fight, however, is between Brandon Carver (Alex Meraz) the Reaper, Leah’s second-in-command who wanted to kill Daryl from the start for formerly breaking her heart, and Maggie, Negan, and the admittedly wounded but still scythe-wielding Elijah, who specifically blames Carver for the death of his sister. And Carver just beats the hell out of all of them. He doesn’t even make it look particularly hard. He just trounces them all soundly, and the beatings don’t stop until Negan manages to throw some sand in his face, distracting him long enough for Elijah to stab the Reaper. As the three are about to kill him, Daryl finds them and yells for them to stop, because he’s figured out a way to get everyone out of Meridian alive.
And here we come to the crux of the episode, which has been the crux of pretty much every Walking Dead episode since Rick lost his mind after coming to Alexandria. Is it better to murder every single person who seems like they might cause you and your people harm, or once caused you harm, or is there any reason to show mercy or have hope that someone bad could change their ways? Is it better to kill all bad guys, even if there are very clear benefits to not doing so? Just about every main character on the series has wavered between the two sides at one point or another (many of them have bounced back and forth several times, although, to be fair, Gabriel has consistently been on Team Murder for quite a while).
This time, it’s Maggie, Elijah, and Gabriel on Team Murder, as they want to kill Carver immediately (Gabriel doesn’t have any personal beef with Carver, but he’s consistently been Team Murder for a while now). Daryl is on Team Don’t Murder, not because he’s being merciful or anything, but he thinks he can talk Leah into exchanging Carver for their safe passage. (Negan abstains.) Maggie and Elijah fume, but Leah does agree to meet.
Of course, once everybody gets to the courtyard, Daryl’s plan immediately goes awry when Leah reveals she’s got a sniper trained on them. Then Leah’s plan goes awry when Gabriel kills the sniper off-screen and has the rifle trained on the Reapers. The result is this: Leah and the two remaining Reapers forfeit their weapons and are allowed to leave Meridian, but Carver has to stay to answer for his crimes/murders. Leah, desperately trying to protect as many of her comrades as she can—which, again, is two—accepts the deal and walks away.
Then, about 30 seconds later, Maggie grabs a gun, runs after the Reapers, shoots two of them in the back and kills them, but only wounds Leah, who manages to escape. Then Maggie comes back and kills the immobile and unarmed Carver. Winner: Team Murder, by a landslide!
Daryl is not pleased, but he’s able to track down the wounded Leah to pointedly let her escape. If The Walking Dead had more episodes in it, it would be an absolute lock that Leah would return to make Maggie and the others pay for what they did to her people. I guess she still might, but given the multitude of storytelling possibilities of the Commonwealth, the show might not have room for more Leah. If she does come back for revenge, the question is this: did Maggie’s murders ensure that Leah would seek revenge, or did Daryl’s mercy?
The answer is both, which is The Walking Dead’s problem in a homicidal nutshell. The episode is titled “No Other Way” but it clearly shows there are two ways—there have always been two ways—to try to survive in its bleak zombie apocalypse. But neither of them matters because the consequences are almost always going to be the same; whichever choice you pick, people are going to die. Show mercy? They’ll come back and try to kill you. Kill them? Someone associated with them will arrive and try to kill you.
It’s frustrating because this means it doesn’t matter whatever characters making this ostensibly important decision choose to do. Sure, there are occasionally consequences, like Maggie returning to Alden (whom she had to leave wounded in an abandoned church in part one) and discovering he’s become a zombie during her mission for vengeance plus food. But many characters, like Gabriel, never have any introspection or growth. Even when someone experiences something that leads them to leave Team Murder and join Team Not Murder, inevitably someone from Team Not Murder will switches sides as well, all so the show can continue asking which “way” is better without ever providing an answer.
So I’ll give full kudos to The Walking Dead for not only admitting the moral irrelevance of the show, but pointedly embracing it in “No Other Way.” Because in the episode’s final moments, a troop of Commonwealth soldiers arrives at Alexandria. The Alexandrians are ready to defend their home, but Eugene runs in front of the Commontroopers, explaining they come in peace. Then the smarmy deputy governor Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) address the settlement, offering to help Alexandria rebuild and/or allow its inhabitants to relocate to the ice cream-filled fascist paradise that is the Commonwealth.
Jump to six months later: another Commonwealth army approaches Alexandria, but far more grimly. Maggie tells its commander, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” The commander takes off his helmet. It’s Daryl, who replies, “Yeah, it does.”
First of all, that’s a hell of a tease, and I assume The Walking Dead is going to jump back in time to build up to this moment rather than leave us guessing about what happened. But second, having Maggie and Daryl pull a moral switcheroo during the timejump is a fun admission that the show truly isn’t interested in exploring which “way” might be better beyond surface level.
“I just think about choices,” Daryl says to Gabriel over the campfire. “Do they even matter?” They do not, but it’s The Walking Dead’s final season. Why start now?
- The secondary storyline doesn’t really have a plot, per se, but it is pretty great. Judith (Cailey Fleming) and Aaron’s daughter Gracie (Anabelle Holloway) are still trapped in a basement with zombies pounding on the door. However, the rain has flooded the basement so much that the two girls are forced to stand on objects to keep above the waterline. But when the zombies break through the door, suddenly the entire room becomes a deathtrap full of underwater zombies that cannot be seen. Judith, unsurprisingly, kicks some ass until Aaron (Ross Marquand) arrives to absolutely destroy some walkers, in slo-mo, using his mace hand.
- Still, the basement is chock full of zombies after he rescues the girls, and the next scene is of Aaron scooting his way along a ceiling duct, zombies just barely unable pull him into the deadly water. As silly as it was, it was also incredibly tense, and extremely entertaining. For all of TWD’s faults, the fact that it can still find ways to make zombies scary after all these years is a true achievement.
- The zombies slowly rising out of the water was wonderfully unnerving, if a bit odd. (Were the zombies trying to seem eerie?)
- A few of the fights in Meridian take place in a preschool classroom, which is kind of great.
- “Well, ding ding” absolutely has to be the worst line of dialogue Negan has ever said, yes?
- I nearly forgot! Negan has a post-fight moment with Maggie as she’s burying Alden. At first, he brandishes his knife as if he’s going to attack her, as the show has had him do umpteen times before, but then he makes one of the most reasonable arguments anyone on TWD has ever made. Although Maggie promised she wouldn’t kill him, her murder of the Reapers after their peace treaty shows Negan will never be safe around her, and he leaves. Whether this means Jeffrey Dean Morgan is truly done with the series is unknown, but Negan is 100 percent correct in his assessment.
- In the flash-forward, I fully suspect that Daryl is secretly a double agent for Alexandria, and this is all part of some ruse. But maybe not. Who knows with this goofy-ass show?
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