This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 17
The opening moments of this week’s The Walking Dead premiere reach deeply into the show’s history, showing a selection of moments that go back to the very first moments of “Days Gone Bye” and carry forward to the current day, with Daryl clearing Walkers while attempting to hide from the show’s latest in a long line of smiling threats, Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton). One of the fun realizations from the cold opening is that the cavalcade of villains, from Shane Walsh through to Negan Smith, tend to be smiling more often than not, while our heroes look serious about the business of survival in a world dominated by the dead. There must be some sort of appeal to giving into the darkness that thrives in petty power-hungry wannabes like Hornsby and Sebastian Milton (Teo Rapp-Olsson).
It seems bad people are more willing to play political games than good people, at least in this universe. Lance, for all his many faults, at least is out there on the front lines with his pistol, exhorting his clamshells on to victory or death at the hands of Daryl (Norman Reedus) and company. Safely inside her train station turned city hall, Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) is about as far removed from the chaos caused by her son as she can be, speaking to the people through a microphone and a series of loudspeakers, taking carefully PR-adjusted questions from the citizens, and generally trying to stay as above the fray as she can while pointedly not throwing her son under the bus for his many crimes against decency and the Commonwealth.
“Lockdown” becomes something of a tale of two boiling pots. One features Daryl and company attempting to evade Hornsby and his seemingly endless parade of goons, and one features Carol and the folks back at The Commonwealth trying to get their evacuation plans in order while Milton increasingly starts taking dictatorial control. Oh yeah, there’s also a massive swarm of zombies heading towards The Commonwealth’s walls, as if internal strife and external power struggles weren’t enough to make people pucker in fright.
No doubt it’s all part of some Pamela Milton plan. Julia Ruchman’s script doesn’t come out and say that directly; Pamela doesn’t get a cackling villain speech or anything, but there are enough hints dropped, particularly when she gets on the radio to let someone know to do things her way just before lockdown is declared and the Walker floodgates are opened. This is a community that uses Walkers for training their army and for target practice, so someone’s been storing dead folks somewhere; it’s not exactly a Whisperers situation, but Alpha would certainly appreciate the use of massed walkers as a way to keep people compliant. It doesn’t especially work in Milton’s case, since so many of her people have lost loved ones because of her son’s schemes, but between Walkers and tear gas, the crowd disperses in the end.
Certainly, the Milton family as a whole seems devious enough to get involved in this kind of thing. People will die, but Sebastian has proven that he won’t lose much sleep over that and Pamela has almost dictatorial control of The Commonwealth for a reason. With a word, she launches a zombie attack that distracts the bulk of the clamshells, leaving her own personal protection detail to act with impunity and allows Hornsby’s pet goons Shira (Chelle Ramos) and Roman (Michael Tourek) to undertake their own mission, chasing after the children of our heroes to use them as leverage against them (just as predicted by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan when he shows up to warn Melissa McBride’s Carol).
Director Greg Nicotero gets to play with three very different sorts of cat and mouse act. Shira and Roman are skulking around, with Jerry (Cooper Andrews) and Carol trying to avoid them without it being too obvious that they’re clued in to the shenanigans happening around them. At least Daryl and company don’t have to try to keep up appearances and skulk around to avoid their pursuers; they’re fighting back openly, setting traps and executing complex flanking and bypassing maneuvers to make sure Hornsby’s men use all their energy hunting rather than catching, and falling into traps rather than setting them. Comparatively, Mercer and Rosita’s trip out to the hinterlands to ineffectually blast at zombies with machine guns mounted to pickup trucks.
Still, while Mercer and Rosita’s mission is the least interesting of the three, it provides Greg Nicotero the opportunity to fully unleash his special effects artist eye on some stand-out gore effects when one of the Commonwealth’s clamshells is ripped open like Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead, one of Nicotero’s first jobs in film. Like Rhodes, it’s a gory spectacle that shows of KNB’s ability to turn corn syrup and rubber into macabre giggles, but without the catharsis of seeing a villain torn asunder. This guy is just some unlucky goon, a pawn taken off the chessboard by powers far beyond him. The shot of the zombie crew parting to chase two different trucks is also well executed, and really helps to show the scale of the threat from without.
Jerry’s trip through The Commonwealth, dodging trouble and Roman with a little help from his friends in the underground, is similarly well constructed, with Roman’s bald head being instantly recognizable as he stalks Jerry through the crowds of protesters. It’s a fun little slasher movie nod, and effective enough at building tension thanks in large part to the way Roman is shot parting crowds and in the way Cooper Andrews is able to sell nervousness on his normally smiling face. Daryl and company avoiding Hornsby’s personal army is also well done, albeit nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s crisply executed and makes use of a rare (for TWD) car chase, with lots of fun shots of characters popping out from behind cover with guns ready. It’s perfectly capped off by Hornsby, knife to his throat, smiling a Cheshire grin despite seemingly being on the wrong side of the boot for once.
There’s a whole lot of moving parts in “Lockdown,” which is ironic given the title. It’s a bit frenetic at times, but the moving parts mesh well enough to carry the story forward, and the way the plot lines are staged suggests they’ll reconnect in a satisfying way soon enough. If nothing else, there’s some solid horror spectacle, some well-staged skulking, and a nice splash of political intrigue to round things off. The pressure is rising on all parties, but the survivors we’ve been following for 11 seasons know how to handle it. Hornsby, Milton, and the rest are amateurs compared to Carol, Aaron (Ross Marquand), and Maggie (Lauren Cohan).