Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead left us on a massive cliffhanger.
After revealing his true/brutal nature, Carlson and a small group of Commonwealth troopers took over the Riverbend community at Lieutenant Governor Hornsby‘s behest. Hornsby and Carlson believed that Riverbend was responsible for raiding a weapons convoy from the Commonwealth, which is fair since their deceased leader Ian (who Carlson executed) was all types of crazy. The more we learn about them, however, the more it appears that they really didn’t do it.
As Carlson began ruthlessly executing anyone he found, Gabriel, Negan (who’s apparently part of Riverbend now), and Annie helped many of the remaining community members stay hidden while devising a way to fight back. Meanwhile, Maggie, Aaron, Lydia, and Elijah arrived and began a stealth counterattack of their own.
This week, one of the many fallouts from this incident ends up giving Negan the world’s most uncomfortable babysitting job. We also check in with Rosita and Daryl, who are put in the unfortunate position of doing a risky job for Sebastian.
As always, the recap portion of this review will contain plenty of spoilers. The sequence of events has also been streamlined for the sake of clarity.
Balancing the Scales
The episode opens with Carlson using a long range radio to tell Hornsby that Riverbend is officially secure. His team still hasn’t found the missing weapons yet, but the former CIA operative is confident they will. After signing off, a trooper informs him that two squad members inside the building have been taken out.
Our point of view then switches to Team Hilltop. As the group moves through the apartment complex, they can hear Riverbend residents screaming before they’re gunned down by Commonwealth soldiers. During their sweep, the group enters an apartment that just happens to be where Annie is hiding. After a brief standoff, Negan shows up and finds himself in the odd position of deescalating a situation.
Once everyone calms down and realizes they’re on the same side, Negan leads them to a secret room, where they’re surprised/relieved to find Gabriel along with many other Riverbend residents. The good vibes quickly dissipate when Aaron accuses Annie and her people of stealing the Commonwealth’s weapons. Annie and Negan insist they didn’t, but he isn’t convinced — mostly on account of their late leader Ian being the type of guy who collected human skulls.
Maggie puts a stop to things by declaring that their top priority should be getting the Riverbend people out of the apartment complex. Annie refuses to leave, though, insisting that they find/rescue everyone else hiding throughout building. She then instructs Negan to protect the others and leaves with Maggie to go kick some ass.
While everyone waits for Maggie and Annie to return, Lydia takes the opportunity to chastise Negan for leaving without saying goodbye. Negan responds that he left because that’s what was best for everyone.
He then drops a big ole’ bomb by revealing that he and Annie are married.
After a moment of appropriate shock, Aaron says that it makes sense for Negan to be part of a group whose leader put human skulls on a shelf. Negan counters that he’s the one who showed up to Riverbend with stormtroopers. Gabriel tries to claim that the Commonwealth is different, but Lydia shuts that down immediately. The events taking place around them all but confirm that that they want to swallow up other communities.
*Side Note: Lydia also says that the Commonwealth are like the Whisperers with different masks, but that feels like quite a stretch. Aside from outliers like Carlson, Hornsby, and Sebastian, the Commonwealth is filled with mostly good people. The average Whisperer, on the other hand, was a depraved psychopath.
Their discussion is interrupted when Annie radios in to say they have a clear window to move everyone. As the group gets going, Negan starts to tell his wife that he’s worried about her being near Maggie. After Annie assures him that she’ll be fine, he looks outside and sees something that makes him utter “Oh s***.”
Turns out little Hershel stowed away in his mom’s truck, which was found by one of the Commonwealth soldiers.
The soldier drags Hershel inside, yanks his hat off, and barks at him to stay put. He then starts to radio into Carlson, but is interrupted when Negan brains him with a crowbar before impaling his throat with it.
Meanwhile, Annie and Maggie take cover inside an apartment. When Maggie notices Annie eating ginger, she admits that it’s due to being recently pregnant (which helps with pregnancy-induced nausea). She also tells her that the child is Negan’s.
In case that wasn’t enough awkwardness for you, Negan radios in to tell Annie about finding Hershel. Maggie understandably freaks out at the thought of her son being with the man who killed her husband. She says she’s coming to them, but Negan counters that they need her to remain on mission. He also assures Maggie that anything that happens to Hershel will have to happen to him first.
