With episode 11 of The Walking Dead season 8, the awkwardly titled ‘Dead or Alive or’, I was really hoping the show could score its first hat-trick, following a double bill of surprisingly great episodes since the mid-season premiere. Frustratingly, this week was unable to live up to that ambition, but it was far from the worst thing season 8 has thrown at us so far, and by that I mean it wasn’t a totally mindless slog.
After the heavy focus on Rick, Carl, and Negan over the last two episodes, Dead or Alive or takes some time to catch up with the show’s assortment of secondary characters, reminding us where they’ve been since the mid-season break.
First up, we’re reacquainted with Daryl leading the Alexandrian refugees to Hilltop, along with Rosita and an emotionally charged Tara, desperate to kill their hostage, Dwight. It’s business as usual for these scenes, offering bog standard Walking Dead fare, complete with a literal bog that our characters have to wade through, in what is another clear attempt for the show to freshen up its threat factor by showing off a new kind of zombie. Look! Swamp zombies everyone! Please don’t change the channel!
The one interesting twist comes when Dwight runs afoul of a Saviour hunting party, only to realise that his mole status hadn’t been yet outed by Laura. So long as she’s AWOL, this gives Dwight another opportunity to play both sides, which he certainly has motivation to do, now that Tara wants him dead. It seems unlikely that he’ll help The Saviours in any way, but the fact that he still plausibly could makes his ongoing character arc far more intriguing for the rest of the season.
Then there’s Gabriel and Dr Carson’s escape mission back to Alexandria. Ah, Gabriel. I was wondering if this would be the episode where - just for once - he doesn’t mention God, but no, there he is, hobbling around like a blind Jesuit priest, still mumbling about “destiny” or “callings” or whatever. It’s like Gabriel’s faith is his only defining character trait, his raison d’etre, and AMC can’t help but shove that in the audience’s face whenever he’s on screen.
While this was, at one time, an interesting channel for exploring what happens to religion when the world goes to hell, that time was five seasons ago. Thank goodness, then, that Dr Carson’s untimely demise seems to have left a serious dent in Gabriel’s worldview. I can only hope this is the beginning of the end for the character as we know him.
We also have a few scenes at Hilltop, with Maggie yet again bartering with her Saviour prisoners while Morgan and Carol deal with the fallout of young Henry’s crimes. That former scenario is another example of The Walking Dead’s inability to understand pacing.
Maggie’s been struggling with her POW camp since the early days of season 8, but nothing major has come of it. We need to see some sort of payoff to all this thematic gestation on leadership and the cost of clemency, otherwise it just comes across as meaningless and, more than that, boring.
Ironically, the episode’s most powerful Hilltop-set scene is when Daryl breaks the news of Carl’s death to the rest of Hilltop, proving once again that this decision to kill off such a major character was a risky but rewarding move that’s still bringing emotional resonance to a show that’s always in sore need of it.
As for Negan, Eugene, and the rest of Saviours, foreboding is the name of the game here, with Negan clearly excited about a “big day tomorrow” (that can’t be good) while Eugene cooks up more ammunition for his army. The final scene, in which Negan comes up with a dastardly plan to weaponize walkers, suggests we could be in for some disturbing, violent action in the near future.
Will The Saviours now be dipping their bullets in zombie blood, where every shot could can turn its targets into walkers? This could be a inventive way of making The Walking Dead’s, well, walking dead interesting and dangerous again, and I’m kind of desperate to see how it all plays out.
So Dead or Alive or was is a half-step backwards after two confident strides forward for The Walking Dead season 8, with a couple of interesting footnotes to a generally innocuous chapter of filler, no killer. There’s still reason to be excited for what’s to come, but that hope remains tinged with doubt about whether AMC has the ability to pull any of it off.
Haven't caught up with the first half of season 8 yet? Head over to the next page to read our full recap of every episode so far.