Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk.
What’s the difference between a hero and a villain? It's a question The Walking Dead has asked several times over, and depending on the season, the answer might very well be that there's barely a difference at all.
“Monsters” plays with this concept throughout, with several characters having moral crises--or not--about the value of human life. We see these ethical conflicts unfold in different ways across the three separate teams working to take down Negan. Rick, still emotionally thrown from realizing the man he killed in the last episode was just protecting his infant daughter, finds himself being held at gunpoint by season one’s Morales. “I guess we’re not the same guys we used to be, ‘cause you're a monster,” Morales tells him. Ezekiel and Carol take out various garrisons in the surrounding areas, but Ezekiel’s carefully crafted confidence in leading the all-out slaughter starts to show signs of cracking. Elsewhere, on the way to the Hilltop, Jesus and Morgan clash over Jesus’ decision to take prisoners as Morgan’s PTSD rears up again.
In many ways “Monsters,” plural, is an apt title for the episode, and perhaps for the series in general. The pathos of The Walking Dead has always worked because the show strove to explore dual and parallel concepts: what happens when a body reanimates without the soul, and what happens when a person’s soul, their humanity, starts to die within the body. The former creates a monster in a physical sense, while the latter creates an arguably more sinister and unpredictable creature--one that The Walking Dead has told us over and over again is the true monster to fear.
It’s unsurprising that again we’re reminded of Rick’s own monstrous mental state in the episode, which can fluctuate wildly depending on the season. His stand-off with Morales involves a conversation about family, with Morales noting that somewhere between there and here, both of their souls died when their families did. Rick reaches out for points of connection, but it seems Morales believes there’s no good left in Rick. And really, after witnessing Rick kill a man who was protecting his daughter, can you blame Morales?
Morales asserts that Rick and the Saviors are not so different, an idea that Rick is quick to deny. Rick sees his cause as just and right, you see. Between the two of them, he sees Morales as being the only one who’s lost his way, a thought that Morales finds laughable. “Look at me?” He says to Rick. “Look at us, Rick. Look at us. We're two assholes who will do whatever it takes to keep going.”
By the time Daryl comes in to save Rick, we see Rick questioning his own actions; it could be the first step towards his “my mercy shall prevail over my wrath” flash forward that we saw in the premiere. Finding Gracie the baby right before running into an old ally-turned-enemy seems to make Rick realize that the people he’s killing are actual human beings who he’s been treating thus far as one dimensional bogeymen. As he watches Daryl kill Saviors who have already surrendered, he’s also forced to acknowledge the parallels between Negan and himself. Back in season one, Rick once told Daryl “we don’t kill the living.” Although that idea went swiftly out the window by season two, up until the last season we saw Daryl often exhibit his own brand of mercy and honor. By the end of the episode, Rick looks at Daryl like he doesn’t recognize him.
It’s clear Rick begins to see how his own words and actions may have had a hand in poisoning those he claims to be protecting, maybe a ham-handed realization because really, Rick, you don’t realize how influential you are? We see this play out not only with Daryl but with Morgan, whose mental break is clearly linked back to Rick’s speeches about hurting the Saviors before they can hurt us. “We’re the same,” Morgan tells Jesus after Jesus tries to differentiate them from the Saviors. Even Ezekiel, who had to be convinced by Carol on Rick’s behalf to join the fight, looks disturbed by all the violence. Do Negan and many of his followers deserve to die for what they did to Glenn and Abraham? Yes, but you can see how the act of even carrying out that justice destroys them all inside.
“Monsters” raises the question of what we mean by “the good guys.” We know Negan is uppercase The Bad Guy because of his executions and extorting ways, but can we also say Rick’s group are wholly the good guys? Think about how Rick decided to settle his group in the prison and then in Alexandria and essentially took both over by force, with many of the people who originally lived there dying along the way. Think about all the people Rick and his company have killed in the name of their own survival. “Monsters” tells us that every person in this apocalypse is their own breed of bad at this point, and it’s just a matter of who has more humanity left.
In light of all this, it’s unsurprising that it feels as if the show is heading towards a civil war, or a civil dispute, with these differing moralities finally coming to a head. We see Ezekiel is uncomfortable with the killings, and Jesus’ philosophy stands in direct opposition to Rick’s, Tara’s, and Daryl’s. “No matter what they've done, they're still people,” Jesus tells Morgan. “We’re gonna have to live with these people after.” We can expect Carl to also weigh in, and we know from the season eight premiere that he’s uncomfortable with Rick’s unwillingness to no longer see the good in people. Even Gregory, who has somehow survived all this time, implores Maggie to let him back into the Hilltop with, “We’re all just human beings with faults and flaws. Is this who you are? Do you have no humanity, no mercy, no charity?” A self-serving line, to be sure, but one that can be asked of all the characters.
In the end, “Monsters” provided some much-needed clarity on each of the group’s locations and goals. The season still struggles with telling a totally coherent, linear story, but it’s undeniable that “Monsters” is an improvement on the last two episodes. While I’d like to see other characters get attention--Michonne and Maggie, in particular, have been rarely seen and are pretty one-note so far--I also feel strangely disconnected from characters like Ezekiel, whose exaggerated Shakespearean act even during wartime seriously threatens to snap my suspension of disbelief. While “Monsters” started with some ridiculous fade-in, fade-out camera work, and while there’s still the looming question of why Rick and company feel comfortable wasting all these bullets, the episode does succeed in proving a point: war makes monsters of us all.
How did you feel about the episode? Sound off in the comments!
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