Given The Walking Dead’s fondness for settling every conflict with a bloody fight to the death (or undeath), I suspect the show’s creators arranged for Carol (Melissa McBride) and Morgan (Lennie James) to encounter the Kingdom mainly so its residents can team up later with Alexandria and the Hilltop against the Saviors in a war to end all wars. But even if that’s the ultimate goal, watching the two most pacifist members of Rick’s group explore this seemingly humanistic new world provided a much-needed respite from the nihilistic violence of the seventh season’s premiere episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”—and a welcome change of focus, from how to merely survive in a post-apocalyptic world to how to live.
The episode starts with the obligatory walker wipeout, but even there it hints at more. Wounded and determined not to kill anymore, Carol watches passively as Morgan and the mysterious ally who appeared, like a literal knight in shining armor, on horseback and in body armor, slice and dice their way through the ravening undead. She keeps trying to blink away the visions that assault her, as the walkers lumbering toward her momentarily morph into the human beings they once were. It’s an acknowledgement—rare and fleeting but perhaps a promise of more to come—of the moral implications of killing walkers, who are, after all, just dead versions of the rest of us.
After cutting a swathe through the walker herd, Morgan and his new friend take Carol to the Kingdom, a rural utopia that seems, as she puts it, like “a fairy tale.” King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) talks like a character in a 1950s costume drama and has by his side a (sometimes too obviously CGI) pet tiger, and there’s an anachronistic, Mayberry-wholesome vibe to this community and nearly everyone in it, including Benjamin (Logan Miller), the young man Ezekiel asks Morgan to mentor. Especially given what we learn about how Ezekiel is shielding the other residents from knowing that they’re in thrall to the Saviors, the community choir’s syrupy version of “Don’t Think Twice” is a bit too on the nose, as is the contrast between the chopper-blade Apocalypse Now-like soundtrack to the opening walker slaughter and the tinkling wind chimes that Carol wakes to in the Kingdom. Both of these speak to the show’s abiding weakness for presenting characters and situations in nuance-obliterating black-and-white terms.
The Walking Dead has always been far more invested in visualizing the walker-killing part of surviving than the more mundane requirements for sustaining human life. That leaves viewers to wonder about pesky details, like where these people get safe drinking water when they’re on the run, or how they manage to always be in perfectly fitting clothes that seem appropriate to their characters. (Would Daryl look as badass in cargo shorts?) Even when the focus shifts to building a community, it stays pretty theoretical. Whenever part or all of Rick’s group have found a temporary haven long enough to start settling in, whether it was Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, or Alexandria, we learned far more about the history of the place and its political infrastructure—who’s in charge, what threats they face, their rules and the penalties for breaking them—than we do about the texture of daily life. That’s the case in this episode too, but the hints we get of life inside the Kingdom, like the fact that they have Movie Night, or the way Benjamin’s younger brother smarts off to him, seem startlingly “normal.”
No sooner have we started to wonder how this could be than Ezekiel explains it all to Carol, letting her see the man behind the curtain in an apparently successful attempt to talk her out of leaving. But if he answers the most obvious questions, like how and why he got that pet tiger, the series, as usual, glides past other important questions, like just how Ezekiel’s Kingdom manages to feed—in some cases, as his bulky sidekick, Jerry (Cooper Andrews), makes clear, even overfeed—the whole community, not to mention a tiger, who eats, as he acknowledges, “as much as 10 people.”
Other questions are left unanswered in a presumably more intentional way. Those pigs Ezekiel gave the Saviors as his tithe, for example. Will having fed them on walkers poison the people who eat them? And where were those men from the Kingdom going when they headed off in a different direction after handing off the pigs to the Saviors? When Morgan asked about that, Ezekiel just said, “Somewhere else,” signaling a strategic secret. I’m guessing all this will play into an eventual revolt against the Saviors.
Meanwhile, the uncharacteristic ease with which Carol accedes to Ezekiel’s request to “go and not go,” so soon after she had decided not to form any more attachments that would require her to kill, makes me wonder if The Walking Dead is using her like a chess piece again, separating her from the rest of Rick’s group not so she can follow an arc that feels true to her character, but just so she can step back in later on when the others need saving. Still, it felt good to see her find a little respite, catching some much-needed z’s under Morgan’s watchful care and cracking a genuine smile, however small, when Ezekiel showed up at her new place with that damned pomegranate he’s determined to get her to try.
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