This The Walking Dead: Dead City review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead: Dead City Episode 5
Negan is a swaggering, leather-clad bad-ass who smashes zombies and people with equal ease, if his introduction was to believe. The Negan who was introduced in the season 6 episode of The Walking Dead, “The Last Day on Earth,” has slowly changed into something different. Not changed, as much as revealed; we’ve been allowed to see behind the mask that turned a humble gym teacher and devoted wife guy named Negan Smith into the character of Negan. Behind the leaning-at-angles shtick and the constant stream of quips, there’s a real man masking real emotions and insecurities. The Walking Dead: Dead City has provided more of a peek behind that curtain and given Jeffrey Dean Morgan more to play with that isn’t just surface-level cool.
Maggie is going through that journey in the opposite direction. We know Maggie very well at this point, and we’ve watched Lauren Cohan take her from a tough-talking farm girl to an actual leader, who refuses to allow others to push her around and who’ll do anything to get what she needs for her people, or herself. She’s willing to beg, borrow, or steal, and if the last season of The Walking Dead didn’t prove that, Dead City certainly has thanks in no small part to some of the flashback moments in this week’s episode. Gandja Monteiro makes the best possible use of all of her actors this week, from Maggie and Negan to Perlie’s reveal of his psyche concerning his brother’s misdeeds.
The entire premise of Maggie tracking down Negan is real; what’s falsified is the thing The Croat (Zeljko Ivanek) wants from her. Turns out, he’s never really been interested in grain, as we learn from Ginny’s trip down flashback lane. Negan has been his goal all along, but it doesn’t seem like he’s the one looking to actually get hands on with the former leader of the Saviors. There’s someone else involved, who appears to be a power behind the throne sort, who only shows up to be scary and put The Croat at his proper place at her feet. It’s a novel enough wrinkle; we’ve mostly seen bad guys who are the guy in charge, all lieutenants have clearly been labeled as lieutenants. Now this little surprise.
It’s fitting, as New York is a city full of surprises. Brenna Kouf’s script focuses heavily on the big reveal that one of the survivors allied with Maggie is a traitor, and while that person does a solid enough job of explaining themselves and their reasoning, it doesn’t seem to take hold all that well with the intended audience (the other characters). Those of us who have been on the Walking Dead train since the comic book days have heard that argument before, and it usually falls on deaf ears. The traitor’s argument is sound enough; however the fact that the place dangled as an escape option is the very place The Croat threatened to get Maggie involved in his mad quest is pleasantly ironic. The traitor is convinced it’s a chance at safety, at life behind brick walls, but it’s clearly not safe enough because the buraz had no problem infiltrating it and forcing one of the community’s leaders to undertake a dangerous mission to Manhattan.
Safety clearly isn’t a guarantee if the dangerous party is suitably game. Then again, the party in search of Negan has been operating with impunity in a zombie-infested island where they use the zombies to fuel their energy needs. The Croat and his men aren’t afraid of walkers, even large groups of walkers, in a way that outsiders like Negan, Maggie, and Perlie (Gaius Charles) are; the groups that the Croat would consider large are far bigger than even the biggest horde faced down by the survivors in Alexandria. New York City offers threats on a massive scale, even (or especially) in the sewers. There seems to be very little respite from the massive crowds of walkers, regardless of where you are in, or under, the city.
There’s just something about the tight confines of the sewer that lends itself to horror. The sewers of Manhattan are especially prone to this, from CHUD and Gator to Mimic to the end of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. The corridors clogged with zombie corpses are bad. Maggie getting methane poisoning is worse. Then, we run into the fatberg that blocks one path out.
If that wasn’t gross enough, the inevitable New York mutation of zombie appears. It’s not the flying walkers seen previously; those were easily avoided if you didn’t stand too close to a tall building. This gross walker is the king zombie. If you’re familiar with the idea of a rat king (several rats stuck together, usually via frozen urine or tangled tails), then the zombie king shouldn’t be too shocking. Multiple zombies stuck together via the power of rot and putrefaction who work together to be absolutely awful and difficult to defeat for Maggie.
It’s a great horror visual; more so, it’s a great showpiece for KNB FX, who continue to figure out ways to top themselves in the gross spectacle department. I’m not sure when in the development of Dead City the movie Evil Dead Rise came out, but it feels spiritually similar in the best possible way. As someone who remembers Evil Dead 2, I liked the Evil Dead Rise monster, and I like the rat king zombie that attacks Maggie; it’s chaotic and horrible in the best possible body-horror way, and it’s not exactly the sort of predictable enemy she’s used to. If you can’t scare, then be gross as possible; it’s the Walking Dead way!
It’s a solid episode with some pretty good tension scenes, and lots of cat-and-mouse between various people and walkers/lurkers. The emotional beats regarding Amaia (Karina Ortiz) and Tommaso (Jonathan Higginbotham) fall flat, but the characters we know will stick around for the second season find a little more successful engagement. Their exit from the show is a little too convenient, if we’re being honest, but that’s just how The Walking Dead is structured at this point.
Everyone has a potential exit plan in place, from main characters to side characters. It’s never a nice way to go, either (unless you’re Lauren Cohan); it just is a reality in this universe for those unburdened with plot armor. That anyone whose name isn’t above the title escaped The Croat’s trap is a surprise, even with one of the escapees being the Judas goat.