It may not seem like it, but we may well have just watched the last full episode of The Walking Dead with Rick Grimes present from start to finish. Since the release of The Walking Dead season 9, episode 3 last week, AMC has now confirmed that episode 5 will be Rick’s final appearance before Andrew Lincoln exits the show altogether. That made watching The Obliged all the more essential as a precursor the big event, but episode 4 was an entertaining chapter regardless of its relevance to Rick’s exit (now feels like a good time to mention that this review will feature major spoilers for The Walking Dead season 9 so far).
The Walking Dead season 9 has had some cracking openers so far, and The Obliged is no different. Beginning with a shot of Michonne’s stomach (adding more fuel to the Richonne baby rumour mill), we learn that the samurai has been spending her nights chopping Walkers to bits without Rick’s knowledge. The scene tick tocks between her day to day chores in Alexandria and her secret outings with the slick elegance of a Better Call Saul montage, starkly juxtapositioning Michonne’s leadership duties with her addiction for carnage.
It’s another layer on this season’s theme of post-war psychology; can these characters, having been through so much, ever adjust to world free of a violence and conflict? With Maggie running an assassination attempt on Negan, aided by Daryl, and The Saviours breaking out against Carol and The Kingdom in a full blown gunfight, probably not.
Rick and Daryl’s relationship is also a focal point for The Obliged, and while there’s a creeping sense of deja vu as they fisticuffed off the main road and into the brush again (which is exactly what happened in The Walking Dead season 8), it’s good to see them finally hashing out their differences, knowing that this could be their last moments spent together. Yes, it’s awfully convenient that both fell into a giant pit conveniently placed in their path for no explainable reason, forcing them to lay out their grievance without distraction, but Lincoln and Norman Reedus are both on fine form down in that hole, convincing us to empathise with both characters’ deeply polarised positions.
Rick and Daryl’s escape from the pit is surprisingly intense, too, as zombie upon zombie begins to inevitably fall in alongside them. At one point, I even thought AMC was about to kill Daryl before our very eyes, but the Dixon brother managed to escape right at the last minute thanks to Rick’s impeccably strong forearm. Frankly, I was rooting for a less happy ending. Killing off a fan favourite character out of nowhere right before the much telegraphed denouement of Rick would have been a great bait and switch surprise for viewers, on par with the shock value of a Game of Thrones Red Wedding, but I think the showrunners are a little too cautious to axe all of their star characters in one season, especially as ratings for the show continue to fall.
In any case, another, more surprising tête-à-tête was that between Michonne and Negan, who’s on hunger strike purely for the sake of wanting some attention. Out of nowhere, it seems, season 9 has decided to draw equivalences between the pair as though they’re two sides of the same coin, with Negan even spewing that hackneyed line that every TV villain is apparently doomed with repeating; “we’re the same, you and me.” Ugh. Despite her taste for zombie blood, Michonne is nothing like Negan, and not even close to becoming him, so this undeserved parallel just felt out of place and a little bit silly.
At least Jeffrey Dean Morgan is still captivating from the comfort of his new cell. Is Negan’s sobriety all an act to win over his captors, or is he genuinely a reformed person? Most of us will be leaning towards the former, I’m sure, as we’ve been here before with The Governor, but Dean Morgan’s more earnest performance is still a treat nonetheless. That said, the creepy way in which Negan pathetically asked to see Lucille again, as though it were his actual wife, was seriously disturbing stuff, especially once the character learns that his baseball bat has been left out alone in the wild, and begins angrily banging his head against the wall (remind you of anyone, Shane fans?).
And then there’s that cliffhanger. I can’t remember the last time The Walking Dead has ended as powerfully as this. Look, we all know that Rick isn’t going to die impaled by a pipe and eaten alive by hundreds of Walkers, but this was still a heart pounding place to end the episode, especially as that final, bird’s eye view shot of our favourite sheriff surrounded by zombies echoed the very same conclusion to The Walking Dead’s premiere from all the way back in 2010.
Having to watch this man put himself at risk yet again for the sake of trying to build a better future against all odds, only to be abandoned by everyone, including his own horse, makes those anguished screams all the more painful to watch. It’s almost inevitable that Daryl will come riding in at the last minute to pick him up, but I’m happy to go along with AMC’s thoughtfully tailored tragedy for now.
Verdict: Emotive and suspenseful, The Obliged leaves us in an incredibly dramatic place for Rick’s valediction, silly characterisation moments aside.