Following Tommaso’s lead, Maggie, Negan and the Manhattan refugees head towards the Stadium, home of The Croat and his forces and manage to gain entry without beign spotted. Negan is counting on an element of surprise to separate The Croat from his enforcers and find his way to where Hershel is being kept. However, The Croat is already aware of Negan’s presence in the city and has a few plans of his own – including pomp, circumstance, music, song and a bruise and battered Marshal.
Negan and Maggie may have been able to get into the stadium, but getting out will be another matter. The Croat poses a deal with Negan, remembering the old times when they both used violence to get what they wanted.
But will Negan be able to resist the lure of past… and what will be the cost if he does, or doesn’t?
Though this mini-series might have initially set out its stall as something of a rehabilitation for Negan, it isn’t a whitewashing of history but has subsequently reminded us of just how bad he can be when he feels it’s a means to an end. He’ll kill and do it with a smile but not just for grins. This episode – Everybody Wins a Prize – wrong-foots you for just a second, opens with a flashback to Negan’s era of the Saviors and the ever-reliable Steven Ogg reprising his role as Simon, leading Negan to where The Croat has just sliced and diced a young girl to death in the search for information. The sadistic glee in which Zeljko Ivanek’s character stands by his literally torturous ‘work’ does differentiate him from Negan and there’s a look conveyed in Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s eyes when Negan looks over the carnage that distances himself ever so slightly. The Croat loves the visceral but for Negan violence and swagger were always a means to an end, something he would turn into theatrical terror in the name of imposing, disciplined fear – but not for any personal fetish. It’s effectively asking us to look at the behaviour of both men and choose Negan to side with by a small margin – as the lesser of two evils, if not anything else.
The scene where Negan and The Croat finally converge, standing a little distance off on the skywalks above the arena, reminds this old-school reviewer of a similar Methos/Kronos scene in the Highlander series’ ‘Horsemen‘ episodes: the concept of two people – who have done very bad things together in the past – finally reuniting, with expectations from one that they’re going to pick up their where they left off, yet reticence from the other, but feeling the pressure like an addict drawn back the terrible needle. Negan even articulates that aspect when talking to Maggie earlier, saying that the closer he gets to The Croat the more he remembers how he used to operate and feels the pull. He also helped craft the Croat’s persona of ‘doing what needs to be done to stay in power’ even if it’s devolved since then.
There’s a moment where the separate secrets that Maggie and Negan are keeping almost come spilling out. Maggie seems about to tell Negan that she found the toy dinosaur that belonged to Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) indicating the girl is there in Manhattan – but just as she starts, she noticed the balm that belonged to Luther and realises that Negan likely killed him (as we saw last week). Of course, when a little later, Maggie sees Ginny (who has been trailing her, but weirdly not Negan?), she takes the task of keeping her safe more seriously and when there’s a choice between a perceived exit from the stadium and saving Ginny, Maggie decides on the latter (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that toy dinosaur didn’t actually get cremated, either!)
The arena’s zombie attack (because, remember, this isn’t just an Escape from New York tribute band, there’s been that actual, pesky undead apocalypse) is largely a triumph of good directing/choreography). After all, it’s the Walking Dead franchise not the sprinting one, so you’re never going to get quite the speed and urgency that a World War Z (which I rewatched on the same day and is benchmark urgency from start to finish) format would give you. It’s the one time, surging into a vast, but enclosed space, when CGI hordes would have really taken the breath away – still, the askew, claustrophobic, up-close-and-personal struggles offered instead, do give a mosh-pit-of-doom vibe and do get you wondering how on Earth anyone’s going to get out of there.
Another inevitable scene was Negan saving Gaius Charles’ Marshal Armstrong, the ‘law’ officer who pursued him to Manhattan. It was always a likely scene that would play out this way in some way shape or form. It’s not a very subtle story beat but it conveniently complicates the obvious conflict between the two men – being saved by the person who wants you dead. It’s interesting that Negan bothers saving Armstrong, who he would likely have killed himself days earlier if things had worked out differently. It’s perhaps an internal decision that he wants to prove himself better than The Croat, not letting someone die needlessly, but it sets the stage for the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend‘ pay-off, so expect the marshall to save Negan in one of the upcoming episodes (rather than killing him as the ‘cliffhanger’ suggests but isn’t really an option).
We’re left with our heroes split up and with Maggie and the Manhattanites heading down into the dark and sewers to escape (Chekov’s flooded manhole cover hinting at such in early scenes). The trailer for next week sees more up-close-and-personal combat, the introduction of a character played by Ozark‘s Lisa Emery and something that looks very much like the ‘Rat King’ from The Last of Us: Part 2 game.
We’ll see which is the most scary…
- Production Design / VFX9