After an extremely pokey start, Season 10 of “The Walking Dead” seemed to finally be kicking into gear after last week’s packed albeit sub-par episode. Unfortunately, “Bonds” downshifts the pacing while maintaining the low level of quality. This week’s entry has several significant developments ——Alexandria’s hit with a plague! Eugene discovers a new community! — but it still finds time to watch Daryl Norman Reedus and Carol Melissa McBride throw acorns at a can for what feels like seven years. Ultimately, “Bonds” is just lifeless; a drama-free checklist of setup that fails to draw in the viewer. It has all the narrative impact of a Wikipedia summary, which is disappointing when the show has made obvious table setting much more compelling in the past.
Last week’s big plot point — Negan’s invasion of the Whisperer’s territory — lands with a thud this episode as... Beta Ryan Hurst makes Negan Jeffrey Dean Morgan do chores. Now obviously Negan would have to do something to gain Alpha’s Samantha Morton trust, but I did not expect a wacky montage of Negan passing the various Whisperer trials like “Can you dig a hole?”, “Can you skin a zombie?”, and ultimately, “Can you survive when Beta tries to kill you out of jealousy?” Even if Alpha’s on a recruitment drive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that she would accept Negan as a member, especially when she’s always killing her diehard followers. So why would she want Negan, whose main character trait is that he never shuts up? Despite his endless yapping, he still manages to impress Alpha, even bending the knee to her to prove his loyy. Hopefully whatever plan he has in mind to take the Whisperers down from the inside will kick off in earnest next week.
Of course, everyone on “The Walking Dead” has to act really dumb at least a few times per season, and this week it’s Daryl and Carol’s turn, who begin this episode with a perfectly sensible mission that eventually goes off the rails. It’s clear at this point that Carol is very willing to endanger all of the communities as long as she gets her revenge, and Daryl puts all common sense aside to cross the border with her because he’s too close to her to see that she’s playing him… until she’s already nabbed a Whisperer hostage. It’d be one thing if Carol knew Alpha’s full plan, but she’s not privy to the same info we are, so her actions just come off as dangerously selfish.
So is Daryl in love with Carol or what? He’s very quick to dismiss Connie Lauren Ridloff as a romantic prospect when Carol brings her up, and his reluctance to elaborate on why is very suspicious. Carol correctly points out that they live in the damn zombie apocalypse, so there are way fewer fish in the sea, but Daryl still won’t budge. “Will they or won’t they” is certainly a valid story to tell, but this one’s been playing out over 10 years! This isn’t “The Remains of the Day,” Daryl, just say what you feel! Your enemies might kill you and wear your skin tomorrow! Live a little! Or maybe Daryl has some other perfectly good reason for denying himself any happiness. He’s so stoic that it’s honestly impossible to tell. Daryl’s the lead of the show now; we need him to open up a little more. As it is, it’s just two characters talking in circles with no resolution.
At least Eugene Josh McDermitt is ready to put himself out there, even though it’s to a complete stranger over the radio. Still stinging from Rosita’s Christian Serratos rejection, Eugene manages to contact a mysterious woman who he immediately bonds with. She doesn’t want to reveal too much about her circumstances yet, but Eugene convinces her to remain in contact so they can build trust. Which is all very sweet, but since this is “Walking Dead,” it also sets off every alarm bell. Hopefully she’s legit, because Lord knows we don’t need yet another crowd of jerks for our heroes to fight. And of course you can’t rule out the possibility that she’s just in Eugene’s head, especially considering how immediately perfect she appears to be. For example, she never asks Eugene, “Why do you talk like that?” It’s awfully suspicious that Radio Girl’s first rule for Eugene is “You do not talk about Radio Girl.”
