The Walking Dead: the Pain of a Righteous Kill in “Not Tomorrow Yet”


There has been a great deal of death on The Walking Dead over the years. We’ve seen characters take out hordes of zombies, roving marauders, and even their own as a necessary if-bloody kindness when circumstances require it. But very very rarely has the series shown our heroes as the aggressors in a life-or-death situation.

That’s what made “Not Tomorrow Yet” so interesting and so novel, especially for a series already in its sixth season. Many episodes of the show have examined the morality of killing — when it’s justified, when it’s morally dubious, and how those standards change in the ashes of the world. But it’s never shown “the good guys” engaging in what amounts to a preemptive strike before.

It is, in a word, troubling, even when on paper it makes sense. It’s uncomfortable, even when the audience, by dint of affection and perspective, is on the side of the people doing the killing. It’s meant to be. The Walking Dead has paid lip service to the moral gray areas that emerge when having to decide whether to take a life in something approaching a state of nature, but rarely has it confronted these ideas as directly as it does here.

It’s telling that the closest thing we’ve seen to the kind of preemptive strike that Rick & Co. unleash on The Saviors here was The Governor’s assault on the prison in “Home” from Season 3.  Even then, The Governor had some motivation after Rick’s group had snuck into Woodbury and gotten into a firefight with his men. (Though it could be argued that Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham’s run-in with Negan’s group in “No Way Out” offers Rick a similar justification.) There, The Governor’s actions were portrayed as cruel, as craven, as something that makes Andrea begin to doubt the goodness of her companion.

 

Half Liam Neeson. Half Conan O'Brien.

 

And yet here, it’s Rick’s group attacking without any real provocation. It’s Rick giving the speech to his band of survivors that they need to strike before a potential rival decides to strike first, that it’s in their interests to do even if it feels uneasy. It’s Rick who startles Heath with how brutal he can be. This time, it’s our heroes who mount a surprise attack on a group of people they’ve never even met, let alone talked to.

The sequence where they actually infiltrate The Saviors’ compound is harrowing, both from an ethical standpoint and a purely visceral one. I’ve said before that The Walking Dead often tells communicates its ideas better with images than with words; the show lived up to that billing in “Not Tomorrow Yet” with the tightly shot-and-edited sequences at the compound.

There was an acute tension in the air when Andy stood anxiously in front of the two guards while they examined the faux-head of Gregory. Then, it deflated perfectly with the dark comedy of a one of the guards using the severed head as a puppet, before Rick and his soldiers methodically take both of the guards out to ratchet the tension up once more. (Despite the ethical conundrums and heavy thematic material, there was a surprising amount of solid comedy to the episode, in moments like this and in the awkward humor of Eugene asking Rosita about Carol’s cookies at a very bad time.)

But from that moment on, Rick’s crew moved with precision through the compound. The crackerjack sequences in this portion of the episode showed how scarily effective the group had become in their seek and destroy mission. Director Greg Nicotero does a masterful job in these scenes especially. There’s a tremendous pacing to the attack that never departs from the intensity of the moment, even in a mostly one-sided fight, while still finding time to let the audience breathe between big confrontations and show the surprises and escalation of the conflict.

That part of the episode also includes the most striking scene of “Not Tomorrow Yet”. In a wordless sequence, Glenn and Heath enter a room where two of the Saviors lie sleeping. Glenn kneels over one of them and holds his knife aloft. He tears up; he struggles, but eventually he plunges his weapon into his erstwhile enemy.

 

The cost of war.

 

Then, although Glenn is clearly devastated by what he’s done; he stops Heath from performing the same horrible act to the other sleeping individual in that room. The implication is that after Glenn and Heath’s earlier conversation about having to kill another human being, and the attendant fear and trepidation they shared, Glenn wants to spare Heath the pain, the stain on one’s soul, that Glenn himself just endured, even if it means doubling down on having to commit the grisly dead himself.

It’s a powerful scene, one of the most captivating and poignant of the entire series. In truth, there are plausibility problems with it. It strains credulity that Glenn and Heath could avoiding waking up their prey when entering the room no matter how quiet they attempted to be. Glenn would presumably also have to use much greater force when stabbing his targets. And the fact that their enemies died instantly without a sound while being stabbed in their sleep has no basis in reality. But as I’ve said before, The Walking Dead is a show that runs on emotional truth rather than logical truth, and the performances of Steven Yeun and Corey Hawkins are so affecting, and the direction of the scene is so well done, that the lack of verisimilitude hardly matters, especially in the moment.

That one scene sums up the show’s exploration of the thorny ethical issues in “Not Tomorrow Yet.” When I wrote about The Hateful Eight, I discussed the way the film examines the concept of when lethal force is justified, and how that idea changes based on what team or tribe a person finds themself on; this episode treads into similar thematic territory. Our heroes seem more like butchers than warriors, and the only thing that seems to keep them from crossing a moral event horizon is that we’re already on their side. We know them; we like them (or most of them), and the folks on the other side of the line are strangers.