Annie sees Maggie’s distress and assures her that Hershel is in good hands. Maggie responds by revealing that Negan is the man who killed her son’s father.
Surprisingly, Annie replies that she’s aware of Negan’s many past atrocities, including Glenn‘s murder. Like most people (including her), he did awful things to survive in this world. The man he is now, however, deeply regrets those actions and is trying to be better.
He will also do whatever is necessary to protect Hershel.
Speaking of that, it doesn’t take long for Hershel to figure out who Negan is. Upon realizing this, he picks up a gun and points it at him. Negan tells the child that he has every right to kill him for what he did, but firing a weapon right now would also alert the Commonwealth troopers to their location.
Negan’s words end up being enough to make Hershel give the gun over to Lydia and walk away. After the boy leaves, Negan struggles with a renewed sense of guilt over what he took from Maggie and her son.
*Side Note: My very brief description of this scene doesn’t do justice to how incredibly tense and powerful it was to watch.
Meanwhile, Maggie and Annie duck into another apartment just as Carlson and a quartet of troops murder one of the residents. As they march by, Carlson informs them that the building is to be burned to the ground if they don’t find the weapons within the next hour.
Once they’re gone, Maggie radios the others to say she has a plan.
Elsewhere, Carlson and his goon squad begin searching the apartment that contains the secret room where Negan and everyone else is hiding. Just as he’s about to discover them, they hear commotion overhead. Carlson assumes (correctly) that’s its Gabriel and commands everyone to follow him to the roof. Sure enough, they find Gabriel and Aaron and hold the pair at gunpoint. Just as Carlson is about to kill them, Elijah sneaks up and begins hacking everyone up. While that awesomness is happening, Aaron uses the distraction to knock Carlson’s gun out of his hand.
The stunned commander calls on the radio for help only to hear the rest of his troops being slaughtered by Maggie and the others.
*Side Note: So Maggie’s plan was for Aaron and Gabriel to act as bait, hope that Carlson wouldn’t shoot them immediately, and let Elijah be a total badass. If only all things in life were so simple.
Realizing that he’s been defeated, Carlson attempts to negotiate for his life. Aaron provides a quick/firm answer by picking up his gun and firing at him multiple times. The shots don’t kill Carlson, but they do cause him to fall from the roof.
That also doesn’t kill him, but the reanimated corpses of the hostages he murdered last episode finally do.
Back in the Commonwealth, Daryl is having a conversation with Carol when he’s interrupted by a Commonwealth unit commander (Vickers), who urges him to get a move on. He quickly makes some lunch plans with her before stepping inside an office building teeming with other soldiers. After talking a bit with Rosita, the pair are given their patrol assignments along with the other soldiers.
As they’re heading out, they pass Sebastian, who’s regaling his girlfriend and some skeptical troopers about what a badass zombie killer he is. When Sebastian asks Daryl to back him up, he responds with sarcastic approval, causing everyone to laugh.
Turns out that the “swarm” is actually a large group of zombies surrounding the house where one of Sebastian’s friends (Cooper) used to live. Sebastian appears and tells Daryl and Rosita that they are to smear zombie guts on themselves (courtesy of a walker being led by another soldier), walk through the horde into Cooper’s house, and retrieve a crapload of money that Cooper’s dad kept locked in a panic room.
Daryl and Rosita think he’s joking, but Sebastian assures them he’s not — especially after his mom cut off his line of credit a few episodes ago.
*Side Note: Kind of weird that the Commonwealth would use standard/pre-zombie American currency instead of coming up with their own, but whatever.
As if the situation weren’t bad enough, Sebastian explains that they have to do all this without firing any shots since spent bullets are tracked. He would have Alves and Castle do it, but doesn’t think they’re capable (and clearly considers them to be his bought-and-paid-for friends). Daryl and Rosita, on the other hand, have his complete confidence
When Daryl refuses to do the job, Sebastian lightly threatens the well-being of Judith, R.J., and Coco. Daryl responds to this by grabbing Sebastian and putting a knife to his throat while Rosita aims her gun at his head. Unfortunately, Sebastian’s two goons are able to keep both of them from giving the little prince exactly what he deserves.
