The Hitchockian opening scene of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Sing Me a Song,” makes clever use of Michonne’s (Danai Gurira) inscrutability. Walking down an initially empty country road and whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” to attract her prey, Michonne is the epitome of the existentially alone western hero she personifies more than anyone else in Rick’s group as she sets a walker-lined trap whose purpose is disturbingly opaque. The close-up of the sword and walkie-talkie she leaves behind as she drags a body down the road is a particularly unsettling bit of misdirection: Is she planning to commit suicide by walker? And even if she’s doing something else, like setting things up to make it look as if walkers got her so she can go underground, how long can she survive without that sword?
Luckily, this isn’t just one of those weeks-long incidents of psychological torture The Walking Dead has trained its audience—those of us, that is, who haven’t been driven off by those ordeals—to be braced for: We later learn what Michonne is up to, and it’s a relief to see her alive and unbowed. It still looks as if she may be on a suicide mission, though, since it’s hard to imagine anyone singlehandedly dispatching that canny and well-defended psychopath without getting killed in the process. Or maybe she’ll wind up as another one of Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) captured enemy-warrior collectibles, joining Daryl (Norman Reedus) at the Sanctuary while Negan works on breaking their wills just enough to make useful soldiers of them.
Meanwhile, Carl (Chandler Riggs) makes his own kamikaze attempt to murder Negan, but succeeds only in killing two of his men and getting captured by Negan, who embarks on an elaborate cat-and-mouse campaign of intimidation, alternately toying with the kid and lashing out with terrifying ferocity. Like the long pan over the captive walkers outside and up the grim gray walls of the main building as Negan mock-genially offers to give Carl a tour of the Sanctuary after his arrest, “Sing Me a Song” is both informative and evocative, packing a lot of plot and a little character development into its 90 minutes while keeping the suspense amped up.
We’re given even more reason to dislike Spencer (Austin Nichols), as if we needed it, when he snickers at the list he took from the pocket of the walker he brought down by mistake while going after the crossbow, calling it “a list of caches from a dead guy with a plan.” His unrelenting douchiness makes it feel as if he’s being set up to die soon, and I keep wondering if it may be in a confrontation with Rick or one of Rick’s people rather than with Negan, since Spencer is become so obsessed with blaming Rick for all of their problems. That bitterness is isolating him more and more, driving away even Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), who chooses to walk home alone and unarmed rather than continue on a run with Spencer while he trashes Rick.
Spencer isn’t the only one amassing weapons for some sort of showdown. Michonne not only takes back her sword, but shows up with a gun when she carjacks a Savior and tells her to take her to Negan, and Rosita (Christian Serratos) finally gets her bullet from Eugene (Josh McDermitt). Meanwhile, in another development that may help foment the eventual revolution against Negan, Dwight (Austin Amelio) and Sherry (Christine Evangelista) meet for a cigarette break on the stairs. The writing is much better here than it was in “The Cell,” so rather than simply recite their reasons for going along with the status quo, their superficially banal exchange signals their growing frustration and desire to rebel. Sherry says they should leave before someone sees them, Dwight answers that they should have nothing to fear since they’re not doing anything, and Sherry dryly responds, “No, we’re not,” before walking away.
“Sing Me a Song” provides more examples of the authoritarian fascism that gives this season of The Walking Dead an urgent sense of relevancy. Negan’s gleeful tour of Alexandria illustrates the toxic narcissism that makes him so intent on protecting and expanding his brand, becoming richer and more powerful as the people around him grow ever more desperate. The scene with his harem, and the torture he forces everyone in the Sanctuary to witness, directing Dwight to melt the skin off half of Mark’s face for the sin of tempting his own wife to “cheat on” Negan with him, illustrates the constant psychological blackmail and occasional physical torture Negan uses to exert control. He wields power through schoolyard-bully tactics, promising annihilation to Carl and anyone else who isn’t with him, while keeping even his allies off balance by toggling between appealing to their desire to remain safe in his strongman orbit and taking bloody vengeance on anyone who violates one of his arbitrary and self-serving rules. And he justifies his tyranny by playing on his followers’ deeper fears, telling them: “We provide security to others. We bring civilization back to this world. We are the saviors.”
There’s also a nod to one thing other than fear-mongering that probably helped Negan become a leader, when he mocks the Alexandrians for lacking a sense of humor. Negan’s humor is, often as not, just another poison dart in his arsenal, aimed at a weak spot in somebody else. Nonetheless, he’s right that nearly all the traumatized survivors we’ve encountered, aside from Negan himself and his sardonically triumphant top dogs, appear to have had the humor permanently drained out of them. If it can feel oppressively grim just to watch the series once a week, just think how easy it might be to mistake Negan’s insouciant humor, cruel as it is, for a sign of mental health and a promise of normalcy, if you lived in that terrorized, hope-challenged world.
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