The Walking Dead Turned a Beautiful Episode Into a Brutal Lesson

Illustration for article titled The Walking Dead Turned a Beautiful Episode Into a Brutal Lesson
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Admittedly, the primary portion of The Walking Dead’s educational plan is telling its students that in the case of a zombie apocalypse, almost everyone will turn into killers if not monsters (literal or figurative). And after a quiet, languid, enjoyable story focused on getting to know more about two of the show’s biggest characters (by default), The Walking Dead decided to hand out a pop quiz.

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Illustration for article titled The Walking Dead Turned a Beautiful Episode Into a Brutal Lesson

About 8/9ths of “One More” was an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable episode of The Walking Dead. For most of it, I couldn’t help but wonder if being forced to minimize their episodes to small, focused stories has been a really good thing for the show. After the constant, epic bombast of the Saviors and the Whisperers, I’m really enjoying these low-key stories that focus on just a handful of characters. This time, it’s Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Aaron (Ross Marquand), and the episode helps reveal and develop their characters more in 45 minutes (of commercial-free time) than the last two, maybe three seasons put together.

Gabriel and Aaron have been searching for weeks, hoping to find supplies to make up what was lost/destroyed when Beta and his horde barged in and trashed the place. After two weeks of total failure, Aaron’s ready to head home, but Gabriel convinces him to check the final spot on Maggie’s map, just in case. Along the way, they spy a building that isn’t on the map and take a look inside. There, Aaron finds a boar locked in a closet that they cook for dinner and Gabriel finds a $2000 bottle of whiskey.

Turns out Gabriel is quite the high-falutin’ whiskey connoisseur, walking Aaron through the whiskey’s bouquet and mouthfeel. As such, it’s entirely unsurprising that he refuses to let either of them have more than a small tipple—no more than a single shot, certainly—as it’s a bottle to be treasured, not get smashed on. Aaron convinces him to get drunk anyway, and the scene smash-cuts to the two of them playing cards for bottle caps, the bottle half-empty. (I’m very glad this happened; the idea of saving incredibly fine whiskey to be savored for months or years is moronic in a world where anyone can die tomorrow. And, of course, they nearly do.)

As a certain character says later in the episode, “A drunk tongue’s an honest one,” and since Aaron and Gabriel are drunk, they start opening up to each other. Mainly, they end up inadvertently discussing their different philosophies on life. Aaron, who’s been going through a bloodthirsty streak himself for a while, has calmed and realized what he wants to do is what he was doing before Rick turned Alexandria upside down: looking for new survivors, and bringing them to Alexandria if they seem on the up-and-up.

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Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Gabriel tells the origin story of his love of whiskey, which came from a mentor who taught him that preaching can’t come from a sermon, but through an honest, one-on-one conversation, on their terms. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but when Aaron tells Gabriel he should start preaching again and counseling people, helping them spiritually and emotionally in a time people could badly use it, Gabriel refuses. He explains, without vitriol but with total conviction, that the world will never go back to how it was before the zombies came—evil people aren’t the exception to the rule, they are the rule. Aaron wants to improve lives, but Gabriel is certain there’s no point, that making the world better is simply impossible.

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His hopelessness seems to be proven right when they’re captured by Mays (Terminator 2's Robert Patrick), the resident of the building they’re in, catcher of the bar, and owner of that bottle of whiskey and an assault rifle. With Aaron tied up in another room, Mays asks Gabriel why he still wears the priest collar, and Gabriel gives him a spiel that’s exactly the opposite of what he told Aaron, that people need comfort, they need belief, and most of all they need hope. Unfortunately, the man already heard everything Gabriel confessed the previous night, which Gabriel quickly blames on the alcohol. But Mays agrees with Drunk Gabriel.

It turns out Mays had once traveled with his brother and his brother’s family, keeping them alive until one day he caught his brother stealing food. Mays’ brother attacked him, giving him a nasty scar down his face. Since then, his belief system is the same as Drunk Gabriel’s: people are basically evil and will screw you over sooner or later, so you might as well kill them now. But Sober Gabriel’s denial, that he thinks people are good and deserve help and understanding and compassion, has pissed off Mays, who’s determined to teach a lesson. He wheels out Aaron (tied to a chair), gives over a pistol with a single bullet, and tells them they’re playing Russian Roulette with a catch—whoever’s holding the gun can shoot themselves or their friend. Gabriel fires at himself first, then Aaron does the same, then Gabriel, and then…there’s the sound of the bullet entering the chamber. The next shot will kill someone.

