Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 6 of season 7 of “The Walking Dead,” titled “Swear.”
“The Walking Dead” has often been at its strongest when it breaks up the core group of survivors and follows them a few at a time. But as the seventh season nears its midway point, that formula is wearing thin. Rather than allowing the show to tell a greater variety of stories, the episodes following the aftermath of Negan’s bloody campfire circle have essentially told the same story over and over again. In “Swear,” we are again introduced to a new kind of post-apocalyptic community, and again shown how that community has dealt with the threat posed by the Saviors, which—surprise—is not especially different from the way the ones we’ve already seen have. Turns out when you’re confronted with an army of murderous thugs, there aren’t that many different ways to react.
At least “Swear” offers a change of scenery. The show has spent so much time in small towns and loosely forested woods that the sight of water lapping at a beach comes as a welcome change of pace (unless, of course, you’ve seen the seafaring second season of “Fear the Walking Dead”). Tara and Heath are still on the supply run they set out on at the end of season six, and they’re also under the impression that their nighttime raid on the Saviors’ outpost, during which they killed several people in their sleep, permanently put an end to the group. As far as they know, their greatest care is locating food and other useful items to bring back to Alexandria, where Glenn, Abraham, and Denise will be waiting to welcome them home.
Tara and Heath come upon a barricaded pier, at the end of which is a massive mound of sand. She pulls on a half-buried object, reasoning that it’s difficult enough to dislodge that there must be something good hidden within, but instead she inadvertently wakens a herd of buried walkers, and while she and Heath are fighting them off, she tumbles into the water and is washed away by the current.
Tara washes up on the shores of Oceanside, where she lays apparently unconscious as teenaged Cyndie and a younger girl argue about whether or not they should kill her, as the community’s rules apparently require. It’s a pointed reflection of the way Rick’s group dealt with the Saviors, an act that Tara and especially Heath are still having trouble coming to terms with. Guilt and moral self-doubt are never emotions “The Walking Dead” has had much time for; they’re usually the provenance of weak characters who are at best a few episodes away from getting chomped. But Heath is haunted enough by the group’s cold-blooded massacre—in what can at best be characterized as attenuated self-defense—that it actually starts to sink in. Perhaps Rick and co. had good reason to think at the time that it was their best hope for survival. But that logic starts to skew dangerously close to the Saviors’. We know that Rick and whoever else survives aren’t going to spend the rest of “The Walking Dead” under Negan’s thumb. But who will they be by the time they emerge?
Oceanside, named for the former motor court they inhabit, has managed to escape from the Saviors’ grasp, but at a terrible cost. The group’s all-female composition makes it seems at first like some kind of Amazonian outpost, a yin to the Saviors’ hyper-masculine yang. (Say what you like about “Swear”; it definitely passes the Bechdel Test.) But after surviving her first encounter and being briefly welcomed into the group, Tara learns the truth from their leader Natania: there are no men because the Saviors killed them all, along with every male child over the age of 10. (Given the scattering of machine-gun cartridges back on the dock, it’s likely those bodies in the sand were the remnants of the Saviors’ mass execution.) The survivors relocated, and have stayed out of sight by killing every outsider who might stumble on their hiding place, but in doing so, they’ve traded one horror for another — visiting it instead of having it visited upon them.
“Swear” is built around the idea of scavenging. Tara tells Heath, “There’s nothing left in this world that isn’t hidden,” and Natania explains Oceanside’s survival strategy to Tara as “We would stay hidden, and we would stay alive.” But staying hidden isn’t a passive act, or an innocent one. Cyndie seems to successfully plead for Tara’s life, for her to be released from Oceanside on a promise to keep the community’s existence a secret. But as she’s taken into the woods, Tara comes across the body of a female walker tangled in the brush, and realizes she’s been led to the site of her own execution. She gets away unharmed—this may be the “Walking Dead” season lightest on human fatalities, as a way of giving Glenn and Abraham’s deaths time to sink in—but Heath is gone (and given that Corey Hawkins is playing the lead in Fox’s “24: Legacy,” unlikely to return anytime soon).
Tara makes her way back to Alexandria with a smile on her face, not knowing that the woman she loves is lying dead with an arrow through her eye socket. But even after finding out what the Saviors have done to Denise and to Alexandria, she keeps faith with Oceanside—or, perhaps more to the point, with Cyndie, who defended her even when the rest of Oceanside’s women turned against her. Rosita, who possesses the only gun in Alexandria successfully hidden from the Saviors’ purge, asks Tara if she managed to find any weapons on her travels, and Tara lies to her and says no. It’s the moral decision, or at least the sentimentally satisfying one, but it also feels unearned, and out of place on a show that so rarely rewards doing the “right” thing—and one that’s especially hard to absorb in light of how it’s built up the Saviors as the ultimate threat to the group’s survival. No doubt there’s a plan for the seventh season as a whole, but with it nearly halfway over, it feels like “The Walking Dead” is merely twisting in the wind.