This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 1
It’s amazing what Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been able to accomplish with Negan’s redemption arc in a few short episodes of The Walking Dead. It wasn’t all that long ago that Negan was still a villain, but a great bottle episode and a mission behind enemy lines to save Alexandria is enough to push him well down the road to a redemption arc, even if Maggie seems bound and determined not to fall for it.
At no point during “Acheron Part 1” is Negan unreasonable; if anything, he’s the only reasonable member of the party, and when he speaks up, it’s clear that people are listening to him to Maggie’s consternation and detriment. It’s not that Maggie is being unreasonable as much as it is Negan is being reasonable, and that creates some issues in the group. Maggie has a right to be angry, and all of her friends are willing to take her side, but Daryl and the Alexandrians know just how much they owe to Negan, and while he’s a dick, he’s still kind of right, which puts them in a quandary.
A recurring Twitter meme springs to mind: the Clickhole headline “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point.” Throughout the episode, Negan keeps making great points. When the rain is too high, when the subway is prone to flooding, when they pass through a mass grave that might still be in use, Negan keeps making great points about the dangers the group faces that Maggie ignores, because she’s in charge. Even when Negan points out she’s not exactly leading well because she’s only paying attention to him (and trying to kill him through misadventure), she can’t argue with him except at the very end when it’s too late to listen to reason and try a different tactic.
One of the big recurring issues for The Walking Dead across its 11 seasons is that leadership comes with a heavy mantle. Either you’re making the decisions all on your own as a Ricktatorship or you’re making them as part of an inefficient Ricktocracy with a council making decisions. Either way, the pressure seems to lie on one person’s head pretty consistently, no matter who was involved in the decision making. Rick, Gabriel, or Maggie, the decisions might be made by the group but the buck tends to stop with whoever the figurehead is.
In the case of the group of Alexandrians tromping through the sewers, it’s Maggie by vote. In the case of the Alexandrians captured by the Commonwealth and taken into an interrogation camp, it’s Eugene by default. Whether these people are best equipped to be in charge is a different story, one that “Acheron: Part I” digs into towards the end of those respective episode segments. Either way, one person’s personal mission ends up getting everyone in deeper than they’d expected, and there’s no easy way out for either side.
Full credit to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan’s behavior is toned down since the change in showrunner and in Angela Kang and Jim Barnes’ script, the former Savior is downright sane and logical, He brings up good points, albeit in an annoying Negan way, and he baits Maggie into a pretty impressive fight between the two of them. Morgan does well with the words he’s given, and his reasoning as to why he’s being dragged along on this desperate mission hits home with the people around him (even Daryl) and the viewer at home.
It makes sense why he’d be brought along, considering Maggie’s antipathy for him, and while Lauren Cohan gives socks to Maggie’s rebuttal, it doesn’t land as solidly as Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s half of the tete-a-tete and it feels a little hollow to suggest that cutting a few hours off of a suicide mission makes upping the danger significantly worth the trade-off and it exposes the rift between Alexandrians (who know what Negan did for them) and Maggie’s group (who only know Negan horror stories). Maggie, to her credit, doesn’t deny Negan’s accusations, and that emotional ramp-up pays dividends at the end of the episode.
The Commonwealth storyline also continues to play out, with some pretty clever montages courtesy of Kang, Barnes, and TV veteran director Kevin Dowling. While the action in the tunnel is straight ahead, all scary noises and shifting zombies in bags, the Commonwealth is a bit more psychological, as Eugene, Ezekiel (a scene-stealing Khary Payton), Yumiko, and Princess all are interrogated by the mysterious intake committee of The Commonwealth and their multi-stage Scientology-like intake system. Ezekiel’s ability to smell a rat is impressive on its own, but Princess is the person who provides the group with the most surprising, and useful, insights thanks to her solid memory and her ability to read the world around her while the rest of the group was busy trying not to go crazy at the hands of their interrogation team. (Paola Lazaro remains a delight in this role at all times in this episode, and is much-needed comic relief.)
There are a lot of positives in “Acheron: Part I,” starting with the terse, wordless cold opening and the brilliant, nervy synth score to the increasing tension in the tunnels under suburban Virginia, but after the heights of the previous season’s COVID episodes, there’s a slight let-down. It’s setting the table, and that can take time. Maggie might lack it, and Alexandria might not have time for it, but patience tends to be rewarded in the end.