What has ‘The Walking Dead’ done to its best character?

A review of tonight's The Walking Dead coming up just as soon as I want to be the coffee beans…

“The Same Boat” did a lot of very smart and necessary things, continuing the creative roll Walking Dead has been on since we moved past all the stupidity of the fall half-season.

On a pure episodic level, it was a simple but tense hour of Maggie and Carol matching wits and wills against the handful of Saviors who had captured them. Keep It Simple, Stupid isn't a rule that saves this show from its worse creative impulses, but this was clean and taut and a good showcase for Melissa McBride and guest star Alicia Witt as Paula. For budget reasons, the show sometimes has to pare things down in terms of both actors featured and the scope of the story to accommodate bigger episodes like the mid-season premiere; more often than not these days, I find myself preferring the small Walking Dead outings to the big ones. The show's not great at trying to do a lot of things at the same time, but give it only one or two tasks, and it can be extremely effective.

And on the larger arc front, “The Same Boat” did some badly necessary work in establishing the Saviors as more than just the leering cartoons who tried to jack Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha a while back. Not only did we get some backstory on Paula and how she started out not too different from Carol, but we got Molly and Paula rolling their eyes at the previous Saviors appearance, suggesting those jerks, “Probably put on a big show” to scare Daryl and company, and a general sense of the entire quartet as actual people, rather than two-dimensional monsters who are there only to torment our heroes. The smug biker gang we met on the road wouldn't have been sustainable as antagonists, especially given how much they resembled various villains the show had used in the past. But more people like this – all of whom think of themselves as “Negan,” rather than the name referring to a particular leader(*) – who are more ruthless than Rick, but pragmatists on the whole in the post-apocalypse who (like the Others on Lost) think that they're the heroes of the story? Yeah, that's something the series can work with.

(*) I don't recall any of the Hilltoppers mentioning if they'd ever specifically dealt with Negan before, so having Jesus around for this one might not have been particularly useful. Also, this is a situation where a particular piece of casting news about the show has become ubiquitous enough to become something of a distraction from the idea.  

The one part of the story that didn't entirely work was Carol's newfound reluctance to kill. Though last week's episode dealt with that quite a bit, it still feels like an idea that's come out of nowhere. During all of the events involving the Wolves' invasion and Alexandria's walls toppling, Carol remained the group's most hard-core member, willing to kill anyone or anything that threatened her family, and sneering at every one of Morgan's suggestions that all life is sacred. Then there was a time jump, plus a couple of episodes that didn't feature Carol, and when next we see her, she's baking acorn cookies and angsting over her body count? It's not impossible, especially after enduring a long stretch of relative peace and prosperity, that Carol would turn inward and question some of her past actions. But it's such a sharp right turn for the show's best, most complicated character – and one whose journey from house mouse to predator was chronicled step by careful step over multiple seasons – that I feel like we needed some kind of transition from the one to the other, rather than having the questioning begin while Carol was off-screen. McBride played the hell out of what she was given here, particularly in the moments where Carol's acting started to blur with her own feelings, but it's still a jarring idea.

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

2. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with Game of Thrones, the goal is to treat The Walking Dead TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com