This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 10 Episode 11
One of the best episodes of the last season of Game of Thrones didn’t have anyone raise a sword in anger. There were no White Walkers, no dragons, no army of the dead, and no Long Night. It was the pre-battle episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” Everyone knows that the dead are coming, everyone’s already gotten battle preparations out of the way, and all that’s left is to wait and spend a little time with one another, making sure that if/when death comes, there will be nothing left unsaid.
The battle preparations are a little less intensive in The Walking Dead season 10, episode 11 “Morning Star,” but the feeling is not dissimilar to that of Game of Thrones, except that perhaps the combat is a little more skillfully executed and makes better use of medieval and pre-medieval combat techniques. That’s right, The Walking Dead might have better Middle Ages combat than Game of Thrones. Allow me, briefly, to explain.
NB: I am not an expert on ancient martial arts. I know that I will undoubtedly say things that are dumb, wrong, or dumb and wrong. I’m just a geek who has read entirely too many books on the nature and function of the militaries of Ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. Which, given that there’s a guy pretending to be a KING on this show, means I’m at least as educated as the survivors of Hilltop, if not less so because I don’t have access to Georgie’s ancient survival guide like Alexandria, Oceanside, and the rest of the allied communities. But, The Walking Dead does get a few things right enough that even I noticed and was impressed.
The core of the armies of the ancient world were, primarily, spear carriers. Be they the legionnaires of Rome, the hoplites of Sparta, or any other number of dedicated heavy infantry forces armed with spear or sword, shield, and armor. Aaron’s training has allowed Hilltop to assemble a well-trained corps of what are essentially hoplites, because they don’t tend to throw their spears. (The sort of long spear Aaron and company are armed with are very poor throwing weapons.) Supplemented by bowmen and cavalry, a force of dedicated, trained spearmen is a very difficult nut to crack, with nothing short of a charge of heavy cavalry, superior ranged weapons, or sheer number able to breach it with proper discipline.
Aaron, wisely, orders his troop to split and reinforce the positions that keep the survivor militia from being flanked, and they hold the wall and fight with spears while parting occasionally to let someone with a short melee weapon through to use it in combat. Solid enough plan, allowing for control of the perimeter and to have a flexible attacking force to prevent the shield wall from being flanked, except for one small problem. The shield wall forces should have the shortest distance weapons, ideally swords or axes, and the second layer of fighters should have the spears to allow them to just stab over top of the shield wall and maintain safety behind the shield. (This complaint is mitigated somewhat by the portion of Aaron’s forces that are forced to fight from behind a physical barrier of branches and whatnot piled up to make a fence row. Those guys could use spears.)
Most of what they have planned, for anything short of gunfire, is solid. Perhaps you don’t back up to the wall of Hilltop and keep maneuverability. Perhaps you put a barrier in front of the archers, like a low wooden barricade or a row of stakes in the ground, so they don’t get overrun. However, the overall plan of reinforcing the sides and forcing the walkers to negotiate an electrified fence barricade before entering the kill box is clever, until the human enemies on the other side come up with something they didn’t plan for. Fire truly is man’s greatest friend and biggest foe.
The battle isn’t even over, and it’s already a high water mark for this half-season. After a couple of solidly entertaining episodes, “Morning Star” gets so much right that it’s easy to look past what little things that the characters got wrong for lack of education or experience (or just not watching a lot of Deadliest Warrior on basic cable).
The build-up to the battle is brilliantly executed, with some wonderful dialogue between characters who don’t normally speak to one another or who have been on strained terms. Rather than being gung-ho for combat, Earl aside, they’re hesitant to stand and do battle with the Whisperers, trying to escape before girding themselves for combat—which is a good way to explain why they got caught without a lot of ready fortifications—and only standing to do battle as a very last resort.
The Hilltoppers are hesitant to put the children in danger, but won’t cow to the Whisperers and the horde, though the last scene of the episode suggests that they might be in serious danger of losing the children no matter what happens with the battle. The debate isn’t the debate seen in previous seasons; this one has some actual weight behind it because Hilltop is something that cannot be replicated elsewhere. How many working blacksmith shops are there in the world, let alone in Virginia?
The council discussion is solidly rendered, with all sides making good arguments before the runners win out. It’s not so easy to escape from the Whisperers, particularly with Negan on their side. Say what you want to about his constantly running mouth, he knows what he’s doing when it comes to besieging the remainder of Rick’s people. He just lacks Alpha’s viciousness. Either deliberately or not; Jeffrey Dean Morgan is still playing Negan as slightly cagey with Alpha and company.
The Hilltop players also get a lot of solidly written interplay courtesy of Julia Ruchman and Vivian Tse. The triumvirate of Carol, Daryl, and Ezekiel do the bulk of the heavy lifting, with a little Lydia thrown in for Carol’s purposes. The interplay between the four actors is really well done. Melissa McBride and Khary Payton have an amusing little bit of banter back and forth, with sweetness thrown in. Pairing McBride with Norman Reedus always brings out the best of the two of them, owing to strong chemistry developed over a decade of working together. McBride with Cassady McClinchy works, owing to their shared history with Henry, and both Carol and Lydia having unflinching honesty with one another in a pull-no-punches sort of way.
However, the strongest pre-combat sequence in Michael E. Satrazemis’s episode has to be Daryl and Carol finally having a talk about the simmering resentment between the two, and Daryl and Ezekiel coming together as two people who both love Carol, but not in a love triangle sort of way. Satrazemis makes heavy use of two shots here, keeping both characters in the shot at all times; the two shots west of Daryl facing away from Carol, slightly out of focus, while she spills her guts and finally breaks down and asks Daryl if he hates her was beautifully done by the actors, and beautifully filmed by Satrazemis. Just the simple move of Daryl turning to look at a teary-eyed Carol carried a lot of weight, particularly when counterbalanced by the previous shot of Daryl and the King coming to an agreement about saving the children of Hilltop should everything go sideways on the battlefield.
I laughed, quite loudly, when Daryl asked Ezekiel if he was okay and Ezekiel replies, tersely, “No, I have cancer.” It was an impressively deadpan delivery, made all the funnier by having Daryl, the ultimate straight man, on the other end of it for maximum awkwardness. Norman Reedus has some weaknesses as an actor, but the ability to watch his character process something awkward and figure out how to respond in social interactions is one of his strongest traits as Daryl, and these little exchanges make the most of that.
“Morning Star” isn’t perfect, but by the standards of season 10 of The Walking Dead, it’s pretty close to it. Entertaining without being too flippant, serious without being too dry, and nicely balanced between character moments and the carnage and combat that’s expected of any survival horror property; if the shot of the Whisperers whisper-chanting their mantra doesn’t at least make your neck prickly, I’d be surprised. The viewers might not return in numbers akin to the glory days of The Walking Dead, but it’s still the most popular show on cable and is stronger than it’s been in years in the hands of Angela Kang. She should have taken over the showrunner position years ago.