This review contains spoilers.
Several seasons ago, The Walking Dead took a little detour to follow The Governor around for a few episodes. He’d lost his people (albeit at his own hand) and wandered around in the wastelands before running into the Chambler family and taking a second chance at getting revenge on Rick and introducing Tara into the main cast of the show. It was not exactly effective, and people didn’t like it. This week’s digression, shifting the focus of The Walking Dead from Rick Grimes to Negan and the Saviors, is incredibly effective.
Just consider The Saviors as a group. It’s a pretty troubled organisation. It’s not a collection of people who lack strong personalities. To have lived as long as they have and to have risen up the ranks in what is essentially a criminal organisation, that takes something that the average person doesn’t have. We’ve seen average in that organisation, and average loses your wife and gets your face burned with a hot iron (or if you’re very lucky, you’re a third-rate lickspittle toadie who gets coffee for the more important characters). No one in the Saviors is really going to put up with a lot of crap from anyone who isn’t Negan, and that’s what leads to Simon’s downfall.
Given a taste of power, Simon almost immediately goes mad with it. He’s a character who has been a live wire throughout the show, one of the Saviors who seems to enjoy picking on little people the most. Simon doesn’t have a low gear; Simon has been rash and violent and even when he’s smiling, he’s got blood in his eyes. He might walk on a leash under a strong hand, but he’s an attack dog, and it’s unsurprising that Negan’s return and pardon leads directly to Simon making an attempt to claim the throne.
It’s an interesting examination of power dynamics. Gregory’s going to be killed by Simon until Gregory reads the situation and shows a little spine, earning Simon’s tolerance, if not Simon’s respect. Simon’s bargain-basement Shakespeare plotting doesn’t earn him much respect with Negan; if anything, it cements Simon’s fate by making him appear weaker in Negan’s eyes. Dwight never takes the opportunity to just kill Negan quietly, or directly; Dwight tries to skulk around and slip clues to Rick, giving Negan an opportunity to manipulate the situation to his own benefit with a carefully-plotted trap and some deus-ex-Laura (the second in command of Dwight’s team who he tried to kill). Sneaking around the sidelines, as far as The Saviors go, is a good way to get yourself killed, but being an obvious suck-up or having some obviously useful skill? Well, that’s a ticket to a cushy job running a bullet factory or getting coffee for Simon.
The parts of the episode that work best in David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Angela Reed’s script are the parts concerned with the inner politics of The Saviors. Yes, it’s predictable that Simon will get caught pulling a stunt, but it’s still satisfying, and any opportunity to have Steven Ogg leering and snarling at everyone is an opportunity not wasted. He glares at death in Negan’s return meeting, and every interaction he has with anyone is full of potential danger, which makes it immensely satisfying. To listen to Simon do his best Negan impression is solid television, as is Eugene’s transformation from reluctant leader to the kind of guy who eats sardine mac-and-cheese and gives orders to underlings.
The bookend segments aren’t as effective (though Chandler Riggs does a good job with his letter reading). Ditto Eugene while being kidnapped by Daryl and Rosita. I can see why they’d take him; fake scientist or not, he’s smart enough to make bullets and there aren’t many people who can do that. Still, his interactions with the two, aside from Rosita’s leitmotif about Eugene making something of his worthless life, fall a little flat. Sure, Rosita and Daryl are raging with anger at Eugene, and he’s appropriately squirrelly in his attempts to weasel out of trouble, but at the same time, it feels like nothing more than just a big misdirect. Eugene’s bullets are going to fail, because Eugene is too popular a character to turn heel. It’s possible, because he seems furious when he returns to his outpost, but he could also be galvanised with a plan in mind either way.
The centrepiece of the episode, the interwoven plots of Simon and Dwight intersecting in a brutal fight to the death between Negan and Simon, is solidly directed by Michael Slovis. The fight is a rough affair, giving Simon a proper send-off. It’s a little choppy, but effective in its brutality and stated nicely. It works because of the set-up, and because of the surprise reveal at the end of the episode. It never feels like Negan is in any real danger, because this isn’t that kind of show anymore, but it’s still enjoyable because it’s at least well constructed.
Aaron’s trip to Oceanside is… well, poorly planned and clumsily executed. The action is fine, but the scene in which Aaron summons strength enough to pull himself up off the mud long enough to deliver a mini-monologue before collapsing weakly? That’s one of the worst cliché imaginable, and groan-worthy in the best of circumstances, and after the more solid Savior segments (and the more entertaining Eugene segments), it’s not the best of circumstances.
Still, one groan-worthy exhortation to fight per episode is expected for even the best episode of The Walking Dead these days, and it doesn’t take much of the shine off the previous episode. The show will be weaker for having lost one of the more interesting antagonists (for both Rick’s survivors and for Negan), but at least he got to go out with a satisfying episode. A braver show would have killed Negan instead, but Season 8 Walking Dead isn’t the same as Season 4 Walking Dead.
Besides, Negan can be redeemed. Simon would have to have been put down like a rabid animal. An attack dog is very useful, even one prone to killing entire communities, but if you can’t trust your dog off leash, then it’s just going to cause problems.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan hopes Simon Ogg will be back as a featured zombie again soon. He’s a great zombie actor, and one of the most interesting walkers since Bicycle Girl. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.