After a tense standoff, Rosita says they’ll do the job if it means he’ll leave them completely alone from now on. Sebastian unconvincingly agrees and gives Daryl the access code to the house’s safe room.
Rosita and Daryl slather themselves with zombie guts, cautiously makes their way through the walker horde, and make it inside the house. After coming across a freshly killed body (which probably should’ve given them more pause), the pair locates the safe room. Before they can open it, however, a pair of fresh zombies lumber up. Rosita easily takes them both out, but finally reacts with the appropriate degree of paranoia about what’s going on.
Moments later, they hear someone behind the safe room door. The frantic woman (April) explains that she’s a mother of two who was in severe debt. A man (who isn’t necessarily Sebastian) offered to clear it if she helped him get the money from inside the safe room. April and eleven other people were in the original group, but only three made it inside. When the other two turned on each other (who Rosita just put down) she locked herself inside the safe room.
Then the generator died while she was inside, trapping her there.
Daryl has Rosita stay with April and goes to look for the generator. He gets it working again, which draws some walkers that he’s forced to use his armor and a convenient baseball bat to kill.
Meanwhile, Rosita sees that the safe room lock is powered on and punches in the code. She gets the door open and goes in with Daryl following close behind. After giving Rosita a grateful hug, April shows them where the safe is. As Daryl begins working on it with a crowbar, the house’s security system goes off.
If you have a home security system that’s going off due to an electrical issue, then you how stressful that situation is. Now imagine it being exacerbated by not knowing the code and the noise attracting a horde of walkers.
Rosita gets the alarm to stop by beating the hell out of it, which is my preferred method, as well. She then helps Daryl get the safe open and dumps the cash into a bag before moving a nearby piece of furniture against what should be a pretty secure door on its own. As walkers begin beating on it, the trio begins smearing what appears to be nowhere near enough zombie guts on themselves to try and sneak past the horde.
Before they’re able to finish, the zombie growls are cut off in a hail of automatic gunfire. Once it subsides, they move the furniture and open the door to discover their saviors are none other than than Mercer and Carol.
When Daryl asks how they knew where they were, Carol explains that she contacted Mercer after he didn’t show up for their lunch date. Mercer then contacted Alves and Castle, who claimed that Daryl and Rosita were on a rogue mission to steal some money.
*Side Note: Alves and Castle suck.
Rosita then reveals the real reason they’re looting the house. Mercer’s disgust deepens when he learns why April is there and how many people from her group died. Meanwhile, Daryl drags in a freshly killed walker so everyone can smear a reasonable amount zombie guts on themselves.
Once the group is good and lathered up, Mercer begins leading them back outside. Everything appears to be going well until April gets caught on a walker and freaks out. This leads to a pretty great close quarter combat scene, but also results in April’s tragic/gruesome death.
After the group makes it back from Cooper’s house, Mercer tosses Alves and Castle the cash bag while pointing out that they could’ve used their help. The pair smugly responds that they don’t answer to him. When Carol asks how many others they sent on the same mission, Alves flippantly responds that it was “30…maybe 40.”
Upon hearing this, Mercer calmly draws his pistol and shoots both men in the head.
After taking a moment to collect himself, he tells the group that they’ll still need to pay Sebastian. Daryl begins to protest, but Mercer cuts him off, explaining that not doing so will start a fight they can’t win. He also volunteers to carry the illicit cash through the gates since the guards won’t search him.
Later, when they present the little prince with his prize, he gives them a stack of bills for their troubles. The group is nonplussed, but Sebastian is ecstatic — both over being newly flush with cash and that they’re all “friends again.” He also isn’t terribly bothered when Mercer informs him that Alves and Castle “didn’t make it.”
Hints, Lies, and Allegations Left Unsaid
After some unsuccessful attempts to hail Carlson on the radio, Hornsby starts to get nervous.
As he sits down to do some paperwork, Carol stops by to tell him about Sebastian’s psychotic antics. While Hornsby is definitely annoyed that her friends from Alexandria were involved, he doesn’t seem concerned that so many others were sent to their death just so the mayor’s prick son could have some spending money.
