In between Seasons 6 and 7 of The Walking Dead, I finally found the time to watch Deadwood, the acclaimed, short-lived HBO series that helped usher in the current era of prestige television that The Walking Dead has been trying desperately to be a part of. And though Deadwood is a longstanding critical darling while The Walking Dead has been a perpetual whipping boy in the critical community, the most recent seasons of TWD have focused on the same question that consumed Deadwood for its three-season run — specifically, what does it take to make a society?
That’s an oversimplification of both shows, but to my mind, Deadwood was first and foremost about what it means to build a civilization: the myths we perpetuate, the wheels we grease, and the dirt and blood we try to scrub off the floor or otherwise hide in the process. From the onset of the Alexandria arc, The Walking Dead has been interrogating the same idea. Whether it’s Deanna’s vision for Alexandria as the start of a sustainable bit of rebuilding, or Gregory running the Hilltop as his own little fiefdom, or Negan extracting his pounds of flesh with The Saviors, The Walking Dead has been interested in what type of system, what sort of leaders and visions for the future, will prevail. All of these people, like Deadwood’s Al Swearingen, are trying to fashion a society in the midst of something approaching a state of nature, and this era of the show seems as poised as any to dig into the ways that these differing perspectives clash and conflict.
“The Well” introduces one more camp and one more perspective to the equation. It’s called “The Kingdom,” and it is governed, appropriately, by a man who calls himself “King Ezekiel.” This faux-regal gentleman speaks in an affected Medieval Times accent, keeps a pet tiger, and is prone to spout grand verbiage about his land and his people. It is King Ezekiel and his subjects, for lack of a better term, who take in Morgan and Carol after the events of the Season 6 finale.
True to form, Carol is understandably bewildered, amused, and more than a little annoyed by this pageantry, though as always, she doesn’t let on. Seeing Carol act has been one of the most enjoyable treats from this show in recent seasons. Her transformation from diffident housewife to badass warrior to self-questioning soldier is The Walking Dead’s greatest achievement, but the most entertaining offshoot of that journey has come when Carol obfuscates her true cold-blooded capabilities in the guise of the cheerful and hapless. Those moments of amusing deception add weight to the times when she drops the act, but also show her craftiness, her skill, and her wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing bona fides, as she plays the part of the sweet, unassuming lady who simply can’t believe her good fortune.
Yet, despite her feigned protestations to the contrary, Carol wants no part of The Kingdom, regardless of Morgan’s attempts to persuade her its virtues, if only as a temporary resting place. That resistance is in character for Carol. King Ezekiel seems to present his camp as a paradise, and Carol believes that no such thing can exist given the state of the world.
The subtext to her rejection is that she once thought Alexandria would be that sort of place, that you could live a life free of having to kill there, that things could start to become normal again. Then, the harsh reality that came with the falsity of that promise rained down on her with a force that made this otherwise steely individual begin to buckle. In Carol’s estimation, being with people means that their lives are your responsibility, that if you have the capability to do so, you have an obligation to defend them, maybe even kill for them. Creating a place that pretends this harsh fact isn’t true, that looks like some oasis of stability in this sea of murder and death, is nothing more than a vulgar lie in her eyes.
After all, in the episode’s chilling opening sequence, we see that she is still haunted by the memories of all the people she’s had to kill since the world fell. As Morgan and the knights(?) of The Kingdom defend her from an oncoming zombie horde, she hallucinates (or simply imagines, depending on your purview) that the undead are normal human beings, who are brutally slaughtered before her eyes.
The loss of human life casts a shadow over everything Carol sees. She has been so much a party to death and destruction, to innocents and enemies being felled by her hand, that even these snarling monsters are a reminder of lost humanity, of that which all but guarantees that the idea of a world where such violence, such moral compromises, need not be countenanced, is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy Carol once let herself believe in and she’s tasted the bitterness of that dream falling apart.
Even Morgan is starting to experience a measure of self-doubt as he begins to confront the limits of his own personal philosophy. I’ve appreciated Morgan’s pacifism, especially as contrasted with Carol’s more pragmatic view of killing, despite its lack of practicality in a world with zombies and roving gangs of bad guys, because it’s meant to be a path toward healing for him. After the tragedies Morgan’s faced, that everyone’s faced, it’s nice (and I would argue necessary) to have someone on this show who’s finding their way back to some semblance of peace and mental tranquility.
