Warning: Spoilers are ahead for the season eight of The Walking Dead. Keep reading at your own risk.
This week’s episode, “Dead Or Alive Or,” showed us the continued fallout from Negan’s attack on Alexandria. True to its title, the episode revolved around many of the characters feeling angry about the current state of events but unable to do anything to change it; alive but potentially staring death in face, trapped in a situation that feels abysmal and hopeless. We see two perspectives at war with each other in "Alive Or": outright nihilism, versus the belief that there’s always some hope and goodness in people. We see this in the stories that play out with Gabriel, Carol, Maggie, and even Tara.
With Maggie, we see her belief in humanity prevail over cruelty--a perhaps surprising result, considering out of everyone in Rick’s group she has the most reason to be irreversibly angry. At the beginning of the episode, Maggie is clearly struggling under the weight of leadership; with the Hilltop running low on food, she faces the decision to starve the Savior prisoners or equally distribute the rations between the Hilltoppers and the Saviors. In the end, she makes the humane choice to not only feed the Saviors but give them time outside of their pen, under the watch of guards. It’s a move that notably stands at odds with Rick, who we saw just last episode reiterating to Negan that he was going to kill him, even knowing that goes against his Carl’s last wish. Maggie’s segment ends with her looking at the baby Grace and smiling to herself.
We see a similar strain of compassion with Carol. We’ve seen Carol slide from protective mother, to heartless killer, to emotionally traumatized pacifist. This latest iteration seems to be a combination of all three; Carol is still a hardened fighter here, but we see her show some measure of concern for the young Henry, who outright killed Gavin at the end of “Honor.” We see her go back and forth with Morgan about telling Henry the truth: that the man who killed his brother is one of the Saviors sitting in the cage, right in front of him. In the end Carol and Morgan wordless come to an agreement: they lie to Henry to give him some measure of peace, telling him it was Gavin who shot Benjamin. As with Maggie's story, we see this glimmer of hope here that there are still kids to be taken care of, a future that could exist after all this that’s still worth preserving.
Even with Tara we see a sort of tentative return to believing that there's still some good in people. The episode opens with her fully intending to kill Dwight, but by the end she appears to trust that Dwight will not give up their location to Negan. It’s a short, quick arc, but one that helps to further demonstrate that many of these characters are ready to try moving forward and hope for a better future.
This is all sharply contrasted to Gabriel’s plot. Gabriel’s segment begins sweetly enough; Doctor Carson and him manage to escape the Savior compound and attempt to make their way back to Rick and company. They have several run-ins that feel like a godsend--they find new car keys just as their car dies, and antibiotics just as Gabriel’s eyesight starts to go thanks to his infection. Gabriel sees as this as God’s guiding hand; Carson is more skeptical, but it’s undeniable that for a while they hit a patch of luck. And then suddenly it ends. The two are caught; Carson is killed, and we close out on Gabriel’s anguished face. Their escape didn’t matter. Nothing matters, and this universe’s order is once again restored.
It’s both a frustrating and, at this point, all-too-predictable end to that particular tale. The Walking Dead has trained us to expect misery at every corner; we’re reminded constantly that this world is terrible and dangerous, and can, at any point, tear you apart. I’m personally getting tired of the show’s use of death as a simple shock value. While some may argue that generating random deaths is what makes The Walking Dead so realistic, there’s also a limit to how many shock deaths an audience will tolerate. There’s a point where nihilism begins to interfere with the audience’s ability to actually connect to the story and characters. The fact of the matter is, as we begin to run low on characters we have longstanding, genuine connections to, the harder it is to stay invested.
I’m hoping the show doesn't think that creating more plots like this is what is going to keep people engaged long term. What the show should do is lean back into the bright spots and touching character moments that characterized the earlier seasons, and that hooked audiences in the first place. Less sudden and senseless character deaths, more finding meaning in life even as the world itself is falling apart. While we see certain characters trying to find the humanity in their own situation, the show needs to make sure it doesn’t lose a hold of its own soul, too.
Did you like where Gabriel’s story went this episode? Sound off in the comments!
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