I’m not sure I could tell you much about Tara prior to this episode. I knew that she came to the main group via The Governor. I remembered that she was among those who met up with Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene after the prison fell. I recalled that she was dating Denise. But otherwise, like so many of the show’s secondary characters, I’m hard pressed to think of any way in which she’s been fleshed out enough for her to really register for me.
That’s the strength of The Walking Dead’s increasingly sprawling ensemble and piecemeal method of storytelling. There’s room to take a character like Tara who has, until now, been a supporting player at best and give her the spotlight for an episode. It deeps the audience’s understanding of who she is and what’s at stake for her, so that the viewers care about her part of what happens when the real Negan-challenging fireworks of the season start to go off. In just a single episode, Tara went from being another nondescript survivor to high on my list of intriguing and endearing characters.
Part of that is just getting to spend more time with her. She’s funny in a way we’ve seen only in small doses in prior episodes. She has an unassuming charm and doesn’t let anything faze her. She’s quick with an amusing remark, but never seems flip about it — just casual. Tara clearly takes the situations she’s been thrust into seriously, but manages to be one of the few people on this show with a sense of humor about it at the same time. That leavens scenes where she’s the focus and gives her a distinguishing spark in episodes where she gets to be the center of attention.
But part of it comes from the strong moral choice she makes in the episode, when given every reason to make a different one. It’s heavy-handed as usual, but in “Swear,” The Walking Dead poses an ethical question about humanity, the same one it’s been mulling over since the series began. When the institutions around us fall, do we retain our humanity, our empathy, and our altruism, or do we become craven, self-interested, and apt to take what we need without regard for the consequences it will inflict on others?
That sounds grandiose (and it’s the eternal question zombie-related works have been asking since at least Night of the Living Dead), but it works here as an echo of the story TWD told last season in “Not Tomorrow Yet,” There, we saw our heroes struggling with the moral questions involved in slaughtering a group of Saviors in the middle of the night in exchange for some food from The Hilltop. Here too, there is a push and pull between characters who may want to be good but feel that the harsh circumstances of the world as it is require a certain amount of cruelty and looking out for one’s own as a form of self-preservation, and those who believe that trust and kindness are still possible, even here and now.
That comes through in the parallel plots “Swear” offers. The first is the story of Heath and Tara going on the scavenging expedition that Tara mentioned last season. On that journey, Heath is still processing the events of the raid on the Saviors’ compound. It’s become a watershed moment for him, one that threatens to change his point of view from a belief that society could be rebuilt and that others could be welcomed, to a belief that you have to do whatever’s necessary to survive. Tara tries to rebuff him on the latter point, but the thought is clearly weighing on him as the two scavenge together.
The second story involves Tara, after some initially unknown incident, being found by a pair of scouts from another group. (For the ease of reference and due to their water-adjacent camp and diet, I’m going to refer to them as the Pescatarians.) When they find her, she’s unconscious and looking worse for wear. After she wakes up, follows the scouts home and gets caught in the process, she discovers a community where trespassers are shot on site and outsiders are not tolerated.
Even in such harsh environs, however, there is a conflict between those who want to maintain these rules and those who believe there is room for kindness and empathy in their community. The camp’s leader, Natania, does not seem like a cruel Negan-style dictator, but instead explains that their harshness comes from the group’s experience with The Saviors themselves.
She tells Tara that the Pescatarians were once the Saviors’ victims, that every male above the age of ten was lined up and shot by Negan’s goons, and that their group’s efforts to run away, attack, and kill anything that even resembles a threat is an effort to ensure that nothing like that will ever happen to them again.
Despite that rule, Tara repeatedly receives help from Natania’s granddaughter, Cyndie. Cyndie stopped another of the Pescatarians from killing Tara when she was passed out. She leaves food and water for Tara on the beach before departing. And she saves this stranger from her compatriots after Tara makes a run for it, even sticking around to shoot oncoming walkers from afar to allow Tara to make her escape. Natania is desperate enough to invoke a certain amount of brutality in the name of protecting her people, while Cyndie is still committed to notions of trust and mercy.
The contrast is clear, and while Negan does not appear in this episode, “Swear” serves as, perhaps, an even greater indictment of him and his awful lieutenants than even the first-hand horror of the season premiere. “Swear” gives the audience the impression that the Pescatarians were (and perhaps are still) good people. Despite their rules, they try to find a way to let Tara live; they have reasonable justifications for their way of doing things, and they do not seem cruel for the sake of cruelty. They have, rather, been forced into this mindset by the horrid acts of others. It’s a dispiriting version of the prisoner’s dilemma, where not acting with such vicious self-defense leaves you open to the cruel whims of the most savage figures in the landscape.
Rachel, the little girl who travels with Cyndie, is a symbol of the most disheartening damage caused by Negan and his infectious attitude toward the new order. Again, none of this is subtle, but Rachel takes pleasure in killing walkers and trains a gun on Tara, seemingly willing to pull the trigger. The ethos of dealing swiftly and mortally with any threat has seeped into the young people affected by Negan, who have no context for how things were before the world fell. The threat, then, is that this way of life will be passed down, until no one can recall when cooperation and community had a foothold against vicious self-interest.
And yet, there are signs that all hope has not yet been stamped out. Tara’s ticket into the compound is the fact that she had a chance to shoot one of her Pescatarian pursuers and chose to spare her instead. Despite a tease that Heath is going to take the harsh philosophy to heart and leave Tara to the walkers (who emerge from beneath a mound of sand, in the show’s latest creative spin on the zombie attack), he instead returns to help Tara fight. And Cyndie, despite repeated admonishments from Natania to stay out of it, risks her own life to save Tara from her cohort.
After Tara escapes, “Swear” delivers a slow, melancholy sequence where finds her way back to Alexandria. It’s an outstanding collection of scenes, backed by a meandering clean guitar and presenting beautiful images of her wandering through roughhewn stores and upturned boats before she manages to make it back. The ensuing change in her expression between the moment when she watches Alexandria’s gates open and the moment when she sees Eugene’s face is perfect and affecting. And the doctor bobblehead that she gazes at and holds tightly in her hand conveys the state of pain she’s in after learning what happened to Denise.
That’s what makes her eventual choice all the more meaningful. Tara has every reason to give up the Pescatarians to Rosita. They tried to kill her simply for attempting to leave unescorted. They have weapons and ammunition that could be used to help stage a rebellion against Negan. Tara is still reeling from the news that The Saviors killed her girlfriend, in a state where she’s not apt to make the most sound decisions and where it’s easy to give into a choice that could help wreak vengeance upon those who murdered someone you love.
But she doesn’t. Whether it’s because of her promise to the Pescatarians to keep their secret or a testament to the principles she offers in her closing plea to Heath, Tara stays quiet about the people she met on her unexpected detour. She makes a choice against brutal self-interest and in favor of trying to be good, even to people who aren’t necessarily so good to you.
In a season with so much cruelty, so much difficulty, so much reason to throw up your hands and do whatever you need to do to survive, “Swear” tells the story of someone presented with chance after chance to give into those demons, to let Negan’s philosophy ooze its way into everyone and everything touched by him, who instead chooses to stay steadfast. Tara is funny, resourceful, and clever in “Swear,” but more than that, she’s a beacon of hope, a walking reminder that even amid the harsh environs and cruel personalities The Walking Dead presents, there are still people unwilling to sully their souls, hoping for a better day, even when things are at their worst.