Warning: Major spoilers for those who have not watched episode 8.03
Truth be told, being that I have been a viewer of The Walking Dead since the very beginning, I was beyond ecstatic last week when the “familiar face” teased in the episode synopsis turned out to be Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja). It’s the single loose end left from season 1, and what a great twist for the character to show back up now AND be on the opposing side in the war against the Saviors. In my mind, this was a fantastic opportunity to tie back to the beginning of the series and what made the show a huge success in the first place, not to mention provide great character development potential for both Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Morales as they struggle to reconcile the polar opposite directions they’ve gone over the years. Needless to say, I was excited and held high hopes. Then, I got the screener for tonight’s episode this past Wednesday, and all that excitement quickly turned into anger, disappointment, and frustration (as I’m sure the die-hard fans of the series are feeling tonight).
Before discussing that stinker of a Morales arc, let’s touch on some of the good points of the episode because hey, there is never a completely bad hour of The Walking Dead. As we have learned since the character made his highly-anticipated return at the end of season 5, if there is ever a sub-par episode of The Walking Dead, you can count on Morgan and Lennie James’ performance to pull it out of the rut. Such is the case tonight, as the actor gives another stellar performance and the Morgan scenes are some of the best of the entire episode.
Given that Jared is among the Saviors captured at the satellite outpost in last week’s episode, we can safely bet the trip to the Hilltop is going to be a pretty tense one, especially for Morgan. Jared, of course, continues to press Morgan’s hot buttons and even goes as far as to taunt him when he realizes that Morgan’s armor is noticeably smaller and thus, likely Benjamin’s. Another fight nearly erupts, and once again, it’s Jesus (Tom Payne) who intervenes. It doesn’t take a genius to realize there’s going to be a boiling point, and that comes when part of the horde from the Sanctuary rolls down the hill adjacent to the highway they’re travelling on. Several Saviors are killed, but several others use the chaos to make a run for it and try to escape (which is kind of stupid given they’re tied together with rope and are thus sitting ducks). Well, Morgan notices it and takes off into the woods after them. Once he catches up with them, Morgan doesn’t hesitate for a moment and quickly executes one of the Saviors. And, he’s about to continue with the others when Jesus shows up and once again, grabs his arm and stops him.
Well, that’s the boiling point I was talking about, and Morgan has had about enough. Morgan then takes on Jesus, and here we have a fantastic fight sequence between 2 of the most skilled fighters on the show. Care to take a guess who wins? I actually was betting on Morgan, but nope, Jesus is victorious after finally disarming Morgan of his stick and knocking him to the ground. However, that’s not really what makes this scene so compelling — it’s what happens afterwards. After Jesus returns the stick to Morgan and extends his hand to help him up, Morgan takes the opportunity to grab the stick and point it at Jesus’ neck. Holy crap times 10! At this point, whether it’s because of Jesus being a pacifist or because Morgan realizes he is so “damaged,” our favorite gladiator with the stick makes the shocking decision to leave the group. Don’t get me wrong, I have every confidence Morgan will eventually return, especially after Rick returns and gets involved, but that doesn’t make the move any less surprising.
Another fantastic part of the episode are the super-emotional scenes between Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson). For those who are fans of the comics, you probably saw Eric’s death coming from a mile away, thus paving the way for Aaron and Jesus’ relationship. And, even if you’ve never read a single Walking Dead comic, you still probably could guess that given his injuries from last week’s episode, he probably wasn’t going to make it. One of the best parts of these scenes is the realization of just how far the Eric character has come since we first met him in season 5. Remember the recruitment scene when he fell and broke his ankle? Since then, there haven’t been many episodes that have featured the character, and he only reemerged recently at the end of season 7 as a potential “voice of reason,” in trying to persuade Aaron not to join Rick in the fight against the Saviors. But, look at him now. He fought very courageously last week, and even now as he knows he’s likely facing death and this is his last moment with Aaron, he makes every bit count.
