Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode two of the seventh season of “The Walking Dead,” titled “The Kingdom.”
Last week on “The Walking Dead,” a man with a baseball bat turned two characters’ heads into piles of shredded meat. This week: cobbler.
After the sadistic ordeal of “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be,” “The Kingdom” comes as a much-needed respite. It’s a slight, character-driven episode in which Carol and Morgan are introduced to another of the show’s eccentric enclaves, this one ruled by a dreadlocked patriarch who calls himself King Ezekiel. “He does his own thing,” Morgan says drily as he wheels Carol, still recuperating from the wounds she suffered at the end of last season, in to meet Ezekiel, whose court looks suspiciously like a high school auditorium. He’s seated on stage atop a prop throne, with a very real jungle cat by his side. Morgan adds, sheepishly, “I forgot to say that Ezekiel has a tiger.”
That initial setting turns out to be more appropriate than the Kingdom’s subjects realize: Ezekiel is a fake, a former zookeeper who put his community theater experience to work playing the role his ad hoc community needed him to inhabit. “People want someone to follow,” he explains to Carol, who’s seen through his act as easily as he sees through her attempt to pass herself off as a good-natured dimwit. “They want someone to make them feel safe, and people who feel safe are less dangerous.”
In this world, being less dangerous isn’t always a good thing. The Kingdom is almost preposterously bucolic. There are regular movie nights, a vocal group whose repertoire includes a plainsong rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and the aforementioned cobbler at every meal. We’ve seen this before, in Woodbury and Alexandria and the Hilltop, so we know that “The Walking Dead’s” apparently placid communities come in two flavors: the ones with a dark secret and the ones whose naïve ignorance of the dog-eat-dog world outside their walls will eventually mean their doom. The Kingdom seems to fall into the latter camp, so much so that it’s hard to explain how it’s lasted as long as it has. One partial explanation arrives when Ezekiel drafts Morgan to accompany his inner circle on a secret mission, which turns out to be a meeting with Negan’s Saviors. Eight freshly slaughtered hogs buys the Kingdom another week of relative safety, but it’s clear that Ezekiel’s cohort don’t take kindly to the arrangement. The fat hogs they turn over have been reared on zombie flesh, although that’s less an act of passive resistance than passive aggression.
But as tenuous as the Kingdom’s existence might be, the episode, which was written by Matthew Negrete and directed by Greg Nicotero, doesn’t immediately undercut Ezekiel or paint him as a fool. His idealism isn’t rooted in denial but in the strength of a deliberate choice; he’s a post-apocalyptic Lloyd Dobler. When Carol confronts him and calls the Kingdom “a joke,” he responds with an impassioned, humanistic monologue that, for once, doesn’t feel like it’s setting him up to be zombie bait. “It’s not all bad,” he tells her. “It can’t be. It isn’t. Life isn’t. Where there’s life, there’s hope, and heroism and grace and love. Where there’s life, there’s life.”
Resonantly delivered by Khary Payton (the DC Animated Universe’s Cyborg), Ezekiel’s speech acts as a mirror to Negan’s bloody soliloquy. It’s a moment of personal pleading rather than public display, intended to inspire rather than to terrify. As repugnant as last week’s virtual snuff film was, this week’s episode is a reminder of why the show is difficult to drop, even for those who’ve grown weary and worse of its glib nihilism and mock-philosophical posturing: It’s as if Lucy periodically let Charlie kick the football just to keep him off-balance. An episode focused on Carol and Morgan is already a special treat, a chance to savor the work of the series’ two best actors without suffering the efforts of its less graceful cast members. Lennie James splendidly deadpans Morgan’s nonplussed reaction to the Kingdom’s oddity, and Melissa McBride doubles down on the happy homemaker act Carol adopted in Alexandria. “I would be speechless if I wasn’t already speaking,” she chirps at the first sight of Ezekiel. “I don’t know what’s going on in the most wonderful way.”
Carol remains a troublesome character for “The Walking Dead’s” writers. In the opening of “The Kingdom,” she has blurry visions of zombies as their former selves, watching blankly as Morgan and the Kingdom’s soldiers kill what seem to be living human beings. But considering that Carol has killed humans in cold blood on several occasions, her hallucinatory attack of conscience feels utterly contrived, as does Morgan’s periodic whipsawing between accomplished killer and do-no-harm pacifist. It’s as if the show knows where they want the characters to end up but not how to get them there, so they crudely shove them into place and leave to the actors the task of making it seem credible.
“The Kingdom” manages to feel both rushed and inconsequential; Carol is in and out of the community so fast her dilemma barely has time to register. But at least where she ends up makes sense. She’s had enough of “make-believe” societies, whose attempts at returning the old normal make them weak and vulnerable, but she’s tried the cold-blooded approach and been horrified by what she nearly became. Following Ezekiel’s advice to “embrace the contradiction… go and not go,” she moves into an abandoned house on the Kingdom’s outskirts, on her own but not entirely isolated. Ezekiel, tiger in tow, pays her a visit, and offers her a ripe pomegranate, a fruit he’s described as mixing the bitter with the sweet. (He’s fond of on-the-nose metaphors, having previously described his tiger as “trapped, hungry, and alone — like me.”) Living life, his gesture suggests, means accepting that the two are inextricable, but perhaps Carol’s thinking of the pomegranate that condemned Persephone to live half her life in the underworld. Accepting even a few seeds is more of an attachment than she’s ready to make.