But while we’ve seen Rick and his crew kill before, it has almost always been in self-defense, always in the heat of battle. Killing a man in his sleep, a man who’s done nothing to you, who simply poses a future threat, feels different, feels wrong. It feels like the kind of moral calculation that Shane would have made. It clearly disturbs Glenn in that moment and gives him pause about the path that Rick so confidently set their band of merry men on.

 

In fairness, Shane was just practicing for when he would become The Punisher.

 

Suddenly it hits — beyond what our heroes heard from a group of people they barely know (who are, it should be noted, led by an unsavory prick and guided by a man who they met when he stole from Rick and Daryl), Glenn and the rest of his compatriots have next-to-no basis for believing that the individuals they’re killing are genuinely bad people. Lying there, motionless on their beds, they just seem like fellow survivors, the same as anyone. At best, there are two sides to the story, and Rick and Maggie only heard the half of it. But their needs and the needs of the people they protect mean that’s enough for them to unleash an unprovoked, lethal force, to kill by a under the aegis of a much less direct form of necessity than the kind that normally motivates the lead characters in this show.

But then the episode muddies the water further. After Glenn kills the second sleeping Savior, he looks up and the camera pans across the man’s collection of photographs of bodies of the people (or walkers, it’s not clear) that he’s apparently shot or bashed through the head.

It’s morbid; it’s striking, and it’s a bit disturbing. It speaks poorly of the character of the man that Glenn just killed. But I don’t think it’s meant to make the audience see that killing as any more honorable. Instead, it’s meant to underscore the complexity of the ethical issues at play here. The picture The Hilltop brain trust paints of The Saviors makes the killing seem righteous, but the manner of it, the defenselessness of their enemies, makes it feel wrong. And yet, those gruesome photos, which imply the harshness of these men who died at Glenn’s hand, suggests that as disquieting, maybe even unjust, as these kills feel, they may yet be for the greater good. You just don’t know. Things are not as simple as pure right and wrong, and that that fact makes good men like Glenn having to confront what it takes to survive in the next world all the harder.

And Carol, who is conflicted in her role in this assault, is on the other side of that moral quandary. She too has become scarily effective at killing, but she’s now feeling the weight of that, of the lives lost and listed on her ledger. The Walking Dead has been setting up this inner conflict for Carol since the beginning of Season 6, and her moments here serve that conflict well.

The cold open (a segment which has been one of the best parts of The Walking Dead lately) that depicts Carol attempting to reestablish her shrinking violet bona fides with the Alexandrians by way of some Macgyver’d cookies. From the beginning of that sequence, which shows Carol flirting with Tobin, barely suffering Morgan, and offering up a small bit of penance for the dead young man she feels she frightened into oblivion, “Not Tomorrow Yet” plays up the fact that Carol is having trouble dealing with the number of names on her kill list.

 

Coming up on the next episode of "Leave it to Zombeaver!"

 

I wish I could unpack her sweet, earnest scene with Tobin as well as it warrants. But for now all I can say is that Carol has been a paragon of unexpected strength for a long time now. Tobin recognizes that; he sees through the facade of the diffident homemaker and respects what Carol is capable of. He calls her a mom, not as something meant to minimize or patronize her, but as an honorific, as a term that means she’s the kind of person who protects people, who does the scary stuff so that the people who can’t handle it don’t have to.

The implication is that she stands side-by-side with soon-to-be father Glenn, who kills one of the Saviors so that Heath won’t have to. What Carol has done, what she’s had to do, is a burden. This episode makes that clear. But at the same time, it is a mitzvah — to protect people, to take on the challenging, unpleasant, perhaps even unholy deeds that need doing so that others don’t have to face them.

There’s a subtext to the scene that’s been in the background of the series for several years now. At one point in her life, Carol couldn’t do those types of things. She wasn’t strong enough; she didn’t know how to survive in this new world, and she feels like she couldn’t protect Sofia from the horrors that were out there, let alone teach her to protect herself. Carol feels the pain of that loss as a mistake she had to correct for, to become capable, to teach the children of the prison how to defend themselves, to kill without hesitation so that she could defend the people incapable of making that choice.

But it wears her down; it weighs on her, this sense of blood on her hands. Carol is still trying to protect people while allowing herself a moment of quiet comfort with Tobin or staying back to look after Maggie, another mother thrust into a dangerous situation.

Carol has become a killer, the kind that aligns with Rick’s speech about doing what’s necessary to survive. But she’s been deeper into that mindset than the rest of the folks who now call Alexandria home, and it’s dragging her down, making it harder for her to go on and make peace with the acts a harsh world requires. In an episode that explores the murky waters of when a kill is right, when it’s wrong, and when regardless of that inquiry, it hurts the soul of human being to commit a necessary-but-lethal act, Carol is ahead of the curve. She finds that those choices, and the certainty and necessity that seemed to motivate them, leave her wondering how she can live in the shadows of all the people who have died.


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