This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 16
One last mid-season finale, and that will be all she wrote for The Walking Dead. One of the biggest hits in cable television history, The Walking Dead spawned a zombie renaissance, all without using the Z-word. Two spin-off shows have already hit the airwaves, with one more definitely on the way and two other ones announced. That’s not counting all of the other media that spun up either as a response to or to ride the coattails of The Walking Dead like the brilliant Black Summer. There’ll be time to look at the legacy of the show later; for now, we’ve got “Acts of God” to witness.
At this point, The Walking Dead has a good handle on what the show does well and what the show doesn’t do well, and as such, “Acts of God” plays mostly to the strengths of the program. That is, tension, action, gun battles, and some gnarly smashed zombie special effects. With the walkers only really a threat in bulk (or if characters are distracted by people shooting at them), the true antagonist of the show is always another person plotting against our heroes, and without a good, fresh villain, the show can be a little directionless. Pope certainly had his moments of being despicable, but there’s not a villain quite as reprehensible as Josh Hamilton’s Lance Hornsby.
Throughout the episode, Hornsby struts, snarls, cajoles, and orders people around to do his bidding, sending his own men to their deaths, recruiting a dangerous psychopath as a fixer in Leah (Lynn Collins), and generally being a real unlikable post-apocalyptic middle manager. He’s not got real power, but he’s got enough power to do things like this, and his attempts to carve out a fiefdom in Virginia away from the watchful eyes of Pamela Milton are all that matters to him, and that means he has to kill a whole lot of loose ends, namely all of the survivors Walking Dead fans have grown to know over 11 seasons. Lance has guns, numbers, and urgency; the assorted survivors from Hilltop and Alexandria have knowledge of the terrain and experience.
The stakes are life and death, and throughout the episode, the omnipresent weirdness of two apocalypses happening at once—the familiar zombies and the unfamiliar plague of locusts filling the background with cacophonous buzzing—add to the sense of unease. Catriona McKenzie’s direction leans into that nervous energy, with Aaron (Ross Marquand), Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), and Daryl (Norman Reedus) only able to communicate with terse whispers and knowing looks, and their enemies doing likewise as they plan to lead the three into an expected trap. Marquand, Gilliam, and Reedus do a commendable job of looking harried and exhausted throughout their scenes together; even before they’re getting into gunfights, the three look worn down simply from the plotting and counter-plotting they’re doing alongside the hard work of clearing houses of walkers and looking for weapons the three men know aren’t anywhere they’re looking.
The hunt for Leah, or Leah’s hunt for Maggie (Lauren Cohan), is no less suspenseful. It’s mostly quietly creeping around in the woods, deafened by the buzzing of locusts overhead and the moans of the interrupting dead as the two try desperately to track down and get the drop on the other one. Scenes like this can be difficult, as it’s easy to fail to hold interest when it’s just a single person wandering through the woods, but McKenzie, Cohan, and Collins are able to keep things nervy with more than a little help from Bear McCreary and Sam Ewing’s excellent, anxious score. The music does a lot of the heavy lifting to establish and maintain mood throughout; music is one of the underrated elements The Walking Dead does well and “Acts of God” is a prime example of how the soundtrack can really add to the proceedings.
Even when things aren’t immediately life-or-death, such as in The Commonwealth as Max (Margot Bingham) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt) try to gather evidence against the Milton administration, there’s no real respite from tension. Writer Nicole Mirante-Matthews has crafted this particular portion of the episode as something of a miniature Watergate, with Max sneaking records out of the office to deliver them to Kelly (Angel Theory) and Connie (Lauren Ridloff), AKA Woodward and Bernstein. They’re only barely scratching the surface of the Commonwealth’s corruption, and as the empire grows, so grows the problems at home for Milton and company.
The episode ends one of the subplots of the season in pretty explicit fashion, but the power struggle between Lance and Milton will only be growing as Commonwealth flags drop from the battlements surrounding Alexandria and Hilltop. The Milton regime finds itself struggling beneath the weight of its own secrets with its best problem-solver distracted with his own fiefdom. The very people that saved Alexandria and Hilltop from certain destruction time and time again are scattered and disorganized, but determined. For every success by the Commonwealth’s power structure, a potential defeat is created.
Lance is fighting to carve out an empire for himself using someone else’s resources. Pamela Milton is fighting to stay on top of an empire she created. The bulk of the people of The Commonwealth only want to preserve the status quo and their relatively cushy way of life. No one involved in the coming battle has as much to lose as our survivors, the people of Alexandria, Hilltop, and Oceanside. Their life was difficult without the help of the Commonwealth, but it was theirs. They were their own bosses, and they succeeded or failed on their own merits and by their own wits; jumping into bed with Lance was a necessary evil, but still an evil.
The gloves are off. The darkness behind the sunny facade of The Commonwealth is apparent for anyone willing to look beyond the ice cream cart and healthy trade in vinyl records. An expendable workforce sent off to die on foolish errands for ungrateful people is only sustainable as long as those expendable people don’t realize they outnumber their oppressors. Things won’t end well for Lance Hornsby and his hand-picked squad of secret police now that they’re not a secret. The house of cards on which The Commonwealth is built is about to collapse, and there’s no telling what will happen when those walls no longer keep the outside world at bay.