This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 13
When it comes to guest stars, someone over at The Walking Dead is a big fan of The Terminator franchise of movies. In Season 10’s bonus episode, “One More,” the venerable T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick, shows up. Patrick’s turn as the intimidating, dangerous, psychologically-damaged man known as Mays (and his brother Mays) was one of the highlights of the bonus episodes. It’s unsurprising that Patrick, who has become a sci-fi icon, would show up and make a big impression in 25 minutes of screen time. If an idea works once, might as well keep trying it, right? The Walking Dead goes back to the Terminator universe for their next featured guest-star, with Michael Biehn playing the titular warlord in “Warlords.”
Perhaps it’s just my being a mark for Biehn, but it’s an inspired bit of casting because of the way it plays on Biehn’s legacy as an action movie hero. Even when his character Ian pulls out a gun and starts making angry demands and threatening the delegation from The Commonwealth, it’s hard not to believe that somewhere in him is a good guy. He might bark loudly, but Ian is clearly a good person at his core because he has a successful community that hasn’t created trouble for anyone who didn’t come looking for it. His threatening wall of skulls isn’t for people who’ve crossed him, like The Governor’s trophy case. Ian describes the skulls as belonging to murderers, rapists, and other assorted wolves in sheep’s clothing. Given the amount of skulls on his wall, it’s not surprising that he’s careful about the offers being made by The Commonwealth, because while there are some legitimate sheep making real offers, there’s a wolf in The Commonwealth’s midst.
The Commonwealth has been established as mostly a community of nice people who are in over their head when outside of their bubble. Sure, you have wolves, like Lance (Josh Hamilton), and sheep dogs like Mercer (Michael James Shaw), but they are the exception. For the most part, Toby Carlson (Jason Butler Harner), who works with Aaron (Ross Marquand) in community outreach, seems like an affable guy who has a little too much power, a little too much enthusiasm, and a little too few brains when it comes to dealing with dangerous people. After all, The Commonwealth hasn’t been doing a lot of outreach to the other communities, until Alexandria came along, so it’d be natural that Carlson might not be experienced at post-apocalyptic deal-making. Bringing Aaron and Gabriel (Seth Deaton) along seems like a good idea, as does letting them do the talking.
Then everything takes an unexpected turn. It comes out of nowhere, too; Loren Yaconelli does a great job of concealing just what Carlson’s end game is until it’s time to strike, and Jason Butler Harner does a great job with that physically explosive movement necessary to shift from a timid bureaucrat to a bonafied CIA agent in disguise. A flashback fills in the details; Carlson works as Lance’s fixer, who makes annoying people disappear as subtly as possible. When Lance cannot use overwhelming force, he depends on surgical strike skills, even as Carlson seems to chafe under the confines of resuming his old role in the Milton Administration’s shadowy underbelly.
Harner plays his part well, playing nicely off of Biehn’s blunt, forward aggressiveness; it’s a show of toughness from someone who’d rather not draw blood versus a killer trying his best to seem weak to take advantage of the other party’s inevitable relaxation. The only person who might be more shocked than Ian is Aaron, and Ross Marquand plays that reaction perfectly. Unlike Gabriel, who clearly got off on the wrong foot with Carlson, Aaron knows him and has been working closely with him for months; this is a complete shock to him and it shows.
Fortunately, the viewers were set up to view Carlson’s mission suspiciously when Maggie and Hilltop are visited by a dying stranger on the back of a horse, clutching a map with directions to Ian’s community and a map to Hilltop given to him by someone we see much later in the episode. That is one of the issues with the episode; there are a lot of jumps and skips in time to cover for travel time. I can appreciate Jim Barnes and Eric Mountain’s script for playing with nonlinear form, and I can definitely appreciate the helpful time chyrons to keep the viewer situated in the proper time frame, but it can be a lot, and some of the notifications (like one week and an hour earlier) are a little too cute.
At least it’s deliberate, not accidental comedy. It’s a bit more convoluted that might have been possible otherwise, but I can appreciate the need to surprise the viewer with a lot of twists and turns. Some additional information is needed as to why and how Carlson morphs from the mayor of Pee-Pants City into a stone-cold killer capable of cheerful brutality against anyone standing in his way. That’s a pretty big leap for “Warlords” to take abruptly, and it’s as much about setting up Carlson and the Commonwealth as clear antagonists for next episode as it is explaining Carlson’s actions this episode.
While all the pieces don’t fit together neatly, there are a lot of elements on display that work very well, starting with the great guest star. The way the protagonist stakeholder groups come together by the end of the episode, all sharing the same real-estate, sets up a potential banger of an action episode next week. Aaron, Maggie, Negan, and the rest all do their best when facing off with an opponent of similar skill level; these characters aren’t sheep anymore, no matter how many layers of wool they put on. Carlson seems like he’s about to learn a very valuable lesson in minding his flock, assuming he survives the wrath of Dead-Eye Stokes and company.