This Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 11
Supporting characters steal the show once again in “Dead or Alive Or.” Like last week’s “The Lost and the Plunderers,” we spend a lot of time with just a few characters, as they make their way to the Hilltop, where they hope to take a last stand against Negan and his forces. While the episode does feel padded with a bit of filler at times, there’s a refreshing focus on walkers in “Dead or Alive Or” that works in its favor.
Walking Dead veteran director Michael E. Satrazemis does a marvelous job with the walker setpieces, giving the monsters that rare air of horror that’s very hard to nail these days. Zombies are so played out in today’s pop culture that it’s always an accomplishment when you can make them feel scary in any way.
The swamp scene is especially fun, as the walkers slowly creep out of the muddy water. Satrazemis builds up to the inevitable zombie attack perfectly, and there is a real tension in watching Rosita feel her way through the water, knowing that the walkers are going to pop up for a bite any second. When they do show up, it feels like a nod to a classic horror moment. It got me thinking about Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, anyway.
The other quick but delicious setpieces involve Father Gabriel and Dr. Carson, as they continue their escape from the Sanctuary. I was surprised by how much more immediate the walker threat felt in their scenes as opposed to the Saviors who are on their tail. The creeping walker crawling its way towards their car is a clever little moment that reminds us that these two aren’t quite as safe as Daryl.
Overall, Gabriel and Carson carry “Dead or Alive Or,” saving it from being one of those soulless “geography” episodes where we’re forced to watch characters get from point A to point B when a simple time jump would have sufficed. I cringe when a TWD episode is about characters traveling to the next major plot point, which is pretty often. The latest seasons of the show have mostly consisted of filler episodes bookended by big premieres and finales. But thanks to Gabriel and Carson, “Dead or Alive Or” just barely elevates itself to a worthy hour of The Walking Dead.
This series has tackled faith quite a few times before, especially when it’s about to kill off a character. “Dead or Alive Or” is no different in terms of foreshadowing an imminent death, since Carson is eventually killed by a Savior, but everything leading up to that moment plays out with a sort of surrealism – or perhaps magic realism – that we don’t see often enough on this show.
Back when the character was first introduced in season five, it was hard to believe that we’d still be hanging with Gabriel three years later, but he’s slowly grown into one of those secret pockets of strength that other characters rely on. Gabriel’s faith makes him unique in that he’s still willing to follow God’s plan in a world that feels largely forsaken by Him. Yes, Gabriel will pick up a gun and fight to survive, but he does so because he believes it’s God’s will that he survive. In this particular case, Gabriel thinks he’s on a holy mission to save Carson and bring him back to Maggie and her unborn baby.
I absolutely love those moments when The Walking Dead feels like a fantasy and little strokes of luck give way to beautiful moments of catharsis. You expect things to always go poorly for these characters, so when they don’t, it’s like a giant exhale. Gabriel finding the house and then the antibiotics and then the car keys simply by believing that God will provide for him and Carson feels too good to be true, yet by the time they escape the walker attack and the bear traps, I completely believed too.
That’s what makes Carson’s ultimate fate and Gabriel’s punishment so hard to accept. Carson is finally swayed by the evidence of God’s divine providence and goes for the Savior’s gun and gets shot dead in the process. Yes, it’s poetic that Carson, a man of science, dies taking this huge leap of faith, but at what cost? It feels unnecessarily bleak to kill off Carson and punish Gabriel for his faith in this case.
“Dead or Alive Or” was the show’s chance to subvert the idea that hope always has to be thwarted in this world. Just once, it would’ve been nice to see a character rewarded for his faith, not suffer a terrible fall because of it. I’m not sure where the Gabriel storyline goes now, but it’ll be hard to top tonight’s journey. More than ever before, it seems like we’ll be seeing goodbye to the Father this season.
Meanwhile, there’s unfortunately not much to Daryl, Tara, Rosita, and Dwight’s trip to the Hilltop besides the aforementioned swamp scene. Tara and Dwight finally have their showdown, but it turns out to be a bit boring in the end, as it mostly gives way to a bit of needless exposition as to why Tara wants to kill Dwight in the first place (it feels like Dwight killed Denise AGES ago at this point) and why she can’t.
Dwight’s double agent storyline feels a bit muddled in this episode too, as he returns to the Sanctuary with a Savior patrol. The writers simply do away with the Savior who caught Dwight betraying Negan and his men – and off-screen at that. Unless this character is going to show up later to rat out Dwight at the Sanctuary, this particular storyline from the midseason finale seems pointless now.
We also catch up with Eugene, who’s doing his best to keep it together despite the fact that he’s betrayed Negan quite a few times in the past few episodes. Does anyone else get the impression that Negan totally knows Eugene’s responsible for Sasha’s death and Gabriel and Carson’s escape? Say what you will about the villain, but he’s not an idiot (as much as season seven went out of its way to portray him as such). If I were a betting man, I’d say Negan’s only putting up with Eugene’s insubordination because he’s the guy replenishing the Saviors’ ammunition. Without Dr. Smartypants, Negan’s got no firepower. What’s that thing Negan keeps saying about people being resources? Either way, I do enjoy their dynamic.
Speaking of Negan, it was hard not to roll my eyes every time the villain was on screen tonight. It felt at times like Negan was just back to being a cackling villain as opposed to the slightly more complicated character who had that excellent scene with Rick last week. For the most part, season eight has refreshed the character. This year’s Negan is not quite all-encompassing evil – in fact, we’re finally starting to understand what makes him tick. He’s fewer dick jokes and more complex motivation (i.e. he actually believes he’s “saving” people and building a new, stronger world). Yet, he’s back to just being a douche this week. His predictable plan and painful speech at the end of the episode gave me season seven PTSD for sure.
All characters converge on the Hilltop by the end of “Dead or Alive Or.” We even hear Rick’s made it, although he doesn’t actually appear in the episode. The bases are loaded once again, as the Saviors plan their next attack on Rick’s coalition. I’m quite giddy about the upcoming battle, even if there’s every indication that it’s going to follow a predictable path paved by the comics. Hopefully, we won’t have to watch an hour of the Saviors driving over to the Hilltop first.