The Remains Siddiq Avi Nash is now sleepwalking with Coco in his arms. Will he open up about his problems to someone next week only to discover his issues getting worse the week after that? Because that’s been the pattern so far. Alexandria’s mass stomach bug might be a virus, or it might be because Gamma’s Thora Birch been poisoning the water supply. Unfortunately, Aaron’s Ross Marquand stuck in the Phantom Zone this week, so no one’s been informed that there are eviscerated corpses stacking up in the creek. Guess Carol’s off the pills. Happy to put that behind us, but it probably shouldn’t have been a plot point in the first place. Carol’s plan to locate the horde is a good one, but sadly she doesn’t know that the show only has the budget to render the horde once per season, so she was doomed to fail. Boy, is Negan turned up to 11 this week. He must be making up for lost time. It’s downright exhausting. Beta gagging him is basically a face turn, would that he could have left him that way. Grade: C
In last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, we learn that Rosita was suffering from a stomach bug. No one really thought much of it - in fact, my first thought was that it was a convenient way to explain Rosita’s absence from the episode.
This week, however, we find out that Rosita’s stomach bug is more serious than we were led to believe. She has a fever of 102 degrees, she’s delirious, and Siddiq even has to take her to the infirmary. When Siddiq arrives in the infirmary, however, he finds that it is full of people who are suffering from the same stomach bug. Why is everyone sick all of a sudden?
Remember in last week’s episode when Aaron spotted Gamma near the creek? For some reason, Aaron didn’t kill Gamma, probably because he thought Gamma was not fully committed to The Whisperers and that she could become a potential ally to Alexandria. However, what Aaron clearly seemed to miss is why Gamma was there in the first place. She was contaminating the water supply. Recall, she sliced open a zombie, bled it into the creek, pulled out its guts, and pushed it out in the water.
Water contaminated by zombie blood does not necessarily kill its victims, but it can make them very sick. Recall that Father Gabriel lost sight in one eye and nearly died after being infected by zombie guts.
Alpha’s plan here, however, is not necessarily to kill everyone with the contaminated water. It’s to make them ill. In last week’s episode, she outlined a strategy of defeating Alexandria’s communities by “nicks” instead of all at once.
“The human body is fragile,” she said. “All it takes for the human body to collapse is a few nicks in the right spots.” In other words, sending waves of zombies into Alexandria, crashing a tree through the fence of The Hilltop, and sickening people with contaminated water is all part of a larger plan to wear down the communities, which will make them much easier to defeat.
That is why everyone is sick now? Does that mean the sick will die? Maybe. They’re all apparently red shirts at the moment, except for Rosita, and the actress who plays her, Christian Serratos, is likely to leave the series at some point this season to play Selena in a Netflix series. This may ultimately be how she is written out of the series.
Warning: The Walking Dead TV series and comic-book spoilers will be found below.
For Brandon, the outcome in this week's The Walking Dead, “What It Always Is,” is the same as in the comics: In the end, he is killed by Negan. How Negan arrives at the decision to kill Brandon, however, is different in a way that actually makes the television version of Negan a better, more complex and complicated character than the one in Kirkman's source material. It's worth a brief comparison between the two Brandons to illustrate what a brilliant departure Angela Kang makes here with regard to the character.
In the comics, Brandon is the son of Tammy Rose, whose head — as on the TV series — is placed on a pike by Alpha. He's furious with The Whisperers for killing his mother, and he's angry at Rick Grimes for not exacting revenge. He releases Negan basically so that he'll go after Alpha and provoke a war with the Whisperers, which will leave both Rick and Alpha dead. Negan kills Brandon because he's obnoxious and annoying — as he is on the TV series — but also, because that's his plan, too, and he wants to own it. The death of Brandon in the comics is more senseless. Negan kills him mostly because he just doesn't like Brandon.
In this week's episode of The Walking Dead television series, Negan kills Brandon, but he's driven by a different motivation, one that makes all the difference for this iteration of the character. Here, Brandon is the son of a former member of the Sanctuary, and he releases Negan because he wants to revive The Sanctuary and become a Savior like his father. He steals Lucille and Negan's leather jacket from Alexandria and gives them to Negan thinking that Negan will immediately go out, find a new facility, and restart the Sanctuary with Brandon as his right-hand man. This rubs Negan in the exact wrong way. Old Negan would have just told Brandon to screw off, and if he didn't, Negan wouldn't have thought twice about killing him.