Eric, I’m so sorry — Aaron
Were you the one who shot me? — Eric
I pulled you into this, you didn’t want to fight — Aaron
Until I did. You need to help them, you need to go. I can bleed just fine here on my own — Eric
I’m not leaving you — Aaron
Don’t be an idiot, they need you. Aaron, look at me. You know I love you. You know I’m right — Eric
Of course, the real tear-jerker comes at the very end. Aaron does leave Eric under a tree and goes back to fighting, only to return later and find him gone. There’s a massive amount of blood on the tree and Eric’s gun is still there, and with that, I think we all just knew. Our fears are confirmed when Aaron looks off in the distance and sees the love of his life among the undead, already reanimated as a walker. Of course, Aaron is inconsolable but at the same time, wants to go and put him down. However, Scott shows up and says they have to leave, and so, walker Eric is just left roaming out there on the countryside. Will we see zombie Eric again? Probably, if for no other reason other than the angst. The good news is while Eric’s death is incredibly sad, one positive thing does come out of it. After Rick and Daryl have cleared the church outpost, Rick emerges with the baby from last week, Gracie. At first, Rick asks Tobin to take her since he has a stop to make (to pay a visit to the Jadis and the Heapsters maybe??), but then, Aaron — obviously grieving — asks if he can take Gracie to the Hilltop, as he and Eric were planning on going there anyways to give Maggie an update. Seeing how important this appears to be to Aaron, Rick agrees. Given what I said earlier about Aaron and Jesus, should we expect a 2-men-and-a-baby arc sometime later in the season? It’s a bit of a deviation from the comics, but my money’s definitely on it.
Finally, let’s talk about the episode’s opening sequence. One of the things I will say The Walking Dead is very good at is creating very big and very memorable openings. Remember the episode opener from last season of the folks from the Kingdom and the single melon? We don’t learn until much later in the episode that the melon was the reason Benjamin got killed, and Richard instigated the entire thing. Or, what about the opening of the season 6 premiere, with the huge ravine horde and Rick giving one of his inspirational speeches? The opening of tonight’s episode is no exception, except this time it’s Ezekiel (Khary Payton) who’s front-and-center.
They are coming for us. Coming for us at this very moment. A powerful force, bloodthirsty rogues, unrepentent cut-throats bent on nothing short of our petilous destruction. Yet I smile. Yet Carol smiles — Ezekiel
They probably have numbers, but we have strategy — Carol
I’m binding a hoop to my heart, perhaps unwisely. But, we have come this far. All of us, still here. If we follow this plan, if we keep to our training, if the fates continue to shine brightly upon us, allowing us this dream, we will lose not one of our ranks. We will lose not one of our ranks — Ezekiel
We then get to see what Carol (Melissa McBride) means by “strategy.” In a fantastic action sequence, one group of Kingdommers purposely walk into a trap by the Saviors, and it’s quite convincing. Heck, even Ezekiel has this look of fear on his face when they’re confronted by the Saviors, and I was actually fooled into believing they were surrounded and about to be captured. Well, then, the rest of the group opens fire, and in a matter of minutes, every last Savior is dead. Damn. Pretty neat trick.
The downside is something I mentioned in my review of last week’s episode — it’s okay to be confident, but it’s another to be cocky. And, I’m sorry, Ezekiel, you are just way too cocky, and now, your people are about to pay the price. In a very nice tieback in the final scene of the episode to the opening, the group attacks and appears to have taken out another Savior outpost, but it seems Ezekiel is somewhat negligent and doesn’t do enough recon. As a result, he overlooks a group of snipers that had been hiding in one of the buildings, and by the time he does see them, it’s too late. Ezekiel is able to yell out a warning, thus giving several Kingdommers — including Daniel — enough time to rush and protect the King, but they are shot multiple times in the process. So much for “losing not one of our ranks.”
Remember when Jesus was first introduced back in season 6 and his hilarious interactions with Rick and Daryl? Then, him breaking free at Alexandria and barging in on the very nude Rick and Michonne while they were sleeping? That is the Jesus I know and love, and it’s definitely not the Jesus we’ve seen since the beginning of the season. My question is when exactly was it revealed that Jesus is a pacifist and doesn’t believe in “executing” unarmed Saviors? I don’t know about everyone else, but I don’t remember getting that memo. But, one thing is for sure — it’s becoming extremely annoying. Of course, I’ve already mentioned the big Jesus and Morgan fight scene, and it ending with Morgan leaving the group. However, Jesus’ haughty attitude continues and in fact, gets worse once they finally arrive at the Hilltop.
With Jesus arriving with all of the Savior prisoners, it then turns into one big pissing contest between him and Tara (Alanna Masterson). In last week’s episode, Tara was all but certain that once Rick gets involved, he’ll listen to her, and the prisoners will be executed. I’m not 100% sure she’s right about that, but I could see it happening. However, she’s at the Hilltop now, Rick’s not there, and this is Maggie’s show. And, unfortunately, Tara doesn’t have the relationship with Maggie that Jesus does, and so, in the end, it’s no surprise that Maggie allows the prisoners to stay. The only condition is they can’t be inside the walls since they have women and children living there, and so, Jesus compromises by saying he can keep them locked in 2 trailers in the back. Sounds great and what possibly could go wrong? Yeah, you and me too. No doubt it’ll end with another shitshow, no thanks to “the pretty boy with the hair.”
