Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for the latest episode of The Walking Dead! Proceed with caution, survivors. For reals, if you haven’t yet watched this week’s episode, “Swear,” we highly suggest you do so before proceeding. Okay? We good? Let’s go.
“Swear” finds The Walking Dead taking perhaps its biggest chance so far this season, with the possible exception of killing off two off two of its heroes in the extremely polarizing season premiere. For while most of the show’s seventh season episodes have focused exclusively on one or two protagonists, “Swear” does so with a character who was most likley not intended for such narratives, and who until now hasn’t really received even half of a full episode. For better or for worse, since she was introduced way back in season 4’s “Live Bait,” Tara Chambler has existed primarily to further the arcs of other characters, from the Governor to Glenn to Eugene; and even that of the late Denise, a recurring character whose welfare I found myself far more concerned about than I ever have Tara’s.
That’s not necessarily a fault of the show’s, since Tara’s defining attribute was never a physical skill or tragic backstory like most of The Walking Dead‘s other heroes. Instead, it was her joy and optimism that defined her, and which served as a counterweight to most of the rest of the cast’s gravitas. Most importantly, she had a sense of humor. Next to Eugene, in fact, she’s the closest thing the show has had to a reliable source of comic relief. Which is what I suspect will make “Swear” almost as polarizing an episode in its own way as “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”.
I’m by no means averse to watching a court jester evolve into a knight. A lot of great fiction is based on such a premise. But in a season as swamped with misery as this one has been, such a story had better be as perfectly executed as possible. And “Swear” doesn’t quite clear the bar. Alanna Masterson is a skilled comic actress who’s proven adept enough at drama to stand toe to toe with some of The Walking Dead‘s heaviest hitters. Yet as Tara here finds herself at the mercy of a community of women transformed to an even greater extent than the Hilltop Colony, the Kingdom, or Alexandria by the Saviors’ brutality, Masterson plays it for the most part, either on instinct or by design of the episode’s writers and director, like she’s stumbled into one of the more tongue-in-cheek episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Flippantly delivering Whedony quips like “Okay, this is cool too. We can just keep doing this” when held at gunpoint by a band of villagers, or the punchline “Are you sure there isn’t a fishing boat called a larder?”, it’s at odds with the tone of the episode and the rest of the season. Consider the comedic elements of Carol’s introduction to Ezekiel, and how naturally they were integrated into the drama of “The Well.”
Since we’ve already seen both Carol and Maggie experience far more interesting encounters with other communities this season, Tara’s final decision to remain silent once she returns to Alexandria, rather than tell Rosita where she’s been, isn’t all that compelling. Will saintly Cyndi, bitchy Rachel, or world-weary Natania return later this season to join the Kingdom and Hilltop as they save Rick’s ass in some sort of Walking Dead equivalent of the Battle of the Five Armies? Maybe. Do I care? I don’t know. Because even Tara’s reaction to Denise’s death, the character that pulls her home, doesn’t have nearly as much punch as it should.
The central moral conflict of this episode, between Heath’s doubts about whether there’s still such a thing as community and Tara’s continued faith in it is one worth exploring, even after this show has done so time and again. So perhaps the biggest problem with “Swear” is that it follows the wrong protagonist in its exploration.
— Have we ever seen a beach on The Walking Dead? If so, I can’t recall. It does wonders, however, in making the show feel less insular and claustrophobic. Say what you want about this show’s sister series Fear the Walking Dead, but taking its action to the ocean was one of the smarter things that show did last season.
— “I never thought I’d be asking this, but where are all the men?” Okay, I’ll give Tara that line.
— Rachel really is a little monster. I hope she returns just so I can watch a horde of walkers chew her face off.
— “Nobody’s evil. They just decide to forget who they are.”
— So just what did happen to Heath? Any guesses?
— This is the second episode this season, after “Service”, that runs longer than it needs to. I’m not sure why The Walking Dead has developed a distaste for editing. But since its ratings have decreased a little bit with each successive episode after the season premiere, this show might want to renew its respect for the sanctity of the scissors.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).