This new version of Negan, however, has evolved from the man he used to be. He's taken some lessons from Alexandria, and he's formed real bonds with kids like Lydia and Judith. So, he doesn't kill Brandon because he's obnoxious, nor because Negan resists becoming the man he used to be, although that is true, too. He tells Brandon to get lost. In fact, he demands it.
However, Brandon thinks he's being tested, so he goes out and he kills the mother and son that Negan had just saved from zombies. “It's a test,” Brandon tells Negan after bashing in the brains of the mother and son with a crowbar. “You wanted to make sure that I had the balls to do what had to be done.”
It was not a test. In fact, midway through Brandon's “I am Negan” exclamation, Negan takes a rock and bashes Brandon's head in. He doesn't do it because Brandon is obnoxious or annoying. He doesn't even do it because he's trying to get away from Brandon. He does it for the same reason that Carol shot Lizzie. It's because Brandon is clearly a lost cause. He's too far gone. He's lost his humanity, and he's dangerous to innocent people. That's why Negan kills him, but in doing so, it also awakens a part of the old Negan. His motivations are more altruistic — and we'll get into that in future episodes — but the ruthlessness and brutality has returned. He just knows who better to channel it against. After he spends some time with The Whisperers, he's probably going to start understanding where true evil lies. Even the old Negan had a code. Alpha and Beta do not. It's going to make for an interesting dynamic, as two villains are pitted against each other, but one will probably come out on the other side as an anti-villain.
The news this week, however, isn't as good for Ezekiel, who we learn has a fairly progressive case of thyroid cancer. He seems to have already resigned to his fate, although he cannot bring himself to let Carol know that he's dying. Ezekiel's storyline, however, provides an opportunity for Siddiq, who in this episode doesn't think anything can be done to save Ezekiel. But maybe there is. Ezekiel notes that the recovery rate for thyroid cancer is high with the right treatments, but such treatments do no exist in the apocalypse. That may not be true if Siddiq can perform surgery on Ezekiel and save his life. Ultimately, it might be how Siddiq pulls out of this PTSD-funk, and if he is a mole under duress from Alpha, it might go a long way toward redeeming him.
The other storyline was something of a head scratcher. It turns out that Kelly and Magna were stealing and hoarding supplies from The Hilltop just in case things went sideways and because they don't quite trust their community yet. Daryl and Connie find out, but because Daryl is clearly smitten with Connie, he helps them cover it up, though he does make them return the supplies. The incident also continues to drive a wedge in between Yumiko and Magna, who admits to Yumiko that she was guilty of the crime that Yumiko defended her against pre-apocalypse. Magna killed a man who had hurt her cousin, and Yumiko continues to treat Magna like a criminal, even though — in the apocalypse — both have killed several people. It presents an interesting debate for The Walking Dead: Are crimes committed pre-apocalypse worse than those created after? I think the answer to that is obvious. Magna, however, would not agree.
— I appreciate what Negan was trying to do in comforting the little kid, but teaching him how to “nut tap” is super inappropriate. That whole scene was really uncomfortable. On the other hand, it was consistent with the behavior of some middle-school coaches.
— The Daryl/Connie ship is the best romance on The Walking Dead since the early days of Maggie and Glenn. They are adorable. It's funny. They are two of the most confident characters on the show, and yet around each other, they turn into nervous puddles of insecurity. Also, I realize this is all fan service, but thank you for this fan service, Angela Kang!
— The fake-out in the cold open with Kelly, however, was weird. How did she escape the zombie? Why did the show tease us into thinking she was about to get killed if they wouldn't even show us how she escaped?
