After last week’s overwritten midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, the series returned this week with one of its stronger installments. “The Lost and the Plunderers” is helmed by longtime The Walking Dead director David Boyd, who was a cinematographer before he was a director (he was the director of photography on Firefly, the first three episodes of Deadwood and most of the first season of Friday Night Lights), and it shows. The episode is well shot, more restrained than usual, and Boyd adds his own flourish, using title cards to introduce each segment of the episode, each of which revolves around a different character.
It is a successful device, but it also serves to remind viewers of how inconsistent the direction is on The Walking Dead. On a show like Better Call Saul, there are occasional flashes of the director’s personality, but the series has a consistent tone, color, and style. The Walking Dead, meanwhile, is always trying something new, based on the director. Some weeks, it’s shot like a slasher film, some weeks like a B-horror movie, and occasionally (and unfortunately) like a Lifetime melodrama. Sometimes — like last week’s episode — it’s a combination of two or more styles.
Boyd — aided by a script from Angela Kang (next season’s new showrunner) keeps things more simple and subtle. In fact, no words are spoken for the first four minutes. There’s also a scene early on where Michonne — still grieving over the death of Carl — is dispatching a crowd of walkers and viewers can sense almost exactly what is she is thinking: That these zombies used to be human beings with families, just like Carl. When a zombie’s skin is separated from its face, there’s a palpable sense of sadness to the moment.
That sadness sticks to Michonne in the next scene when she ignores a crowd of zombies and tries to extinguish a fire that’s already laid waste to a small building. She risks her life to save the shell of a building just because Carl used to sit up on its roof. That pall of grief hangs over the entire episode. It’s not the typical dread that characterizes much of The Walking Dead episodes; it’s sadness.
Later on, after Simon and the Saviors murder all of the Garbage People except for Jadis, we experience that sadness again first when Rick rebuffs a heartbroken Jadis, and again when Jadis is forced to lead her entire zombified community into a trash grinder. For fans of blood and gore, it’s a cool sequence: Scores of people are turned into hamburger meat, but Boyd is also able to capture the ache Jadis feels as she watches the ground-up remains of all of her friends being spit back out on the conveyor belt. Jadis is mourning — she’s lost her way of life, and she’s even speaking normally again — but that grief may soon turn to anger, and when it does she may pose a bigger threat to both Rick and Negan than they do to each other. I can envision a scenario, in fact, in which Negan and Rick are forced to unite to take care of a common threat, a monster they created together.
The heart of the episode, however, takes place in an exchange between Negan and Rick over walkie-talkies, and it’s one of the best-handled sequences in eight seasons of The Walking Dead. It sees Negan take back the moral high ground from Rick, and much of Negan’s speech echoes what Shane told Rick before Rick killed him.
“You failed. You failed as a leader, and most of all, you failed as a father,” Negan tells Rick with a speech that must have reminded a stunned Rick of what Shane told him before he died: “I don’t think you can do it, Rick,” Shane had said. “I don’t think you can keep them safe … I’m a better father than you, Rick. I’m better for Lori than you. It’s ’cause I’m a better man than you, Rick.”
Had Shane survived and Rick had died in that confrontation, would Lori still be alive? Would Carl? Those thoughts are probably inescapable for Rick right now, who is wrestling more than ever over the decision to kill Negan out of anger or concede that Negan is right. That Carl was right. That it’s time to put down his weapons and come to a peace, that it’s time to let Negan “save” him and all of Alexandria.
“It’s time,” Negan tells him. “Do not let any more of your shit decisions cost you to lose anyone else you love. That garbage, that sticks with you forever. Just like Carl will. Hell, I’m feeling it, and I’m going to be feeling it for awhile. You could have just let me save all of you.”
Negan may be gaslighting Rick to some degree, but he really did care about Carl, and Carl respected Negan enough to leave a note for him. That must hurt Rick’s pride more than anything else. His dead son had a bond of sorts with Rick’s mortal enemy. The question moving ahead, however, is whether Rick will act from a place of pride or if he will swallow it and act in accordance with what’s best for Alexandria. What’s clear is that Rick has a lot of work ahead of him if he expects not only to win the All Out War but take back the moral high ground.
— Negan is also likely to punish Simon harshly for wiping out the Garbage People after specifically being asked not to. Does Simon think that Negan will never find out? Simon may make a run at Negan himself, if only to save himself from Negan’s wrath, which makes him a potentially bigger threat than Negan at the moment.
— Elsewhere, there are no victories in Oceanside, either. Cindy decides to spare Aaron and Enid after Enid killed her grandmother, but the Oceansiders continue to refuse to join the war effort. However, Enid is not done trying to convince Cindy to join the war effort. Enid, by the way, doesn’t yet know about Carl, and she’s going to be crushed.
— The gun that Rick hangs on Carl’s gravemarker was an homage to the police cap that Rick hangs on Shane’s gravemarker in Issue #7 of The Walking Dead comics.
— Next week, the action moves to Maggie and the Hilltop, as well as the remaining Alexandrians, who will have to walk through a zombie-filled swamp to get to their new home on The Hilltop.