So much for the big surprise. Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead ended with the appearance of Morales, a character who hasn’t been seen since Season 1. Provided you could remember who he was, it was a genuine surprise, and the episode ended with a cliffhanger between two old allies-turned-enemies. Would Rick and Morales explore their shared past, shifting allegiances, and their different experiences over the intervening years?
The answer is yes, for about five minutes, before Daryl put a crossbow bolt in Morales’ neck near the start of Episode 3. It could be argued that it was redundant to introduce this character, only to kill him off minutes later. But his death was as unexpected as his arrival, and to be honest, who could really remember him anyway? Morales’ speedy departure was a good way of highlighting the thin line between life and death that all these characters exist on. It also formed a possible subplot about Daryl’s willingness to execute potential enemies on the spot–as well as Rick’s obvious discomfort with it.
In fact, the lengths to which the show’s heroes should go when attempting to defeat the Saviors was one of the biggest themes throughout “Monsters.” The conflict between Jesus and both Tara and Morgan was clumsily introduced last week, but for the most part, it was better handled here. The fight between Jesus and Morgan was fun but a bit pointless, and Tara’s sudden transformation into a ruthless gun-toting badass is jarring. But the pre-fight conversation between Morgan and Jesus, and the scene in which Jesus persuades Maggie to keep the captured Saviors as prisoners at the Hilltop were well acted and written.
On the whole, this was the best episode of the season so far, although that isn’t saying too much. We’re still in the same day, still watching the fight against Negan unfold across several different groups. Rick and Daryl are still looking for weapons, Jesus and Morgan are transporting prisoners back to the Hilltop, and Ezekiel is still standing around, blustering like an idiot. There is no sign of Gabriel and Negan yet, who are presumably still trapped in their cabin, surrounded by walkers. And Aaron lost Eric, but the emotion of this scene was undercut by clichéd dialogue and dubious acting.
But there is at least the sense that some of these subplots are finding their focus, and the sooner this day of fighting is over, the better the show will be. It was great to see Maggie once more, and her showdown with the cowardly Gregory was a highlight. The way she dismissed him when he was arguing that the Savior prisoners shouldn’t be allowed into the Hilltop confirmed that Gregory is no longer in charge there. How long he stays alive remains to be seen.
There were also–finally–some zombie highlights. Season 8 might have been non-stop action so far, but the endless gunfights were growing tiresome. But “Monsters” saw a great sequence in which a group of walkers tumble down a steep embankment on the edge of the forest towards the Savior prisoners, all of whom are tied together. No one can run without dragging everyone else to the ground, and we got some enjoyably gruesome moments of undead mayhem.
The show also ended with perhaps the most abrupt final moment of the entire show, as a sniper opens fire on Ezekiel and his men, cutting them down in what appears to be big numbers. It’s rough justice for Ezekiel, who has spent the last couple of episodes going on about an assured victory and literally moments before was congratulating himself about having not lost a single man that day. This could be a turning point for this character, and perhaps this tragedy–presuming he survives it–will allow us to see the real Ezekiel, not the annoying persona he has adopted to lead his people.
Season 8 is still falteringly paced, with the momentum of good scenes frequently spoilt by the decision to cut away to something far less interesting, instead of letting them play out in their entirety. Rick and Morales’ encounter was a prime example of this. There are also way too many characters, and the show continues to rely on elements we’ve seen realized far better in earlier seasons. But there are now at least some interesting dramatic conflicts emerging, and with three episodes remaining until the mid-season break, still time to find some of its earlier form.
The Savior prisoners were rendered completely helpless against the walkers tumbling down the hill towards them. Director (and vfx veteran) Greg Nicotero made the most of the opportunity for some splatter, and the sight of one unlucky Savior having his head chewed on by a zombie was capped by Morgan shooting the walker, its blood spraying all over the camera. Juicy.
More plot, less aimless action
Strong dialogue scenes between Jesus, Maggie, and Morgan
Some cool zombie moments
Bad acting undercutting big moments
Repetitive and overly-familiar