Much like the ever-mutating zombies that shuffle about in its every episode, The Walking Dead has evolved into a different beast than it once was across its ten seasons. What started out as a story about a small, nomadic group trying to stay alive in an apocalyptic world has gone on to become a larger-scale ensemble piece as Daryl, Carol and the gang attempt to create a new world among the rubble.
Some of its most memorable episodes though remain its most intimate, allowing time to explore relationships more closely and examine certain characters’ desires or fears… You know, beyond getting chomped on by a walker. Think ‘The Grove’, ‘The Same Boat’ and to some extent Rick Grimes’s last, ‘What Comes After.’
So it’s hardly surprising that when the pandemic hit, and showrunner Angela Kang and co were forced to come up with a way to continue the series without having hundreds of extras and cast members smushing up against one another, they chose to do a bunch of smaller episodes.
With no more than a handful of actors in each instalment TWD set about revisiting the tension between Maggie and Negan, what Daryl got up to during the time-jump and more. But do the bridge chapters – which, regrettably, were filmed on digital this time round and are therefore void of the show’s now-iconic grainy image – live up to the programme’s bottle episode best?
In some cases, they do. Opener ‘Home Sweet Home’ sees Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and her son Hershel return to Alexandria – bringing a new baddie with them – after several years away and boasts some wonderfully moving moments. In one instance, Kelly (Angel Theory) gives a sweet pep talk to surprisingly fearful newbie Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari) and in another Maggie sits down with Daryl (Norman Reedus) to reminisce about her late sister Beth (Emily Kinney) and husband Glenn (Steven Yeun).
‘Here’s Negan’, which is undoubtedly the entire run’s highlight, is similarly touching as it looks back on the titular bat-swinger’s last few weeks with his wife Lucille. Presumably because they are played by real-life couple Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hilarie Burton the episode is free from the awkwardness some others weren’t able to avoid, where it’s obvious the actors were having to keep their distance on set because of COVID-19 restrictions. It lends it a beautiful realism compared to its predecessors – the closeness of the people we’re watching on screen evident – as it goes from the present, to twelve years earlier (when Negan was attempting to administer chemotherapy to Lucille), to seven months prior to that when she received her devastating cancer diagnosis.
The best thing about it though is it humanises Negan, a character whose redemption arc hasn’t always seemed justified, without making him out to have ever been a great guy. Negan loved Lucille, no doubt about it, as she did him, but their backstory reveals he let her down pretty consistently. Burton is good but Morgan is brilliant, channelling a man who wants to do well but often finds himself being selfish and opting for an easier way out before the guilt sets in. It’s also the only episode out of these extras that adds real depth to what we’ve seen before, particularly when it comes to Negan’s denial and former showboating, and what is likely to come after.
Set in the days following the Whisperer War ‘One More’ – another strong instalment – centres on Ross Marquand’s Aaron and Seth Gilliam’s Father Gabriel, the latter of whom has reverted back to his old ways and abandoned all hope that the survivors will ever be able to live peacefully. “Evil people aren’t the exception to the rule, they are the rule,” he growls as the twosome guzzle the booze they’ve stumbled across in a seemingly vacant warehouse, suggesting that his crisis of faith is going to extend into the show’s eagerly anticipated 11th season.
After the pair find themselves confronted by an unstable gunman (Terminator 2 star Robert Patrick), and Gabriel’s distrust leads to him making some shocking decisions, themes of morality and the benefits of circumstance loom large, forcing the audience to wonder what kind of person they would be if they’d endured all that TWD’s characters have. It’s hardly a new thing for the show to do but it’s still just as effective and is interesting to see play out between two men who are currently at completely different ends of the spectrum.
The others, sadly, are not as accomplished. Both ‘Find Me’ and ‘Diverged’ seem to exist purely to drum into viewers that Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) are Not Getting Along – one of which, quite literally, has them share an awkward conversation about camp supplies before they stroll through the woods down different paths.
Elsewhere ‘Splinter’ explores mental health in a way we’ve not really seen the horror-drama do before as Princess (Paola Lázaro, great) loses her grip on reality while imprisoned by the Commonwealth. Because of that it’s compelling to an extent, but it’s almost too self-contained for its own good and frustratingly doesn’t progress the larger story in any significant way.
Still, Kang, the writers and the cast deserve recognition for creating these episodes in the midst of a global pandemic, and the fact that most are really good is an achievement that’s not to be sniffed at. In the decade that The Walking Dead has been on air its “smaller” episodes have typically wound up sparking some of its more harrowing upsets, so we’d all better gear up for a super-sized season 11: chances are, it’ll be quite something, whatever goes down.