In the ancient past that is the year 2008, an ambitious (and ultimately disappointing) game, entitled Spore, was released. Nicknamed “SimEverything,” the game was meant to depict the progress of life and civilization across millennia, beginning with single-celled organisms and ending with spacefaring intergalactic communities. Part of Spore’s premise involved splitting the game up into stages based on that progression, starting with ones that let your characters evolve individually and then eventually advancing to others where they would form collectives that traded and went to war with neighboring tribes.
As The Walking Dead moves toward a new stage of world building in “Knots Untie”, I like the idea of the series taking a similar path. For several seasons, we’ve seen the core group of survivors grow and change with their needs changing accordingly. In the beginning, TWD was about Rick surviving on his own and finding his family. Eventually, with the number of survivors swelling after the events of Herschel’s farm and beyond, it became about that group and finding safety and security for more people. This idea was reinforced at the prison, a setting that continued the theme of trying to find a place that offered at least temporary safety, and then struggling to protect it from both the dead and the living.
Then, with the advent of Alexandria, the show began to pivot a bit. It started to tell a story about rebuilding civilization, about creating something more sustainable that could last into the foreseeable future, not just until the prison fence collapses. Deanna had her ups and downs as a character, but she was the anchor that held this concept in place on the show. Despite the rough edges to the story of whether or not Rick’s battle-scarred companions could settle in with the very green, very sheltered Alexandrians, the conclusion was the two groups coalescing into a single community and building toward the future.
Now, with the idea that Alexandria is a more permanent home, a foothold back to civilization, the revelation that there are other, neighboring groups who are also self-sufficient, who trade and war and engage in, for lack of a better term, international relations with one another, is an interesting development within the show’s expanding scope and its exploration of the way that people try to rebuild society after the zombie apocalypse. I don’t expect the show to continue with this trajectory forever necessarily. What’s more, in prior seasons its political themes have been broad and shallow at best. But it’s a worthwhile direction to move in after the show finished a major chapter of its saga in “No Way Out.”
The future has been very much on the series’s mind since the closing moments of that episode, and that theme continued in “Knots Untie”. That’s especially true for Abraham’s story, which was the highlight of the episode.
I’ve gone back and forth on Abraham as a character. There’s a distinctiveness about him, obviously in his look, but also in his demeanor that makes him stand out in a series where a good percentage of the cast is, seemingly by fiat, little more than bland, interchangeable zombie food. And I’ll admit that, as annoyed as I was by Abraham’s philosophical doublespeak in episodes like “Always Accountable,” there’s something undeniably fun about his turns of phrase here. Whether it be his Bisquick metaphor, or his aphorism about galoshes, or just his usual poetic drawl, it kept me smiling. I was raised on a steady diet of Whedon and Tarantino, and I can only resist that type of stylistic dialogue for so long.
But more than that, what I liked about Abraham’s story is that it conveyed his conflict and his decision without making either too explicit or taking refuge in inscrutability. It’s clear that for Abraham, Rosita represents the vagabond life, the “just keep moving and fighting” ethos that gave him direction in an empty world after what happened with his family in Season 5’s “Self Help.” And Sasha, by contrast, represents the idea of putting down roots and trusting that things will be steady enough for the two of them to stop and breathe for a little while.
It’s clear that Abraham is nervous about this idea in his colorful conversation with Glen about his unborn child. Abraham is hesitant to make himself vulnerable to real feeling and real loss again. Having a child is, by definition, a prediction of some measure of safety and stability in the future, and that’s clearly an idea that Abraham has trouble with.
But then, still in the midst of his recovery from PTSD, he nearly strangles one of the men from the neighboring camp. Afterwards, the man speaks of seeing his wife and children in what he thought were his final moments, about the people in his life that really matter to him who suddenly became all the more salient. Somewhat conveniently, Abraham himself is nearly strangled later in the episode, and in artful touch, he hears Sasha’s voice in that moment of heightened focus. Eventually he laughs and leaves Rosita’s necklace behind. His decision is made, and as seen in the crooked little smile he cracks when looking at Maggie’s sonogram, he’s willing to look to the future with a measure of hope once more.
But what kind of future will that be? That seems to be the question at the heart of “Knots Untie”. The Saviors’ outpost is reputed to run on violence, threats, and intimidation. The Hilltop seems more docile, but the community seems ill-equipped to defend itself, and it’s overseen by a creep who seems like bad news. Alexandria appears to be the pragmatic middle ground, with values of community and kindness de rigueur.
And yet as much as the audience is supposed to recoil at the revelation that Negan is essentially running a protection racket against The Hilltop, our heroes are just as willing to step in and receive the same benefits in exchange for removing that threat. They essentially substitute one protection scheme for another.
It’s a move that posits the value of Alexandria’s citizens as combat and strategy. Rick points out that the only thing of value they have to offer is themselves. Their selling point is the group’s ability to survive and the fact that they’ve made it this far after wandering in the desert of the zombie apocalypse for so long. In Maggie’s scenes with the slimy, entitled, self-important Gregory, she uses that fact as her leverage. She puts forward her crew as not only the lesser of two evils, but as the best chance for Gregory to keep his people safe and together over the long term.
The execution of all of this in “Knots Untie” is far from perfect. The dialogue is clunky throughout; the conflict at the end feels like a contrived and convenient excuse to throw in some more action and move the plot forward arbitrarily; and having a guy named Jesus who’s constantly trying to keep the peace and find a better way (replete with Rick’s crew telling survivors “we’re with Jesus”) is a bit much even for the usual ham-fisted stylings of The Walking Dead.
To the same end, Maggie’s pronouncements that there will, no doubt, be a cost to going to war makes it seem like Maggie and her child are likely to be casualties in the coming war with The Saviors (It’s Jesus vs. The Saviors — get it?) meant to convey some later sense of guilt or having erred among the rest of the group. What’s more, Maggie’s scenes with Gregory didn’t communicate the power or savvy from her as a burgeoning political leader and negotiator that the show seemed to intend.
But again, I like the idea that The Walking Dead is exploring a wider world and moving its focus beyond the walls of wherever Rick and company have decided to hole up this time. I like the idea of there being different groups out there, with different ideas on how to run their collectives and different strengths and weaknesses, all destined to be measured against one another as disparate communities become something more cohesive and interconnected.
The show has attempted this same sort of thing before with The Governor’s arc, and it led to little more than a rote, disjointed build to an obvious conflict. The end of that story belied the promise of equal but distinct civilizations figuring out how to interact with one another without a larger force to keep them in line. The Walking Dead could go down that same path again in the lead up to the fight with Negan. But as the series looks toward the future, I hope it spends more time examining where Rick and his compatriots and Alexandria fit into the broader landscape of The New World that the series is slowly but surely revealing.