Finally, let’s talk about Father Gabriel and Negan, or actually the lack thereof. The ending of the premiere and the now-infamous “shittin’ pants” scene are probably what most fans will remember the most about the season-opener. What’s more, it’s such a big scene that it was featured heavily in the Comic-Con trailer released back in July. But, what have we heard from these 2 characters since then — crickets. Absolutely nothing. That’s not cool, folks. In fact, the only other time Gabriel has even been mentioned since the ending of the premiere is in tonight’s episode when Maggie questions Gregory (Xander Berkeley) about why he has Gabe’s car. As I suspect most of the fans will agree, that is way too long. I realize the writers have multiple groups at multiple locations to juggle, but the Gabriel and Negan arc is pretty important, and it’s one that shouldn’t take a backseat and dragged on.
Now, on to the main talking point of this review — that lame-ass Morales stunt.
So, you’re the Rick from Alexandria. This whole time it was you. Did you hear what I just said? I saw it all in the mirror through the open door. And, it wasn’t any kind of blast from the past. As soon as I saw you, I knew you made the same trip as me, from there to here. Shit, well, I guess we’re not the same guys we used to be because you’re a monster. I called them back because you’re a prize, Rick. We’ve been told we don’t kill you, the widow, or the King. Not if we don’t have to. So, why are you here, Rick? I know you, just like before. You’re always the guy willing to rush in, but why? What is it you’re looking for? Nothing to say, huh? It doesn’t matter, not anymore. Not for you, or anyone else you brought in here because what’s left of my people, they’re coming. Then, we’ll get you to Negan, or we won’t. Either way, we’re going to settle your shit, Peaches — Morales
Is your family here? — Rick
We never made it to Birmingham. They didn’t — Morales
I’m sorry — Rick
Really, Rick? — Morales
I am. I’ve lost people too. Lori. Shane. Andrea. Glenn. Negan killed him. Forced him to his knees, bashed his head in right in front of me, in front of his pregnant wife! — Rick
He had a wife?”— Morales
Not before. He met her— Rick
In this? — Morales
Yeah. In this. She’s the widow. Are you Negan too? — Rick
I lost my family. I lost my mind. I was in a tow-trailer, waiting to become nothing. The Saviors, they found me. They thought I was worth a damn. Worth bringing back with them. So, yeah, I’m Negan. To make it this far, this long, I had to be. I had to be something. Just like you — Morales
We’re not the same — Rick
How’s that? — Morales
Well, look at you! — Rick
Look at me? Look at us, Rick. Look at us. We’re two assholes who’ll do what we have to just to keep going. And, the only difference is I’m the one holding the gun. That doesn’t make me any worse than you, Rick. That just makes me luckier because let’s face it. If it wasn’t me, if it was you holding the gun, I’d be brains out on the floor right now — Morales
You don’t know that — Rick
And, you do?! Huh? — Morales
I know I wouldn’t want to — Rick
Come on. Is that the best you can do? — Morales
I’d at least try to find another way — Rick
Yeah, why? Because we knew each other for a few days back at the start? You wanna know what I think? I think you can talk all you want, you can say all the words, Lori, Shane, Andrea, Glenn. They’re all dead. And, somewhere along the way, Officer Friendly died right along with them. Just like I did. With them — Morales
Now, isn’t this exchange just great! For those who have been a Walking Dead fan since the Pilot, this has to be heaven. In just 15 short minutes, most of the questions about Morales had been answered — what happened to his family, how he ended up with the Saviors, and how his heart had hardened and he morphed into someone who was just out for himself. A far cry from that day in season 1 when Morales declined to go with Rick to Fort Benning and they parted ways. Because of such a huge loss and his having no one left to serve as a support group after the death of his family, Morales lost his humanity, lost himself. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar? As I had mentioned in my review of last week’s episode, the very same thing happened with Morgan. Even after the death of his wife, Morgan remained hopeful because he still had his son, Duane. But, when we learn that Duane had been killed — and killed by Morgan’s zombified wife whom he couldn’t bear to put down — in the season 3 episode “Clear,” Morgan, too, became someone else, just a shell of his former self.
