Maggie, Tommaso, Amaia and Ginny work their way through the sewers below Manhattan, but while they avoid some of the devolving undead, it’s some amazing good ‘luck’ that makes Maggie question the nature of their survival.
Meanwhile, above ground, with Negan in tow, Marshal Armstrong tries to find a way off the island but the men will need to rely on each other to survive the night.
In both areas, some disturbing truths begin to form about the agendas being played out and the lies being told…
There are several shifts in story in this week’s entry – and some work better than others. It almost feels as if an entirely new writing team were suddenly drafted in and decided to shake things up and rewrite the narrative. Suddenly, the previously all-powerful Croat (Zeljko Ivanek) seems like a sycophantic lackey to a new never-mentioned-before character, The Dama (a theatrical Miss Havisham -like figure played with the usual aplomb by Ozark’s Lisa Emery). It appears she’s pulling The Croat’s emotional strings and is less than happy with his progress regarding Negan (of whom she seems already aware). The Croat’s pleas that his plans are going well seem absurd – last week he blew up his fortified arena-base simply to trap Negan and Maggie et al inside which seems a little like overkill and also seems at odds with this new conversation about needing Negan alive.
Negan’s situation sees him being dragged around by the Marshal Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles) as the navigate their way towards the port. The story edict seemed destined to make them frenemies by necessity at some point and, yes, though there’s still a hug amount of tension, we get to look at how past events – some long gone, some more recent – have informed their decisions and actions, both noting that their attitudes about each other might be more nuanced than they thought. Charles’ and Morgan’s dialogue scenes on the bus work well – some of this series’ better moments have been dialogue-driven – but might have worked better had it not seemed such a trope.
There’s no doubt that the other survivors’ journey into the sewers is disgusting – not just corpses galore, but filth, decay and things we’d probably need to choose to believe were not once alive at all… plus adipose-levels of fat! The production department certainly delivers on the surroundings and the journey through it all. We finally get to see the big hulking monstrosity glimpsed in the season trailer. It’s a heaving mass of multiple, writhing interlinked bodies that make up one dangerously disgusting, gestalt creature. The fact that showrunner Eli Jorne nicknamed the creation the ‘Walker King’ pretty much reinforces that it owes more than a little (let’s just say it: pretty much everything) to the Rat King super-bad that lurks in the ruined zone beneath the hospital in that other cult post-apocalypse, the PS4‘s The Last of Us: Part Two. It’s not that The Walking Dead does it badly (as a largely practical effect created by prosthetics and puppetry and quick-cut editing, it’s grossly impressive or impressively gross) but it comes across as just that: a knowing homage. The game’s version was one of the hardest to get pass, a claustrophobic nightmare that legitimately took hours to beat… here it’s intense and scary in the moment (especially for Maggie) but it’s barely a minute of screentime, a highlight but a passing one that we go ‘eeeew‘ and then move on.
The ever-mute Ginny (Mahina Napoleon) remains a sullen hanger-on, seems there simply to hold a mirror up to Maggie’s own duplicitous-stance who chooses to write on walls rather than talk… though odds-on we hear her speak/scream/utter some knowing words before the end of the finale.
I wasn’t expecting Jonathan Higginbotham’s Tommaso to be revealed as a traitor to the cause – betraying others in his group so that he and the oblivious Amaia (Karina Ortiz) would survive. He was not an unsympathetic character but was revealed as a weak one. That both he and Amaia would be killed off as collateral damage wasn’t totally unexpected but ultimately seemed a very quick write-out enabling Maggie and Ginny to move on without them.
Story-wise there’s a genuine twist at the end of the episode that really does reframe what we’ve been watching so far. We were told that Maggie had sought out Negan to help her rescue Hershel – knowing that Negan might be the only person she could rely on to be as ruthless as she needed, however much she might dislike that. It turns out to be a case of unreliable narration as Maggie’s more truthful flashback now reveals that though The Croat did indeed raid her base and has taken Hershel hostage, the idea to involve Negan did not come from her. In fact, The Croat’s terms for the release/survival of her son were explicitly to find a way to bring Negan to the island, likely in the efforts to establish a community with the ruthlessness to survive. (Which explains The Dama’s stance earlier in the episode). It’s a great switcheroo and pivot on a dramatic level, though, again, it’s still a story with some dots remaining unconnected. Despite the animosity between The Croat and Negan, it seems a contrived and unreliable way to get him to come to Manhattan. Negan was keeping his distance from Maggie and the odds were stacked against her being able to convince him to go with her. The lie works as fuel for character-development and story-twist but certainly doesn’t quite fit together logically thus far.
Stories We Tell Ourselves is an interesting way to subvert some expectations and set up a more bristling, dynamic finale, but it does feel like an overt course-correction within an already very short run of stories. The talent on show is enough to keep me watching, but rather than well-planned surprises, it still feels like the concept and story-beats simply weren’t as settled as they should have been before we began it all…
- Production Design / VFX9