— We haven't really seen someone fully surface as the leader of The Hilltop in the wake of Tara's death, but with Ezekiel falling back, it's starting to look like Yumiko will ultimately fill that position.
— Next week's episode sees Carol and Daryl unite again, plus Eugene reconnects with the woman on the radio.
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Walking Dead” Season 10, Episode 5, “What It Always Is.”]
It’s tempting to praise “What It Always Is” simply because of how busy it gets. Most “Walking Dead” episodes move like molasses, but this week’s entry has no less than four significant plot threads going, which at least keeps the pace pulsing. Unfortunately, all but one of those threads have major problems, with its most significant entry — Negan Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets a new acolyte — being particularly dire. The upside: Episode 5 sets the stage for more compelling developments next week, but it’s a hard road getting there. The cracks in this season are just getting wider.
Last week I noted that “The Walking Dead” is always more interesting when it explores its heroes’ fallibility, as paranoia about the Whisperers leads to unrest in both Hilltop and Alexandria. Of course, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you, and it’s revealed this week that Alpha Samantha Morton is behind absolutely everything: the waves of zombies, the tree falling, and even some stuff the communities aren’t aware of yet. So all the rabble rousers who’ve been yelling about how the Whisperers are behind everything and are a threat that must be dealt with are, uh, absolutely correct. I figured “Are the communities their own worst enemies?” would be waved away eventually, just not in the very next episode, making this the sort of turn that makes it very hard to give “TWD” the benefit of the doubt.
And let’s just get it out there: Alpha’s plan makes no sense. She says that she’s winnowing down the communities so that when they collapse, they’ll know who to turn to for safety. But the audience knows that Lydia Cassady McClincy is still alive in Alexandria, and if that fact is revealed to the other Whisperers, Alpha’s leadership will probably be forfeited. Her grip on them is already tenuous enough, what with her having to murder someone who questions her authority nearly every time she appears. How are there even any Whisperers left at this point? So why turn their aggression toward the communities into a recruitment drive, unless Alpha really does just want Lydia back, and her big, nest-smashing disavowal was just a show to keep Beta Ryan Hurst on her side. Or she really does just want to destroy everything, but sending the herd would mean the show would be over, so we get this. Samantha Morton is doing her best, but the Whisperer stuff is just not working.
Similarly disappointing is this week’s main story, where Negan finally encounters someone more irritating than himself. Turns out Brandon Blaine Kern III, the kid who’s been guarding Negan during his outdoor time this season, is the son of some former Saviors and idolizes Negan. It’s a very promising storyline on paper: The current, mellower version of Negan has to face a living incarnation of his old beliefs? That’s extremely intriguing, especially considering how eager the show has been to sweep the Saviors under the rug.
Ryan Hurst and Samantha Morton in “The Walking Dead”
Too bad, then, that Brandon’s just a bad fan; a fawning lunatic who got his Negan info second-hand and doesn’t have the first idea about Negan’s actual actions. Despite recovering Negan’s jacket and forging him a brand-new Lucille Lucille 2!, Brandon immediately gets on Negan’s bad side, assuming that Negan killed Carl Chandler Riggs — aka the one character Negan actually liked. Once the two encounter a woman and a child in the wilderness, everything plays out predictably: Negan bonds with the kid, Brandon kills him and the mother, out of some twisted belief that it’s what Negan wants, and Negan then kills Brandon in retaliation. It plays as Negan killing a menace and irritant and not as any sort of referendum on Negan’s past. If this whole storyline is just some in-joke mockery of Negan’s fans IRL, mission accomplished, but even so, what a missed opportunity. If there’s a bright spot to any of this, it’s that Negan then puts on his old costume and wanders into Whisperer territory looking for a fight. Now that has some possibilities, but hopes aren’t high after Brandon’s squandered, one-joke premise.
