The Walking Dead Can’t Decide Whether It’s Real or a Cartoon in “New Best Friends”


Realism is always going to be a tricky needle to thread for The Walking Dead. On the one hand, a big part of the show’s claim to fame is the way it takes the well-worn idea of the zombie apocalypse and plays it seriously, sometimes overly seriously. That’s in its DNA. On the other hand, it’s also a show where corpses come back to life, civilians can use weapons like pros with minimal training, and the undead recur in some new obstacle course-like form on a weekly basis. The very premise of the show means that The Walking Dead can’t exactly be as down-to-earth or grounded as its naturalistic aesthetic might suggest, and that’s simply part of the deal.

But sometimes, the series just pushes things too far. The Junkyardigans (my name for the collective that congregates at the dump, at least until an official one is offered) read as silly from the word go. Our heroes have run into plenty of colorful groups before — The Terminites, The Wolves, and the dibs-based biker gang come to mind — but they tend to read as pulpy rather than cheesy. It’s a fine distinction, to be sure, but the difference is that as wild as those groups could seem at times, their outsized characteristics seemed to fit into a certain exaggerated, over the top quality that’s present throughout the series. The Walking Dead isn’t just real; it’s hyper-real, and its more extreme villains and antagonists fit well enough within that atmosphere.

The Junkyardigans, however, feel hokey, like something leftover from a 1970s science fiction movie. Equal parts Logan’s Run, Mad Max, and Cloud Atlas, this group of garbage-dwellers has a strange manner of speech that doesn’t click with the tone of TWD. Sure, the show’s featured florid or unusual speech patterns before — with Abraham’s poetry, Eugene’s purple prose, and even the conversations between Morgan and The Wolves — but the results have always been hit or miss. Offering this new crowd, who speak entirely in this confused, primitive patois, starts this group off on the wrong foot, before we even get to their “we take; we don’t bother” attitude and their leader, who seems like a Vulcan offshoot of the great Allison Jamey.

The problem extends to this week’s zombie set piece, where Rick is forced to engage in mortal combat in a pit of refuse. He comes face-to-face with a walker who resembles a rejected design from Pan’s Labyrinth. The look of that zombie, who is the spitting image of some undead humanoid porcupine, is actually pretty cool, but he feels like he belongs in a different show. The same, frankly, goes for the entire Junkyardigan encounter, with the whole exercise seeming like a high production value version of one of those syndicated Saturday afternoon action shows. The scene ends with Rick getting the better of the walker thanks to a “use the junk, Luke” pep talk from Michonne, and all’s well that ends well in the latest implausible zombie engagement.

 

"There's still tetanus shots in the zombie apocalypse, right?"

 

Of course, it leads to Rick having a heart-to-heart with Father Gabriel, who was taken against his will by the dump people. Gabriel is touched that Rick doesn’t think he ran away, giving the show time for a bit of unearned sap. It’s an opportunity for The Walking Dead to turn subtext into text, with Gabriel asking Rick why he was smiling before and Rick responding with a groaner of a line that implies Gabriel taught him that enemies can become friends. The storyline, at least in this episode, feels very off-brand, and I can only hope that the unavoidable future encounters with the Junkyardigans dial back on the cheese at least a little.

But these moments cut such a contrast with the understated, achingly real reunion between Daryl and Carol. The moment where they see each other for the first time since Carol ran off is one of the most potent in the series. As I noted in regard to the mid-season finale, scenes like these proves the benefits of The Walking Dead’s divide-and-reunite tack over the past few seasons.

It’s also a spate of great acting from both Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus. The shift in Carol’s expression, from annoyance at another visitor, to disbelief and then, rapid joy at the realization of who’s come to call on her, sells the moment. And Daryl, with his taciturn, reserved demeanor, melts in Carol’s arms just as nicely. I don’t know if I necessarily ever want these two to become romantic, but there is a sacredness to their pairing that the show has not been able to muster anywhere else.

It’s not just fanservice though. As heartwarming as it was to see the two of them together, the moment when they sit in the glow of the fireplace informs the emotional states and connections between the characters. I know I just complained about the show turning subtext into text with Rick, but Carol confiding her reasons for leaving Alexandria to Daryl, who was clearly hurt by her departure, drives home the severity of what she’s gone through.

 

"I brought you juice boxes and orange slices."

 

The steely, self-assured warrior talking about how, for her, being in the world means having to either suffer when people you love die, or suffer when you lose parts of yourself by taking lives to defend them, drives home the catch-22 of her misery. McBride absolutely owns Carol’s desperation, the difficulty that drove her away, and it’s the kind of vulnerability that works best when the character is speaking to someone she trusts and loves more than any of the other survivors.

But the scene tells us more about Daryl too. Daryl’s time with The Saviors seemed to have changed him, made him more brutal and vicious. His killing of Fat Joey didn’t seem like the measured act necessary for survival but rather something borne out of anger and frustration as much as need. Daryl seems, and has seemed, ready to fight fire with fire, believing that responding to these butchers with more butchery is the only way to win.

And yet, he spares Carol from that seeming conclusion. He sees what she’s been through, what being a part of that struggle has taken from her, and he decides to lie to her. As much as Daryl wants to defeat The Saviors by any means necessary, and as much as he wants the group’s best fighter at his side, he wants his best friend to be happy and healthy and well even more. It is a kindness, one buoyed by their amusing rapport when breaking bread together, that seems to give Daryl pause. The tiger warming up to him when he returns to The Kingdom is a bit too much, but it’s a sign that this visit has softened Daryl a bit, reminded him what’s at stake and who he is, in the way that only a kindred spirit can.

It also ties into the episode’s other major narrative through-line, where Daryl and Richard are trying to convince The Kingdom to join the upcoming war against The Saviors, and Ezekiel and Morgan are still reluctant to engage in such potentially deadly combat. The focal point of the arc is Morgan, who seems poised to slowly but surely move away from his no-kill stance and, as portended by the Season 6 finale, gradually accept the need to use his abilities to protect people in mortal terms, to attack and not just defend.

 

Possibly with the power of staring.

 

Much of that is pretty tedious here. There’s more back and forth about it among the usual suspects, and another confrontation with The Saviors that feels a good bit like the last one. But the kicker of it — that Daryl is becoming more like Morgan, softening and tacitly acknowledging that he’s “holding onto something” too, and that Morgan is becoming more like Daryl, increasingly feeling the righteous anger at these monsters — is sound.

The cumulative effect is an episode that zips back and forth between tones, from the cartoonish qualities of Rick & Co.’s exposure to the Junkyardigans, to the quiet emotional moments shared between Carol and Daryl, to the waffling of The Kingdom which splits the difference. For a long time now, The Walking Dead has tried to have its cake and eat it too — deliver a show high on genre thrills and outsized storylines, but grounded in real feeling and genuine characters at the same time. It’s a tricky balance, and one that TWD can’t quite manage in “New Best Friends.”


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