We then learn that it was actually Hornsby who was sending those people to their deaths.
He tells a stunned Carol that although it was for Sebastian’s benefit, the residents chosen for the mission had made bad life decisions (like accruing too much debt), thus making their lives expendable. He follows that up by explaining that when people don’t do what’s required to make the Commonwealth work, it hurts everyone.
Carol pretends to agree with Hornsby. He responds by telling her how nice it is having a like-minded person around to talk to. Once she leaves, the look on both their faces indicates that neither one trusts the other.
Back at Riverbend, Negan has a Kill Bill moment with Hershel, telling the boy that they can settle things once he’s older and has finished helping his mom rebuild Hilltop. After observing the tail end of this interaction, Maggie asks her son what Negan said to him. Instead of giving her a response, he stares past her toward Negan.
Maggie sees Aaron and Gabriel walk in asks what they’re going to do about their current predicament. No one is sure how to proceed, especially with a group of people who Hornsby is sure to go after once he learns what happened to Carlson and his soldiers. They also still have no idea what happened to the weapons.
We then flash back to two weeks ago when the weapons convoy was being raided. As most of you likely already guessed, the culprit was someone Maggie (and Daryl) should have made sure was dead when she had the chance: Leah.
Once it became clear that Riverbend wasn’t responsible for raiding the weapons convoy, Leah’s involvement was almost a foregone conclusion. That being said, the scene of her killing a terrified Commonwealth soldier was surprisingly impactful.
But even that moment couldn’t top Negan’s scenes with Hershel. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kien Michael Spiller squeezed both of their encounters for every drop of tension and heartache you could ask for, all without every straying into melodramatic territory.
Much as I loved Negan this episode, I’m still not sure how I feel about his contrived/convenient involvement with Riverbend. In fact, the entire community feels like a shifting plot device more than a fully realized group of people. How the heck does someone like Annie (who’s a great new character) end up being led by psycho like Ian? I know she said there were bad things in her past, but that doesn’t work as a good explanation.
Thankfully, the Riverbend storyline did provide us with a great villain in Carlson. Rather than drawing him out over the course of an entire season and rehashing every aspect of his character, the former CIA operative’s treachery burned hot and bright for two episodes. We got everything that was needed (including a solid exploration of his humanity) in one horrifically fantastic dose.
For proof of how great the character worked, look no further than how utterly satisfying his death was. Sure, it came about because of a stupidly easy plan, but seeing him devoured by the reanimated innocents he murdered just hours earlier was superb.
Speaking of villains, Sebastian is doing a great job of making himself unlikeable. Yes, the character hits every Evil Prince trope imaginable, but in appropriately small doses. When Sebastian does something awful, most of the fallout from his decision is observed at a distance.
In this episode, for example, Sebastian’s choices gave us the awesome heist job plotline (and its even better aftermath) before working as a bridge to Carol learning just how bad Hornsby truly is — all with the insufferable little prince providing minimal-yet-effective screen time.
Staying with this plotline, Mercer once again proved why he’s so much more than a badass zombie slayer. The clash between his upstanding character and cynical pragmatism is a battle far more interesting to watch than any of his (admittedly awesome) walker kills.
These types of conflicts are one of many reasons The Walking Dead‘s final season is shaping up to be one of its best. Tired character arcs have been renewed/refreshed via a wildly different setting and fantastic additions to the cast. When the storylines do stumble a bit (like the entire premise for the last episode), individual performances often save the day.
With “The Rotten Core,” we got both.
There are still plenty of contrived plot points and absurd moments; it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead without them. This time, however, the payoffs aren’t simple retreads of everything we’ve seen before. Instead, the characters’ lives and decisions are examined on an inevitable-yet-fascinating canvas of corrupt reconstruction. Those same narratives are then laser focused through the lens of new characters who’ve immediately captured our imaginations.
Let’s just hope Leah reappearing doesn’t mean we’re building up to yet another run of the mill revenge showdown. We all know the meeting between her and Daryl is going to happen, but it would be great to see it play out in a way that continues this season’s subversive momentum.
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