The other big miss this episode involves Magna Nadia Hilker and Kelly Angel Theory secretly stealing a bunch of supplies, a plot that’s only foiled when Kelly nearly gets herself killed by going hunting by herself, despite her deteriorating hearing. Sure, we get some cute Daryl Norman Reedus and Connie Lauren Ridloff time out of this, but this attempt to give the newbies something to do is going awry, with Magna in particular coming off as just an unlikeable jerk. It’s unclear why she’s acting out now, when her monologue to Yumiko Eleanor Matsuura makes clear that she’s resented Yumiko for 13 years despite the two being lovers. Magna’s revelation that she’s actually guilty of the crime for which Yumiko served as her defense lawyer and their subsequent break-up seems like it’s supposed to be a big deal, but we barely know these characters, and the result is a shrug. When Daryl points out to Magna, “All you’re good for is talking shit,” what basis does the audience have to disagree?
Finally, there’s Ezekiel Khary Payton, who reveals to Siddiq Avi Nash that he’s got thyroid cancer, as evidenced by a golf ball-sized tumor in his neck. It’s a surprise, and a devastating one, though it goes a long way to explaining Ezekiel’s mental state this season. His sad resignation as he tells Siddiq that both his grandmather and father survived the same cancer that’s sure to kill him is something to behold. Siddiq, to his credit, opens up about his own problems and tells Ezekiel that while they can’t fix things, they can at least talk about it. Even after that, Ezekiel can’t admit the truth to Carol, shutting off the radio as he hears her footsteps approaching. The former King’s future certainly looks dire and losing Ezekiel would be a real blow to the show. In this episode, as usual, Khary Payton finds the humanity the show so regularly lacks.
The Remains Regarding Kelly going hunting on her own: The amount of stubbornness characters exhibit when the stakes are “Be stubborn or be literally eaten alive by ghouls” remains astonishing. On Alpha’s orders, Gamma is damming up the creek with eviscerated corpses, cutting them open so they bleed into the creek. Aaron sees her do it, and eventually offers her a bandage when she cuts her hand. I’m all in favor of Dark Aaron going away, but shouldn’t he let someone know that the Whisperers are poisoning the water supply? Oh, and Gamma is Thora Birch! Didn’t recognize her last time, what with the horrible skin mask and all. Between the many zombie head squashes, the zombie guts in the creek, and Brandon’s brains getting caved in with a rock, this is the juiciest episode of “Walking Dead” in quite some time. Negan bonds with the kid, Milo, by teaching him the fine art of nut tapping. It’s a nice touch that even when he’s being kind, Negan is still pretty douchey. “Wow! Classic Negan!” Between this and trying to rate the sexiness of walkers, were you also counting the seconds until Brandon got offed? The moment Ezekiel coughed this episode you had to have known something was up. Fortunately, it wasn’t dragged out over several episodes. Grade: C
“The Walking Dead” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.
Warning: The Walking Dead TV series and comic book spoilers will be found below.
This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “What It Always Is,” is the beginning of what may be the most challenging arc in Robert Kirkman’s comics, a stretch of source material that will require Angela Kang strike a very delicate balance.
This week’s episode highlighted that challenge, and director Laura Belsey and the episode’s writer, Eli Jorne, absolutely nail it. It’s at this point in The Walking Dead when viewers have to ask, “Who is Negan?” Now that he’s free of jail and of Alexandria, is he the same guy he always was when he was running the Sanctuary? Or have the last seven years behind bars surrounded by a community built on hope changed him?
We see flashes of both Negans in “What It Always Is.” In rescuing the mother and son from roamers, he displays the kinder, gentler version of Negan. Likewise, he pushes back against Brandon’s perception of him. When Brandon pulls out Lucille and Negan’s leather jacket, Negan winces at the thought of returning to the man he once was. He also comforts the new kid, but there are flashes of the old Negan there, too, when he advises the kid on the proper way to “nut tap.” The old Negan fully resurfaces, however, when Brandon - in an effort to appeal to Negan - kills the mother and child. Negan kills Brandon with the attitude and brutality of the old Negan, but his motivations are driven by the ethos of the new Negan.
