The Walking Dead: The Circle of Life and Death in “East”

“East” is about cycles, about chain reactions, and the way that decisions big and small come back to us in one form or another. Morgan says it himself — it’s all a circle. But whether that circle is good or bad, whether you get out of it what you put into it, remains to be seen in the world of The Walking Dead.

To Morgan’s mind, that reciprocity or karma or whatever you want to call it, can be a force for good. He decides to spare The Wolf, and to Morgan, that decision not only leads to The Wolf deciding to help to save Denise (which allowed her to save Carl), but it also led to Morgan’s philosophy trickling down to Carol, making Alexandria’s most hardened warrior so uncomfortable with the act of killing that she leaves the community so that she need not risk having to hurt anyone else.

And yet Daryl faces the mirror image of that series of events and sees a very different result. He chooses to spare Dwight, and to Daryl, that makes him responsible both for Denise’s death at Dwight’s hands, and also for the message that it sent to Carol, who had to help him bury yet another innocent person in these harsh environs, and possibly served as the final straw that drove his dear friend away. Both men made the same kind of choice, but interpret the consequences of those choices very differently.

But there’s another cycle at play in “East”. After Rick’s crew attacked The Saviors and brutalized everyone they came across, there’s a sense of foreboding that pervades the relative peace in Alexandria. The episode repeatedly shows people in the community worrying about the blowback. It seems inevitable that the remaining contingent of Negan’s followers will mount a counterattack in an attempt to return the favor. Maggie and Michonne predicted as such when they agreed to the plan in the first place. Rick and his crew started something, and the violence he dished out will no doubt come back to him as well.

In the early part of the episode, Michonne grabs an apple off the nightstand, takes a bite, and then offers one for Rick as well. It’s a heavy-handed visual metaphor whose implication is clear. Right now, Alexandria is paradise, a walled Eden where they can all be well-fed, healthy, and safe from the tumult of the world. But paradise must fall–according to the demands of both biblical precedent and serialized television–so in each moment of bliss, of peace, and of pleasure, we wait for the other shoe to drop.

But to that end, “East” feels mostly like filler. There’s a storm coming; that much is clear. But in the meantime we have to shuffle the characters around the board so that they’re in the right spots by the time it fits. So Daryl bolts off, in attempt to clean up his unfinished business; Glenn, Michonne, and Rosita go after him to try to keep him from doing something rash or reckless, and Rick and Morgan head out in search of Carol.

This being The Walking Dead, each of these events is cause for a series of long-winded, not particularly subtle conversations about What The Right Thing Is in the ashes of the world. Season 6 has done well to examine the morality of the group’s choices over the years and putting conflicting ethical stances in opposition to one another, but “East” feels like a rehash of this that dramatizes these ideas by having people blather on about them in a contrived, unnatural fashion.

There’s some juice to the exchanges between Morgan and Rick on this front, who stand as the proverbial devil and angel on either side of Carol. The two men have a history together, albeit one with large gaps, but those gaps allow each to see the way that the other has changed, to notice the big shifts in purpose and demeanor in a way that isn’t as clear when you’re close up the whole time.

Rick is pure, Shane-like pragmatism now, willing to kill at a moment’s notice whenever he feels threatened. And Morgan is unadulterated, nigh-impossible pacifism, constantly trying to find another way. Sure, their views are caricatured to a strong degree here, and the dialogue is painful at times. But there’s at least a solid foundation for the way these ideas clash, and Rick and Morgan’s debate has salience to the way Carol is being torn apart from the opposing sides of the moral spectrum that the two men represent.

The Daryl/Glenn/Michonne/Rosita contingent is less compelling in their part of the episode. Again, their arguments and actions feel largely like a repetition of themes and ideas that have been brought up and dramatized better in the past, without much of a new wrinkle beyond a slightly different backdrop for them. What’s more, their storyline involves our supposedly capable heroes getting ambushed yet again (twice actually!) and setting up a pretty standard hostage situation and firearm fake out that will no doubt be a catalyst for the events of the finale.

Despite all of this, Carol is, as always, the highlight of the episode. Credit once again belongs to Melissa McBride, who puts on yet another clinic in how to convey a character’s sense of being tortured by both what you’ve done and what you have to do. McBride does a superb job of taking the character’s genuine discomfort and distress at potentially having to take another life, and mixes it with her attempts to play the timid mouse who’s overwhelmed by the opposing threat of violence, thus leaving her to be underestimated by the people who pointing their weapons at her. It’s one of the few elements in this episode that works on multiple levels, and it’s far and away the most striking scene in “East”.

The way that Carol trembles when confronted by the prey who think themselves predators, the way the episode opens with close up shots of the aftermath of this grisly scene that lets the audience know–before a single shot’s been fired–that this doesn’t end well, the way that she pleads with her attackers that it doesn’t have to be this way, all add to the inherent tragedy of where Carol is right now.

The guns hidden in her sleeves are a neat trick–Carol is full of neat tricks that show the resourcefulness she’s developed out in the wild–but they come with a cost. She is, once more, devastated at having another set of names to add to her journal. Here is a woman who suffered mightily long before the world as we know it ended, and she faced further hardships afterward. But she responded with strength, with a commitment to doing what she had to do in order to survive and protect the people who couldn’t protect themselves. And yet, those actions have come back to her, the thoughts of the lives snuffed out by her hand continue to haunt her and seem inescapable, even as she gives up what little stability she’s managed to cobble together in an attempt to elude them.

So much of this episode is focused on when and how good can beget good, evil can beget evil, and violence can beget more violence. These are ideas TWD has explored time and time again, with enough water-treading in terms of the plot to make the entire episode somewhat tedious. But Carol’s part of it, the way that Rick’s philosophy and Morgan’s philosophy have smashed together within her and left her as the devastated, lethal woman on that road, show that pain can also beget pain. I can only hope that she finds a way forward.

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