This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 9 Episode 4
One of the immediate improvements in The Walking Dead Season 9 has been the writing. It is only four episodes into the new season, and the dialog has shown marked improvement over the writing under the previous showrunner. At times, it’s remarkable that it’s even the same show; there’s been so much more show than tell, and when telling is needed, things seem to make a lot more sense and to be expressed much more eloquently. Thus far, the highlight of that commitment to improved writing is “The Obliged,” in which most of the show is taken up with two characters having conversations. Unlike previous talky seasons, this time the exchanges carry weight, and have meaning.
One of the reasons why this episode works as well as it does despite mostly being characters talking to one another in novel locations is the script from writer Geraldine Inoa. She’s an award-nominated playwright making her television debut, and shows a lot of promise in her role. The script focuses on duality, with Michonne being torn between her role as a sword-swinging warrior and a community planner. Rick is torn between doing the right thing by his friends and doing the right thing by his new civilization he’s trying to build. Daryl is helping a friend and also betraying a friend.
That conflict is reinforced by some clever uses of repetition. Michonne wakes up next to Rick, gets up, and starts her day with Judith. She looks over community plans, mediates a dispute, tends to a sick person, and does all the things you’d expect from a leader. But at night, she sneaks out of bed, grabs her katana, and goes out to slay walkers. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat again, faster, less detail, more shots of Michonne getting out of bed or looking wistfully at her sword, when she’s not catching sight of a blood-splattered baseball bat used to beat down walkers.
That’s a neon flashing sign reminding us of Negan’s presence in the jail, as if we needed one (it’s the most heavy-handed signifier in the episode). Maggie’s on her way to kill Negan, and Rick has to stop her, because to Rick, Negan is the key to their new civilization. Negan is the rule of law, not a lack of action, while Maggie and the bulk of the others feel differently; in the long argument between Rick and Daryl, Daryl makes a great point. As long as Negan’s alive, his way of life to the Saviors is still alive.
Certainly, most of them don’t want him back, or are fine without him, but there is a significant portion of them that do want a return to the glory days, when they didn’t have to scrap for food or make ethanol to trade and could just take what they wanted. We’ve seen it in action throughout the season, and Carol confirms it. Daryl makes mention of it too, with the added reminder that Rick might be working to do the right thing for himself, not the right thing for everyone else.
Between the face-off with Rick and Daryl, the heart-to-heart between Negan and Michonne, and the other conversations between characters, this is a solidly performed episode by the actors. Norman Reedus hasn’t really had to deliver lines much in the last couple of seasons, but he can still perform well when he’s across from Andrew Lincoln. Lincoln and Reedus are friends off screen, and it shows in their on-screen chemistry. Their fight, their argument, their eventual making up, it all comes across as natural, and it’s a testament to both actors that when they’re given good material, they can shine through their layers of grime.
Ditto the section with Michonne and Negan. At times, their conversation feels like something akin to Silence of the Lambs, if only in the way Rosemary Rodriguez shoots it. Their back and forth and the psychological probing by Negan, it’s really interesting television, and it’s a fun use of the character, and of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s skills. It’s also nice to see Michonne lightening up a little bit, or at least showing amusement when confronted by Negan; it’s understated, but it works really well given Danai Gurira.
Their back-and-forth is really well done, and that final revelation as to why Negan is trying to get into Michonne’s head is surprisingly tragic. She laughs, and he cries, all because he misses the last memory he has of his dead wife. Amusingly, it felt as though Michonne was forced into a maternal role, always making deals and telling Negan to eat, like dealing with a small child refusing to mash down broccoli or some other yucky green food.
Negan, who was all swagger and menace, is now reduced to being an overgrown child. Calculating, but still pathetic. His big play wasn’t for freedom, to have someone on the outside doing his business, but to get his hands on a battered wooden bat wrapped in barbed wire. It’s his only connection to his past, after all, and while he talks a big game to Michonne about being made stronger for his losses, that’s a loss that he just can’t let go of. Much like Maggie and the others can’t let go of what he did, he can’t let go of what he was, or at least the symbol of what he was in the old world.
Some people can forgive and forget. Gabriel has been able to earn forgiveness, and as such, he has the capacity to forgive others. He might not forget what they did, or what he did, but he can move past it. Rick is trying to build a world in which everyone moves past what they were prior to the formation of his group of city-states, but there are an awful lot of people, even those in his closest circle, who aren’t able to forgive, or move past, or however it ought to be expressed. Even Rick is hanging onto something that might not be feasible, and it might just kill him in the end.
Maybe laws and rules should pass away like old grudges, in favor of rules more befitting a world in which the cities belong to the dead and tomatoes belong to the crows. After all, it’s not his dream, it was Carl’s dream. And Carl, like the old world, is dead. Maybe a hangman’s noose and martyrdom is better than rotting away in a prison cell, waiting for an old follower to deliver freedom or an old enemy to deliver a bullet.
Or worse, death by zombie horde.
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