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But now Gabriel is done preaching—now he talks to Mays on his level. He tells him his brother didn’t give him a lesson about humanity’s innate evil, the brother just proved he was an asshole, and it’s easier for Mays to blame the world than admit his brother didn’t love him. He tells Mays he’s become so blinded by hate that he’s about to murder two good men. But Mays is confident that Aaron will shoot Gabriel and prove him right. But Aaron doesn’t, and the flustered Mays stops him at the last second. And this is what Gabriel tells him: “You’re wrong. I was wrong. People in this world are capable of more than just killing each other. They can love, still sacrifice. Your brother didn’t give you any truth, he just betrayed you. And if you punish others for his sins, you’re no better than he is.”

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These words are powerful enough that they reach Mays. Seth Gilliam’s performance here is so well-executed, so visceral, that I believed Gabriel still had some spark of hope for humanity in there, that his talk last night was just some drunken grousing. Mays is touched and happy to finally find people he feels he can trust, he unties Aaron and even opens up, finally telling the pair his name…

…which is when, of course, Gabriel murders him.

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Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC
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Aaron is shocked and appalled that Gabriel would kill a guy who was literally in the act of transforming into someone who could trust people again. I was shocked because of Gilliam’s performance and appalled because I still hate it when TWD’s protagonists have no empathy, compassion, or qualms about killing anyone they think might be a threat. In regard to Mays, Gabriel—who betrays no anguish, no qualms, apparently no feeling whatsoever about killing a man he connected with emotionally 60 seconds before—tells Aaron they couldn’t have taken Mays to Alexandria, because the man murdered his own brother. Sure, it was in self-defense, but Gabriel is done with sympathy and forgiveness and mercy, it’s just that he can certainly fake it to protect himself and his friends…or to kill his enemies.

However, you might have clocked immediately that Mays never said he killed his brother—he only said he’d “handled it.” When Aaron and Gabriel realized Mays must have had a secret compartment to have spied on them during the night, I foolishly thought that The Walking Dead was going to give Gabriel some comeuppance, even if it just meant his brother was imprisoned, but still alive. It would have proven that Mays compassion was real, it had just been buried until Gabriel’s bullshit brought it out again. But this is The Walking Dead and when one of the “good guys” murders or tries to murder someone that doesn’t seem to warrant it, the show eventually gives us proof that actually, it was a great idea. (Contrarily, those who show mercy are usually doomed by it.)

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It turns out Mays’ brother is alive and chained up…but next to him are the skeletons of his wife and child. All the man can say is “He made me play” over and over again until he grabs one of Gabriel’s guns and shoots himself in the head. So according to the show, Gabriel was right to kill Mays, regardless if he was potentially in the process of changing his ways. Gabriel never had a doubt.

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I loved this episode, right up until the murder, but I’m going to fully admit my shock and disappointment is entirely my own issue, not the show’s, because the scene is true to Gabriel’s character as he’s been portrayed been the last few seasons. He’s a guy who has no problems murdering an unarmed man in a jail cell in punishment for his crimes, or just to take out a potential threat in the future. There’s never been any catalyst shown that could have changed that, so it was short-sighted of me to expect any different from him now. Again, Gilliam’s performance as Gabriel performing for Mays just felt so authentic that I truly thought Gabriel was finally turning to the side of the angels. Obviously not.

Maybe I should have been clued in by the episode’s striking beginning, which featured flowers and other flora soaked with zombie gore during a mostly off-screen fight where Aaron and Gabriel take out a dozen or so creatures. Gabriel’s faith was once something important, something beautiful to him. Now, all he can see is where it drowned in blood. Even though he only has one eye, The Walking Dead says he’s the one seeing clearly.

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Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Assorted Musings:

  • I thought Gabriel’s laugh at Aaron’s shriek upon getting attacked by the boar sounded quite fake. Maye it’s because it’s the first full-body guffaws we’ve heard in the show for quite some time—nothing else springs to mind—and it sounds super-weird to hear someone laughing on TWD.
  • Aaron also finds the Walking Dead world’s equivalent of Beanie Babies, which he plans on bringing home to his daughter. It’s sweet, and it’s also one of those little moments of humanity that prove to me there’s still enough goodness in humanity worth fighting for. I wish more of the show’s main characters felt the same.
  • Why did that guy have an empty can with a bullet hole in it in his car trunk?
  • When Aaron and Gabriel find a mini-mart with zombies in it, the zombies thrust their arms through the boarded-up doorway to reach their prey. When Gabriel chops off their arms with his machete, the zombies pull their stumps back in, wait for a beat, and then shove their other arms out in perfect unison. I laughed out loud.
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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

DISCUSSION

kirkschuman
Lint6

Was I the only one thinking, during that last round of Russian Roulette, while Mays was temporarily distracted, why Arron didn’t quickly move the gun to point at his leg, or his knee, or his genitals, and shoot Mays?  He could’ve quickly fired, then let Gabriel (who wasn’t restrained in any way) finish things off