While most of Hollywood is slogging through three hours of Oscars inanity over on ABC, viewers hoping for some action-packed zombie counter-programming won’t find much to get their pulses racing in this week’s installment of “The Walking Dead,” which served as one of those necessary but tedious episodes where not much gets done but a lot gets talked about. It was a plain old meat and potatoes dish that set the table for an inevitable feast of carnage to come, but despite some interesting character beats, the meal proved particularly hard to swallow after two episodes that did a much better job of balancing thrills with character development.
This week, after escaping his bonds and almost catching Rick and Michonne in flagrante delicto, Jesus convinced our group to take a trip back to his own community, Hilltop, in the hope of establishing trade between the two colonies. Alexandria might be well-stocked with ammunition, but their food situation is apparently growing dire, as evidenced by Maggie’s pre-dawn attempt to build trellises for tomatoes that haven’t begun to grow yet.
Compared to Alexandria’s snazzy solar panels and cozy cul-de-sac layout, Hilltop was positively agrarian, with most of its inhabitants living in beaten up trailers around the colonial mansion at its center — occupied by Gregory, a man with all of the Governor’s arrogance and even less of his charm. Apparently a neat-freak as well as a chauvinist, Gregory refused to talk to our grubby group until they’d cleaned up, and when Rick sent Maggie to negotiate with Gregory in his stead (both because Deanna was rightly grooming Maggie for leadership and because Rick seemed likely to punch the guy if he engaged with him), Gregory was dismissive of Alexandria’s many valuable assets — trying to undermine Maggie with lewd come-ons and condescending pet names rather than actually seeing the value of Alexandria’s resources and her own undeniable strength.
Negotiations were derailed by the return of a supply group who had an unfortunate run-in with Negan, whose reputation has preceded him both on-screen and off this season. After the team dropped off some of Hilltop’s supplies (a tithe that is supposed to stop the Saviors from killing them all), Negan apparently decided that the offering was too light, and retaliated by killing two members of the group and holding a third hostage, offering to release him only if the group delivered a message to Gregory — a knife to the gut (which no one seemed too upset about).
After a bloody scuffle which resulted in one Hilltopper dead, the rest traumatized and Rick once again covered in blood like a wild animal, Jesus offered our group a handy infodump of exactly why Negan is such bad news — highlighting the main shortcoming of this episode, which broke the cardinal writing rule of “show, don’t tell.”
Since the midseason premiere (and arguably before it, given Daryl’s encounter with some of the Saviors and their escapees in the woods before the winter hiatus), we’ve been told that Negan is a scary guy, but aside from some aggressive but ultimately useless thugs who tried to terrorize Daryl, Abraham and Sasha out on the road, we’ve yet to see any evidence of the threat Negan poses. I understand the narrative purpose of building suspense for a villain before he appears, especially since our group is obviously being set up to underestimate how dangerous he is (could Daryl end up as his first victim, in recompense for dismissing him as a “boogeyman” with a good story but no real power?) but I can’t help but feel that Negan’s eventual arrival would’ve packed a far more brutal punch if we hadn’t been told that he introduced himself to the residents of Hilltop by summarily beating a 16-year-old to death just because he wanted the rest of the town to “understand right off the bat.” (Punny!)
Nevertheless, the dead Hilltoppers and Jesus’ handy exposition served their purpose — our group volunteered to take down Negan and his men and rescue the Hilltop hostage, in return for half of Hilltop’s food and medical supplies. Everybody wins! (Except for all the dead people.)
The subplot of hour was about as subtle as a baseball bat to the noggin, too, with Abraham experiencing a love dilemma; despite a seemingly perfect relationship with a still frustratingly underdeveloped Rosita, who makes him romantic necklaces and invites him to shower with her, his attentions have been transferred to Sasha, with whom he’s been obsessed ever since they got stuck in an office together in “Always Accountable.” Sasha hasn’t seemed to reciprocate his interest thus far (she even switched patrol duties, perhaps so that she no longer had to be partnered with Abraham — take the hint, dude), but that didn’t stop the ginger giant from pining for her throughout much of the hour while wondering whether he could possibly settle down and have a future, since everyone seemed to be coupling up around him.
His inner turmoil was illustrated with little nuance by director Michael E. Satrazemis’ lingering close-ups of Abraham’s eyes, and his pensive glances at Maggie and Glenn enjoying their coupledom — shots that were so painfully “arty” they became distracting. All of this would’ve been more compelling if the show had dedicated any time to developing Rosita, Abraham or Sasha beyond the losses they’ve endured — Sasha in particular has mostly been defined by the deaths of the two men in her life, brother Tyreese and partner Bob, and I’m not particularly interested in seeing her being saddled with another plotline that only gives her value because of her relationship with yet another guy. Likewise, Rosita barely exists outside of Abraham’s orbit, and it’s frustrating to see a tough, capable woman being reduced to a lovesick puppy by a man who’s seemingly only staying with her until a better offer comes along. All this emotional insight into Abraham could also signal that Big Red’s time on the show is coming to an end, since “TWD” has a nasty habit of only developing its secondary characters right before it gruesomely kills them off — perhaps Abraham will be Negan’s first casualty?
Despite some satisfying character moments — Carl’s knowing and fond acceptance of Rick and Michonne’s relationship progression, and the sweet intimacy between Glenn and Maggie as they looked towards the future — ultimately, “Knots Untie” unraveled because of its unenviable position as a scene-setter for the plot twists yet to come. Compared to last week’s “The Next World,” which did little to advance the narrative but still managed to be engaging thanks to its deft writing and focus on two of the show’s most fascinating relationships (Rick’s bonds with Daryl and Michonne), this week’s episode couldn’t help but feel like a step backwards.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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