In other words, Negan is the same old Negan, but his motivations are different now. That is important as The Walking Dead pivots into the next arc, one where [Light Comic Spoilers] Negan works himself inside The Whisperers’ camp. The old Negan - brutal, ruthless, sometimes inhumane - should be able to earn the trust of Alpha and Beta. But Negan’s motivations may still be driven by his loose allegiance to Judith, Lydia, and even Father Gabriel back in Alexandria.
Remember, in last week’s episode, Negan escaped jail and fled Alexandria because the council was split on whether to execute him for the accidental murder of Margo. The question now is whether Negan wants to get revenge on the Alexandrians for essentially driving him away under the threat of execution, or if Negan wants to prove himself loyal to the Alexandrians by breaking some heads within The Whisperer camp. The next two or three episodes will likely feature two sides of Negan fighting against themselves, as Negan weighs those competing interests.
Psychologically, it’s one of the most interesting arcs in the comics. Assuming that Angela Kang adopts liberally from the source material, it’s going to take some extra care to strike that balance. I trust that Kang can pull it off, and if we learned anything from this episode - the best of the season, so far - it’s that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is clearly up to the task.
Up until now, AMC Networks - which operates AMC, IFC, BBC America, Sundance TV and several other properties - has been something of a free agent in the impending streaming wars. The media company has been well positioned to license out its properties to the highest bidder. The Walking Dead, for instance, streams on Netflix, as does Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad; Fear the Walking Dead streams on Hulu; and BBC America will be licensing Doctor Who to HBO Max when that service arrives in May 2020.
With The Walking Dead streaming on Netflix and Fear on Hulu, some may be wondering where the new The Walking Dead spin-off - due out in the Spring 2020 - will end up? The answer is: None of the above. The spin-off, which will focus on a new generation of survivors who have spent their lives shielded from the outside apocalypse, still doesn’t have a title yet, but the series from Matthew Negrete looks fantastic and completely different from the other The Walking Dead series.
That may be why AMC has decided to keep the untitled series all to itself. During an earnings call this week, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan revealed that while licensing rights to the series would go to Amazon for international distribution, they would not be licensing it elsewhere domestically. They’re keeping it to themselves. “So domestically we will not sell the SVOD rights to this third Walking Dead series,” Sopan said in the call. “But rather the series will be used to fuel our own platforms, both streaming, as well as linear as we window it and take full advantage of the opportunities that it presents to us.”
In other words, while everyone else is moving toward streaming, AMC hopes to use the third series specifically to beef up cable subscriptions. And when Sopan says they want to use it to fuel their own “streaming” platforms, he means AMC Premiere, which is a commercial-free version of the channel available for $5 a month. The catch, however, is that in order to receive the cable-free version, one must already have a cable subscription, so there will not be anyway to see the spin-off series without subscribing to a cable service.
The deal actually makes some sense for AMC Networks, as it struck deals with Charter Spectrum to offer its subscription video on demand services, as well as AMC Premiere, through Spectrum cable. They’re also diversifying by offering niche streaming services, like Acorn TV, Sundance, and Shudder, the latter of which offers Creepshow from The Walking Dead exec producer Greg Nicotero recently renewed for a second season.
It may also be a gamble on the future of basic cable. With so many streaming options becoming available and viewers already desiring bundling options for all the streaming networks, cable television and the status quo may begin to look attractive to viewers who don’t want to bother with all that hassle. AMC seems to at least want to put one of their eggs in the cable basket. It’s also the strategy of the Peacock, NBC/Universal’s forthcoming platform, which seems to be designed to encourage viewers to continue subscribing to cable rather than a stand-alone service Comcast owns NBC/Universal, so that makes sense. Plus, if the AMC Networks can ultimately beef up subscribers to AMC Premiere, it may be able to spin it off at some point into a stand-alone streaming service if cable television ultimately bottoms out.