Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “No Tomorrow Yet,” ended with the sudden dampening of whatever sense of triumph Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group felt after its successful, if morally fraught, raid on a Saviors outpost. And tonight’s episode, “The Same Boat,” immediately backtracks to reveal the moment leading to Carol (Melissa McBride) and Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) capture and Rick’s attempt to orchestrate their release. You may shudder, and for all the wrong reasons, at the sight of the brusque Saviors using Binocular-O-Vision to spy on Rick and his troops. Notwithstanding the scene’s artful use of sound, the bad memories stirred of Fear of the Walking Dead’s first season finale suggest that director Billy Gierhart doesn’t have anything up his sleeve as radical as Gregory Nicotero’s delirious co-opting of John Carpenter’s style for “No Tomorrow Yet.”
Until, that is, the Saviors throw hoods over Carol and Maggie’s heads and take them as their prisoners. Following its opening credits, the episode progresses for nearly two minutes from Carol and Maggie’s largely obscured points of view, with the camera only catching brief glimpses of the ground and its periphery as the Saviors haul the women to an undisclosed location straight out of a Saw film. By the time one of the Saviors, Polly (Alicia Witt), pulls back Maggie’s hood and rather comically kills a walker directly in front of her face, “The Same Boat” has so effectively proffered its pulpy textures that the episode already feels like an outlier in the history of The Walking Dead’s run.
Even by the time that Frank Darabont was fired as The Walking Dead’s showrunner in 2011, it was clear that AMC wasn’t interested in sculpting their prized pony as an auteur-driven spectacle. Given how easily, and accessibly, the series was capable of wowing through conceptual and choreographic maneuvers that were less dependent on aesthetic pleasure than narrative imagination, any indulgence of experimentation must have sounded risky. And given The Walking Dead’s declining ratings, perhaps it’s easy to see the stylistic and sensory textures that are increasingly slipping into its episodes as a willful means of giving the series a shot in the arm.
Speaking of which: Among the foul-mouthed Saviors who keep Carol and Maggie captive is a man (Rus Blackwell) who Carol shot in the arm on the outside. His very fast deterioration throughout the episode is dubious, but “The Same Boat” is very much interested in itself as pulp, and logic is ordinarily viewed with contempt in such a realm. If Polly and her cohorts, played by Jeananne Goossen and Jill Jane Clements, seem cavalier about his injury, it likely speaks to the general ethos of Negan’s group. On another, he’s very transparently set up as dead meat from the first scene—just one more trap to be potentially sprung on Carol and Maggie as they orchestrate their escape from the bunker.
If you don’t count the zombies propped on spikes in the hallway outside the bunker as booby traps, “The Same Boat” could just as easily been called “The Hateful Six.” Yet the morality play that’s staged across the better part of the episode, which takes places entirely within the bunker and the hallway outside, is a more complicated, less cynical, take on interpersonal relationships in contentious times than the one offered by Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The episode’s incredibly air-tight screenplay, by Angela Kang, is a steady succession of reveals—some true, some less so, but all leading to ideological confrontations, about everything from spiritual belief to the purpose of having children in the time of the zombie apocalypse, that exist to both reveal the differences that bind Rick and Negan’s groups and pave the way for Carol and Maggie’s getaway.
A minute doesn’t pass by during “The Same Boat” where a life isn’t threatened, and a minute doesn’t pass by where one doesn’t doubt the outcome of this particular chapter in The Walking Dead universe. But the means by which the audience arrives there is a whirligig of misdirection brilliantly launched into motion by Carol. Instantly understanding that her and Maggie’s fates are sealed, she pretends to be a zealous type, playing up her fear of death and holding on to the rosary that falls off the walker that Polly drags out of the room with the conviction of a believer—or someone who just might drive it into another person’s neck. It’s a hell of a performance—so convincing that Polly believes Carol to be genuinely “pathetic.” And that Polly reads her so wrong, and that Carol never uses the rosary as a weapon, are just two ways the episode cannily grapples with the idea of how our belief systems are the organizing principles of both our practical life and the art we consume.
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