But in the Season 6 finale, Morgan violated his code against killing in order to save Carol. And while, at the time, I thought it was an example of Morgan showing that his philosophy is not so doctrinaire, that he understands there’s a time and a place for such grisly acts but that they are a last resort, the impact of having to take a life in order to save someone else’s, a burden Carol has been grappling for an entire season, is clearly weighing on him.
While I would hate to see Morgan give up his faith in his adopted way of life so quickly, that type of self-questioning is fruitful territory for The Walking Dead. Whereas Morgan was once committed enough to his beliefs to proselytize to Carol, to try to offer her a way out of her own personal darkness, here, he is reluctant to pass on Eastman’s lessons to Ben, a denizen of The Kingdom whom King Ezekiel requests he instruct in combat. Morgan saw Aikido as a way to cope, a way to find purpose in his life after the death of his wife and son, and he thought he’d found peace in the process. Now, even in these seemingly safe, beautiful, plentiful surroundings, he seems to be wondering if, as Carol seemed to tell him for so long, he’s been deluding himself.
Carol, however, is not one to be deluded. So while The Kingdom is presented as a paradise — replete with a lovely (even heavenly) choral rendition of a Bob Dylan classic played over a lovingly-shot montage to drive the edenic qualities of this camp home, — she doesn’t have to know that Ezekiel is serving his people pigs who feed on the undead or tithing to The Saviors to know that The Kingdom is not the unspoiled land of plenty it seems.
That’s the rub of the episode, however, and the thing that makes Carol willing to stay. It’s also what makes The Kingdom more than just another stop on The Walking Dead’s tour of civilizations. After confronting Carol as she tries to leave, King Ezekiel drops the act, and reveals that he’s not some madman with delusions of grandeur; he’s a self-aware, regular guy trying to give his people someone to follow and something to believe in.
That’s where the themes of Deadwood start to seep in. Carol’s big cosmic joke, her grand beef with the state of the world as it is now, is in the idea that any notion of safety or security within that world is a myth, something that tantalizes us into thinking we’re okay, when that hope is destined to be shattered, only serving to remind us how tainted and damaged we are fated to be in this new order.
Ezekiel, on the other hand, offers a different view of that myth. He acknowledges that his royal attitude is a bit ridiculous, confesses his community theater roots, and explains that the tiger comes from his days as a zookeeper, not the tall-tale origin that’s whispered around the camp. But he argues that these stories, these grand ideas built on nothing, give people something to live for, something to strive for, and something to help them to build a community, one that will hopefully, one day, be able to sustain itself without the need for such theatricality, mythmaking, or violence.
But every camp, every civilization, tells a story about itself, offering some founding principles or creation myth that helps give it direction and purpose. In the real world, as in these fictional ones, they invariably cover over the uglier or bloodier parts of our histories. But that’s what Ezekiel, with eyes wide open, wants to give the people who follow him, in the hopes that they can use it to live freely, to start something that might be able to outlast them, to obviate the harshness of this world. He offers the same thing to Carol–a lie agreed upon–and hopes that it may be something to help her find a path to peace and growth and perhaps even her own measure of stability.
So the final images of the episode are of Morgan setting Carol up in an old house near the camp, something that allows her to be away and alone, but close enough to where she can be a part of The Kingdom, part of that community, when she wants to. It’s a ray of sunshine for Morgan, a respite from the idea that his friend Carol is content to pursue her solitary death wish and a confirmation that maybe his sentiments have gotten through to her. It’s a hopeful beat for Carol herself, allowing her to find, at least, a half-measure against the ghosts of the dead that seem to follow her wherever she goes and the notion of cutting herself off from civilization entirely. And while King Ezekiel standing on her doorstep and offering an apple is, perhaps, a bit on the nose, it’s a symbol of the episode’s theme that paradise may be out of reach, but that maybe the people in the ashes of the world can still gain something from the idea of it.
For however much fans and critics alike were turned off by the bleak brutality of The Walking Dead’s season premiere, “The Well” offers an antidote, a chance for its most and best developed characters to replenish the parts of themselves that have been drained by the horrors they’ve been confronted with. As it was for the denizens of Deadwood, the episode posits that there can be something wonderful, something strengthening, something bright and communal and healing, that can emerge from so much muck and hardship, even for those who believe themselves to be beyond redemption.