However, this doesn’t mean everything is one-sided, and Morales is “evil” while Rick is “good.” It’s all relative, and it goes back to my argument when we are introduced to Negan (Jeffrey Dean-Morgan) for the first time in the season 6 finale. My guess is 80%+ of the fandom sees Negan as the “monster,” and Rick as the knight in shining armor trying to save his people and save the world from the tyranny of the Saviors. While there is some truth in that, the fact remains that Rick attacked the Saviors multiple times with no provocation and ended up killing close to 40 of Negan’s men before that infamous Lucille scene. That being said, who is the “monster” here? That’s the question Morales poses, and it’s a very good, philosophical one.
Anyways, Morales had already said that Rick was a “prize,” and so, he had no intention of shooting him. So, Rick was never in any real danger, and if someone could just disarm Morales, that would have been an effective solution. But, Daryl F*ckin’ Dixon (Norman Reedus) shows up and doesn’t hesitate, not even when Rick yells “No!! Wait!” A shot with an arrow through the brain, and one of the biggest opportunities the writers had for season 8 went up in smoke. WTH??!! What. The. Hell!!
Die-hard fans who have followed the series since season 1 have been waiting patiently for Morales’ return, or him possibly being the crossover character in Fear The Walking Dead next year in season 4 of the series. So, when Morales finally appears at the end of last week’s episode, you can imagine the chatter and excitement in the fandom. Granted, some fans who started watching in later seasons may not have known who Morales was, but for the most part, the majority of the fandom did. With Morales’ return came so much potential. When Morgan lost himself, fate had him cross paths with Eastman, and he turned around and became the Morgan we’ve grown to love today and one of Rick’s best fighters. I could see something similar happening with Morales, and it would have been some great character development to see how Rick and Morales could have changed each other — possibly for the better — in the process.
What’s more, let’s face it — the ratings of The Walking Dead have been declining slowly, and actually, last week’s episode saw a sharp drop to only 8.9 million viewers, which is the lowest since season 2. Ever since the massive ratings drop from the season 7 premiere, there’s been chatter that perhaps the writers should go “back to basics” and return to the style and general atmosphere of season 1. After all, Frank Darabont and his sheer genius in the series’ first season are what got the show off the ground and laid the foundation for it becoming such a huge blockbuster. Well, what better way to do that than to bring back one of the original season 1 characters! The writers did that, and then, they immediately torpedoed that brilliant idea with a single arrow. What a shame. What a waste.
So, aside from being utter idiots, why, oh why, would Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, and the rest of the writing team pull a stunt like this? I mean, why in the effin’ hell bring Morales back, only to kill him off 15 minutes later? What’s the damn point of it all?! Some may say to provide “closure” and finally let the fans know what happened to the character. Another possibility is Morales and Daryl so coldly killing him were used to showcase Daryl’s PTSD. Well, I call that bullshit. It would takes some pretty sadistic (and stupid!) bastards to bring back a character, have the fans rejoice, and then, immediately give him the shaft. Instead, I think Gimple and Co. decided to do it for 2 reasons: 1) As a cheap, sleazy way to get a short-term ratings boost. Introduce Morales at the end of an episode, and just from the word of mouth, lots of viewers who may have dropped off over the years will tune in next week. Win-win! 2) To shut up the fans who have been “whining” about Morales and his possible return for years. It’s no secret that Robert Kirkman and the other Executive Producers troll the various Walking Dead forums and social media groups, and so, they know how passionate some fans are about Morales returning to the show. So, to quiet them, they decide to bring the character back, but then, immediately kill him. Yeah, everyone, let’s call this for what it really is — it’s a gigantic “Fuck you” to some of the most loyal fans of the Walking Dead series.
Am I mad? Am I disappointed? You bet I am. It’s no secret to the readers of my site that I love The Walking Dead, and as you probably can guess, it just pains me to see the show gain so much momentum like it has with the first two episodes of season 8 only to pull an amateurish stunt like this that basically reverses the entire thing. And, it pains me even more to write a somewhat negative review for the series, as I can count on one hand how many episodes I have given below a “B+” rating since I started cover the show several years ago. Now, for the big question: can the show recover from this? Of course it can, but it had better be quick. The ratings are currently in a free fall, and while I would have never used the “C” word in the same sentence as The Walking Dead a year ago, well, this week I just expanded my vocabulary.
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
Critic Grade — C+
Geeky computer and math nerd by day and TV fanatic by night. My beats are The Walking Dead, The Strain, Person of Interest, Z Nation, and anything that most people would call freaky. Editor-In-Chief and Lead Writer of TVGeekTalk.com