Compassion or survival. Mercy or vengeance. Life or death. This ever persistent tension between two seemingly incompatible worldviews is a theme that has always been bubbling under the surface of The Walking Dead, but it seems as though season 8 is finally bringing that conflict to the fore, especially if episode 2 - The Damned - has anything to say about the matter.
Rick realizes he might be turning into a monster, Jesus and Tara almost break out into a fistfight over the morality of murder, and Morgan is about to implode with indecision over his capacity to kill. Meanwhile, the Saviours continue to be humanised and vilified all at the same time, as The Damned injects even more grey areas into what was previously assumed to be a black and white war story between good and evil. It’s here, through exploring these murky waters, where episode 2 finds some of its best scenes.
Structurally, however, episode 2 is all over the place. As with last week’s premiere, The Damned experiments with chronology and character placement to try and keep viewers on their toes, but the results end up creating more confusion than anything else. Almost every character is in a different area and with different people to whom they were with last week, without much explanation as to how they got there.
How did Aaron end up in charge of a strike force? Which group were attacking what bases? Where the hell did Maggie go? It’s like The Walking Dead is trying to dangle several different story threads at once, but forgets to provide the necessary context in the midst of all the fighting.
After being accused of endless meandering and straight-faced storytelling in previous seasons, you can understand why the showrunners are trying to mix things up a bit, and the renewed emphasis on visual creativity (long, close up shots of each character’s faces bookend the episode) is appreciated. But a war story like this one requires clarity to be told effectively, and The Walking Dead’s current setup still feels too blurry and scattershot to pack the dramatic punch it needs. There are four different timelines going on simultaneously in The Damned, so let’s discuss them in order.
The first was the attack on a Saviour outpost by Aaron's group. As a lengthy firefight amongst fairly minor characters, the scene feels almost unnecessary in its existence, and left me wondering whether The Damned could have done more with less by cutting the entire incident out of its 40 minute run-time.
To be fair, Aaron’s decision to wait for the Saviours' casualties to turn and start eating up the remaining survivors makes for a fun little twist, and once again proves that Rick’s group can be just as devious as Negan when it comes to combat strategy. The emphasis on pure action leaves little room for any characterization or dialogue, though, and I’d be lying if I said I’m particularly invested in Eric’s unresolved fate.
Next, we witness the attack on the satellite dish compound, led by Tara, Jesus, and Morgan, and it's the scenes focusing on the latter which stand out, though not necessarily for the right reasons. While it’s invigorating to watch Morgan play the cold, calculated one-man-army against dozens of Saviours (even leaving one of his comrades to bleed out without so much as a wave goodbye), the character’s internal battle over the ethics of killing make for a repetitive retread of familiar ground.
Ever since we met Morgan, he’s been plagued by this moral dilemma, constantly flitting from one side to the other on the issue, and The Walking Dead needs to decide a definitive position for the character to take if he’s going to develop in any meaningful way.
As for the on-screen arguments between Jesus and Tara over that very same predicament, you could tell the scenes were included to service the season’s wider themes rather than the characters themselves, but the introduction of Dean - the pants-wetting trickster who nearly kills them both - is impressive, with writing that quickly characterizes him as irredeemably deplorable the moment he reveals his true colours.
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Rick and Daryl’s search for guns within a Saviour mansion, meanwhile, presented some of the episode’s darkest and meatiest scenes. For Rick to impale a man, before then coming across his infant child in a cot, was a deeply disturbing revelation, and Andrew Lincoln’s quietly charged performance was all that was needed to pull off the tragedy of the moment. His vacant stare against a bloodied reflection in the mirror almost felt like a homage to Shane’s descent into darkness, suggesting that Rick’s struggle with stepping out of his former friend’s shadow is not yet over.
And then there’s the return of Morales, a minor character from the very first season of the show. The episode’s curtain closer of a twist works well as a neat little callback to The Walking Dead’s Atlanta-based origins, while finally providing some closure to a long unresolved thread from the show’s past.
It’ll be interesting to hear about what happened to Morales and his family since we last saw him leaving the original gang for Birmingham, and find out whether his former relationship with Rick has any bearing on his loyalty to Negan.
Finally, there’s Carol, Ezekiel, and some other nameless Hilltop folk on the hunt for a runaway lookout. Ezekiel’s theatrical swagger and hilariously eloquent parlance (“The damned are upon us!”) always makes for entertaining viewing in a show filled with po-faced characters, and his jubilant outlook contrasts nicely against Carol’s world-weary pessimism.
The pair’s ‘in media res’ opening unnecessarily adds yet more confusion to the episode’s events, as there’s no explanation as to who attacked them or why, but the mini adventure goes on to slowly redeem itself, ending with a brief and bloody cameo from Shiva herself.
The Damned peppers memorable moments throughout an otherwise muddled war story, too often discarding strong pacing and organic characterization in favour of sporadic action and hazy messaging. It’s hard not to appreciate what the showrunners are trying to accomplish in their attempt to spice things up in The Walking Dead, but season 8 need to find more of a groove in its new skin if this upended storytelling approach is going to work.