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‘The Walking Dead’ Recap: Head Games

Talk dominates this week’s episode — until a disembodied head gets pommeled and then oh, it’s on.

As is too often the case on The Walking Dead, this week’s episode — “Not Tomorrow Yet” — squanders roughly half its running-time on people making conversation. They talk about killing. They talk about not killing. They talk about the secret ingredient in Carol‘s acorn cookies. (Spoiler alert: It’s beets.) They do everything they can to avoid doing anything at all — as though action were as rare a commodity as food on this show.

And then Rick repeatedly punches a disembodied head, and suddenly everything’s all right again.

To be fair, the denizens of the Alexandria Safe Zone have more reason than usual to be deliberative. When our fearless leader and the rest of his traveling party return from Hilltop at the start of the episode, they gather the community to explain the plans that have been made on their behalf. The good news: They’re all going to be getting food, medicine, and plantable crops. The bad: Some of them are going to have to straight-up murder some folks.

Two weeks ago, Hilltop’s Jesus mentioned “the next world,” which isn’t just a reference to this zombie-strewn planet Earth. He’s talking about what humans have to do almost daily to survive now: lying, stealing, betraying, and, yes, killing. But while Rick and his friends are very, very good at the latter, they’ve mostly been honing those skills on the undead, with the occasional live-person shooting or stabbing in the heat of a moment of self-defence. This new plan — to sneak into the compound of Negan’s bullying Saviours and slaughter them all, for pay — is next-level ruthless. Rick tries to sell this as an extension of what they’ve always done. (“This is how we eat,” he says.) But deep down, he and everyone else has to wonder: How is this different from what the Governor did when he attacked their home?

So yeah, they need to hash it out. And while this particular edition of the weekly Walking Dead symposium slows the show down to a crawl, especially since it comes after an episode that was about 95% chit-chat — at least it allows us to check back in with some characters we haven’t seen in awhile. Want to know what Morgan‘s been up to? Well, he’s still wrestling with his guilt over what happened with the Wolf he captured, though that doesn’t stop him from speaking out against the idea of wiping out an entire community. And remember Father Gabriel? He’s come around from the days when he thought Rick was evil, and he’s picked up a gun to serve as a deadly disciple.

Neither of those men’s hang-ups and hand-wringing–athons though are as dramatically fruitful as Carol’s situation, however. If “Not Tomorrow Yet” has a point — beyond the corpse-punching and Saviour-slaying, that is — it’s to illustrate how the series’ prickliest character is starting to soften, and at the worst possible time. She’s begun flirting with Tobin, who stings her a little when he admits, “You can do things that just terrify me.” He means it in a good way, comparing her to a loving mama bear, protecting her cubs. But she still seems to be stewing over the comparison when she joins Rick’s raid, where she chastises him for letting the sweet, pregnant Maggie come along. “You’re supposed to be someone else,” Carol snaps at Maggie when the two of them are alone together. For a brief moment, it’s like she’s talking to herself.

This episode ends with Carol and Maggie getting captured by the Saviours — a tough twist that puts a button on their mini-arc this week. It also represents an unexpected setback for our heroes, who were minutes away from hanging a “Mission Accomplished” banner on their RV. As cliffhangers go, this one’s a doozy.

But what makes that ending so effective is that it comes after about 20 minutes of top-notch two-fisted combat, well-directed by Greg Nicotero. The Alexandrians trick the Saviours with a battered, severed head that they claim belongs to Hilltop leader Gregory — an illusion aided by Rick’s willingness to bust up said head’s nose, to make it more convincing. Then, as a John Carpenter-style synthesiser pulses on the soundtrack, they slip stealthily into the Saviours’ compound at night, and try to take out as many of the enemy as they can while they’re sleeping. Eventually, the raid-ees are alerted to the threat of the raiders, and TWD becomes a pulse-pounding shoot-’em-up for a while, with the camera tracking characters through corridors until they run into gun-toting bad guys.

It’s a hard fight that takes its toll — psychologically as well as physically. Glenn in particular finds that it’s not as easy to stab dozing humans through the eye as it is to lobotomise walkers. And to the episode’s credit, it’s hard to say definitively that Rick’s plan is a righteous one. The Saviours are clearly awful. At one point, Nicotero’s camera lingers over the Polaroids of splattered heads that one of these jerks has posted on the wall of his barracks. But still, killing a bunch of men and women they’ve never met… Is this who Rick and Glenn are now?

That’s a question worth asking, and asking it’s always going to be a big part of what The Walking Dead does each week. But did you notice how much more exciting it was to see that dilemma play out during an all-out assault, rather than during a committee meeting? Rick’s a hard-boiled son of a bitch, no doubt. But having other people say how sick he is will never be as effective as showing him breaking the nose on a dead man’s face.

Previously: Howdy, Neighbours