This review contains spoilers.
8.12 The Key
Resource management has never been my best trait. When I play video games, I horde items with the knowledge that I’ll need them at some point, then never use them. Alternately, I’ll get something with limited uses, and use it all immediately knowing that if I don’t, I’ll never see what the Epic Hand Grenade of Awesomeness looks like or what exactly it does. All that to say that I might be terrible at making the most use of my resources, but I’ll never be quite as bad at that as Simon, Maggie, or Negan.
For several seasons, it’s as if resource management didn’t matter to anyone. I’ve never seen people actively trying to conserve bullets; most of the time walkers are killed with knives it’s to avoid drawing attention. I’ve definitely never seen anyone collecting discarded shell casings after running 24 rounds through an AK-47 knockoff. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anyone eat anything grotty, like squirrel or snake. Perhaps these things are happening, and I’ve just not been paying enough attention, but it seems as if every farm is bountiful and bullets are infinite, until they’re suddenly not.
Hilltop is going hungry. Eugene is making munitions for the Saviors, but it’s not enough. Rick is dangerously low on manpower. Simon is in business for himself and sidelining the Savior muscle. Dwight looks mildly ill at all times. No one seems to be having a good time, except for Simon, but misery loves company, and misery tends to make a better episode of The Walking Dead.
One of the immediate changes is a focus on action. Given that Greg Nicotero is behind the lens, it makes sense that this week’s episode focuses on both gore and action. Negan and his troops harvest zombie blood and entrails to make their poisoned weapons—Lucille gets the Elizabeth Bathory treatment—and on their way to put the fear of Negan into Hilltop via biological warfare, Rick spots the convoy, finds Negan riding by his lonesome, and decides to crash the party. Unfortunately, it’s not a full-on car chase, but it’s good enough and leads to a very intense brawl between Rick and Negan in a decaying house.
It’s a fairly impressive feat, from Negan awakening in a puddle of blood (not his own) to the sound of gunfire to Rick chasing Negan into the house, changing the gun battle to hand-to-hand combat. It takes place over multiple levels, and it’s both physically impressive and psychologically interesting, because the roles are a bit reversed. Negan is on the defensive, and Rick is on the offensive. Negan is disarmed, and Rick has Lucille in peril. It’s fascinating to see just how dear Negan holds that bat, even at the risk of his own life. It’s nothing especially noteworthy—we’ve seen this kind of thing before, except this time Negan is the one getting yelled at in Channing Powell and Corey Reed’s script—but it’s well done and it’s always nice to see a good fight scene, even if the car chase never materialised.
It’s a nice counterpoint to the attempted tension of the other big scene of the episode, in which Maggie and Hilltop are given the choice to give up two boxes of food and records (no spoken word) in exchange for “the key” to something or another. The build-up to the meeting is nice, as is the way Maggie actually approaches the meeting. She’s prepared, and she’s got an extra gun in Rosita ready to get the drop on their mysterious benefactors. That these people end up being actually helpful isn’t a surprise; after all, Carl would have trusted them, and Carl is now the show’s moral barometer because he died saving someone who turned out to be a med student of some sort.
That Siddiq is a medical student is a plot-based coincidence, and shouldn’t be taken as a reason to actually put your community leader in danger for possible assistance. There are any number of people who could make this deal who aren’t Maggie, and yet there she is putting herself at risk knowing that she’s on Negan’s hit list. At least Maggie is smart enough not to immediately give the food over to her mysterious benefactors; she brings them to Hilltop at gunpoint and then sniffs out their intentions (another big boon to the community is the generosity of the mysterious Georgine or Georgie and her sidekicks, which just makes me wonder when it’s all going to collapse like Gabriel and Dr. Carson’s fateful escape from the Sanctuary).
Weirdly, Simon seems to be the only person in this world who seems to realise that, after a certain point, you can’t keep throwing good money after bad. Specifically, after killing off the Junkyard Gang, he’s now ready to turn his guns on Hilltop and remove that particular thorn from the side of the Saviors. Unsurprisingly, Dwight goes along with him, because all Dwight wants is not to die immediately without getting a taste of revenge (Austin Amelio does a great job with that particular conversation, as does Steven Ogg). Negan keeps trying to save, and this is a group that won’t be saved by Negan or anyone other than Rick. Brutality hasn’t yet stopped Rick and company, but there’s only been one group that tried to wipe them all off the face of the Earth, and that was The Governor and his tank.
The Governor didn’t break Rick, but that was a Rick with a lot more to fight for, and might have been willing to bend the knee for awhile. This Rick is a Rick with nothing left to lose, and as we saw in the zombie-infested basement, Rick is more dangerous and ruthless than ever, even if he does the exact reckless things that other members of his group get yelled at for.
It’s a nice attempt, and it makes for good television, but like most of Rick’s big gestures, this one kind of backfires on him. This isn’t the sort of world in which cutting off the head of the snake kills the snake. Cutting off the head of this snake only puts Simon in charge, and he makes Negan look like a Zen Buddhist monk. That might bring the promised “all out war” that’s been discussed by the show’s creative team all last summer.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan wonders why every leader in this universe has a lieutenant or crony, yet they never send them in their place. That’s what cronies are for! Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.