Tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead is a coup of sorts, and one that you might have seen coming. After all, “East” was co-conceived by Scott M. Gimple, whose last teleplay for the show was “Here’s Not Here.” The lessons learned by Morgan in that episode are pointedly advanced here, and in ways that suggest that “East” was written by Channing Powell as a riposte to last week’s “Twice As Far,” which was so cagey about so many of its characters’ intentions that Denise’s self-psychoanalysis at the end came to suggest both a weird telegraphing of her death and a meta-textual frustration on her part with the show. Much of what felt hidden last week is refreshingly, if bluntly, laid on the line here, but with a price, as “East” confirms my suspicion of The Walking Dead’s dubious opinion of one of its most finely shaded characters.
The episode, directed by Michael E. Satrazemis, is notable for images that are lucidly expressive of people’s sensory apprehension of their world. The very short sequence the prefaces the opening credits lands flatly, which is to say it doesn’t cause a lump in our throats, but the chop-socky survey of a car crash’s aftermath is nonetheless striking. By episode’s end, we learn that the car was Carol’s (Melissa McBride) getaway vehicle, and that the crash was a result of a showdown with a group of Saviors. The images of Alexandria’s denizens out in the wild as they look for her are redolent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s bleak attunement to people’s primal circuitry, and there may be no more frightening a moment in the episode than Carol’s fruitless warning to the Saviors not to advance. “East” leaves one haunted with the fear that the world will never let Carol be the person she would like to be.
During a conversation between Carol and Tobin (Jason Douglas) that takes place on a screwy timeline before the events depicted at the end of last week’s episode, the sound drops out as Tobin reminisces about Denise. It’s a literal-minded articulation of Carol’s feelings of numbness, but at least the series is moving toward elevating Carol’s moral revulsion toward the realm of existential panic. Nonetheless, I still have my doubts about the purpose of Carol’s sudden crisis of conscience. Last week, I speculated that the series was pushing her to the sidelines in order to keep the character on reserve, to swoop her back in “when a sticky wicket of a situation will conveniently benefit from her reappearance.” That may still come to fruition, and sooner rather than later, but “East” also validates my belief that The Walking Dead is treating Carol like a prop, as a means to get the majority of the show’s major players out in the open and within danger’s reach.
At the start of the episode, they’re all safe and sound, including Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira), who snuggle in bed in a scene that’s profoundly sexy and provocative for how it places man and woman, whiteness and blackness, in some kind of binary opposition. “This is good,” says Rick, to which Michonne replies, “Jesus came through.” We know which Jesus she’s referring to, but given that they’re exchanging an apple at the time, we’re possibly meant to think of the other one. Religion may not have anything to do with Rick’s ethos, but his selfish, exclusionary belief that everything he needs to rebuild the world already exists within the walls of Alexandria is certainly not far from the self-centeredness with which so many Christians have laid the foundations for their rituals of communal and social life—a self-centeredness that the biblical Jesus fought against.
That scene is at once hopeful and inquiring, not unlike the montage of life within the walls of Alexandria set to set to Johnny Cash’s “It’s All Over.” One-eyed Carl (Chandler Riggs) scrounges a gun from the supply closet. Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) take a shower. Daryl (Norman Reedus) pauses in contemplation prior to going after Dwight (Austin Amelio). Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) get up close and personal…and within view of Rosita (Christian Serratos). (Ouch. Though it’s hard to imagine lovers capable of keeping their affections in check in a place as small as Alexandria.) The sequence is almost painfully obvious for how the lyrics pointedly sync with the action depicted on screen. Less obvious, though, is what exactly grips these characters in the moment, though one imagines it goes beyond mere feelings of resignation. Indeed, as Glenn gently washes Maggie’s backside, the expression on her face, in its agony, contains multitudes. It isn’t the face of someone who believes in life being over so much as one who has yet to figure out how to keep it going.
In a sense, “East” sees The Walking Dead spinning its wheels, biding time until next week’s inevitable meet un-cute between the captured denizens of Alexandria and Negan. (Some, like Maggie, who ends the episode with a new hairdo, even appear conscious of the looming confrontation.) But the series, when at its best, finds new contexts in which to deliver its familiar brand of moral inquiry, as it does when Rick and Morgan (Lennie James) get on Carol’s trail, and shortly after Rick remarks that Carol is a force to be reckoned with for the violence she must have committed against the Saviors, Morgan forces him to ponder if, today, he would banish Carol for her killing of Karen and David or simply dispatch her on the spot. “People can come back, Rick,” Morgan says, as much about the Carol who returned to them once and the Rick fast approaching a point of no return. And the most lasting impression left by the bluntly but vibrantly etched “East” is that next week’s season finale may force Rick, for better and for worse, to completely rethink the world he’s built and the man he’s allowed himself to become.
For more recaps of The Walking Dead, click here.