The Walking Dead spends a great deal of time ruminating on what it means to take a life. That sort of thing is practically inevitable in zombie stories. You may have to kill the zombies; you may have to kill dangerous rival survivors; and you may have to allow good people to die in order to ensure your own survival. Weighing these sorts of choices is the bread and butter of the zombie genre and post-apocalyptic fiction of all kinds.
But most of the time, at least on The Walking Dead, it’s framed as an ethical choice, or processed through the lens of what taking a life does to the human soul. For all the hand-wringing about the supposed bad messages the series sends, TWD is and always has been a show firmly centered on moral questions. People don’t always like the answers it provides, but it’s been consistently interested in the ethics of killing, the impact the act has, and what sort of morality and mortality remains after the fall of civilization.
So once more, The Walking Dead offers an episode centered around people deciding whether or not to kill. But in “Something They Need,” the show treats it as a question of prudence, of planning, of strategy, rather than of morals. Whether it’s Sasha, Gregory, or Natania, the major characters in this episode contemplate if they should kill, but they don’t seem to be affected by moral considerations so much as practical ones. Will it help them accomplish their goals? Will it advance their cause? Will it hurt, help, or save their people, or their own skins? That’s not a typical tack for this show, but it’s an interesting one, even as the slow table-setting for the finale soon feels a bit rote.
This approach is easiest to see in Gregory. He’s long since realized that his grasp on power at The Hilltop is rapidly weakening, and Maggie proving herself the better and more capable leader is obviously rankling him. Maggie is what she’s always been — tough but yielding, corrective but understanding, and capable of moving forward with a solid dose of inner strength. It’s clear, even just from her patient but firm instructions on farming, that she’s better suited for the job, and the rest of the community is noticing it.
Gregory is noticing it too. When he walks outside the walls to talk to Maggie, he seems to be pushing her to leave, suggesting that her people have moved on and it’s time for her to do the same. Maggie is either onto his game or oblivious, but either way remains unpersuaded. And Gregory, nominally keeping watch while Maggie nabs a blueberry bush, looks at the silvery knife in his hand and contemplates ending his problems with her then and there in lethal fashion.
But he can’t do it. He doesn’t have it in him. Maybe he just doesn’t think it would work to his favor in that specific moment, but it seems more like Gregory just doesn’t have the stones to follow through on his impulse. That’s hinted at when a walker advances on the two of them, and Gregory tries to take it out, but falters at the last minute, forcing Maggie to dive into the breach. Just to prove it’s no fluke, he gets tackled by an implausibly quiet zombie and has to be rescued by Maggie there too.
Rather than being grateful, Gregory is humiliated and resentful after Maggie informs a group of onlooking Hilltoppers that his failures are fine because, contrary to his protestations, it was his first time killing a walker. Gregory makes plans to head to The Saviors’ Sanctuary, presumably to try to enlist Negan’s ruffian to take Maggie out. Gregory is incapable of killing on his own. He just doesn’t have the experience or the gumption to do it. But he’s not above weaseling his way to people more vicious and capable than him, to implore them to do his dirty work. I can only assume that’s going to go really, really well for him.
Things go a bit better for Rick, Tara, and the usual suspects when they head to Oceanside to capture their guns for the impending war with Negan. Not for nothing, the operation feels like a stickup, with the catch being that we know our heroes genuinely don’t want to hurt anyone, even as they mean to rob the Oceansiders of their sole means of defending themselves. (Though, in fairness, all those guns didn’t do much to protect them from Rick, so…)
Still, it creates several moments where people have to consider whether to kill, and decide whether yet another death will save some lives or cost even more. Tara has a gun trained on Natania, the Oceanside leader we met back in “Swear,” and Cyndie, Natania’s granddaughter who helped Tara escape. But it turns out the gun isn’t loaded; it’s an empty threat. Tara feels bad for breaking her promise and letting her compatriots know where they could find more guns, and that influences how serious she is in her threats and intentions to convince Natania to join their cause or at least stand down. She is not willing to kill for this, even if she’s willing to threaten it.
Natania, however, is not so timid, and when she and Cyndie get the upper hand, she’s more than willing to take Tara hostage and bring her to the rest of the Alexandrians as a bargaining chip. The Alexandrians have the rest of the Oceansiders squared away thanks to some well-placed explosions, so even when someone shows up with Tara as a hostage, Rick makes his pitch for them to join him.
Natania will have none of it. She admits it’s a fait accompli, but she is willing to kill Tara, knowing that it will result in her own death, in order to keep her fellow Oceansiders from joining this cause. It’s a form of attempted self-immolation. She declares that it’s not worth it, that she’s already made this calculation, and if it takes her death to prove it, she’ll remind everyone of that fact. She is willing to lay her life on the line, and the lives of others, in the belief that it will stop the deaths of many more.
Then, naturally, a conveniently-timed zombie attack interrupts the proceedings (with the walkers presumably attracted by the sound of the explosions), and it’s enough for Cyndie to stop her grandmother from making good on her promise. The waterlogged zombies have some cool designs, and the Alexandrians and Oceansiders working together to take out a threat is a nice illustration of how they could be powerful allies, but it does feel like a bit of thrown-in action. Still, in the end, the Alexandrians get their guns for their upcoming battle, a battle Natania was willing to die for and to kill for, to prevent her people from being a part of it.
And last but not least there’s Sasha, who is in the same sort of cell Daryl once found himself in, being offered a chance to become a part of the team. It’s the most implausible part of the episode. We know from Carl’s escapades that Negan respects people with, as he so unfortunately puts it, the “lady balls” to go after him. But it just strains credulity that Negan would keep so many people around who might still try to kill him, even if he’s smart enough not to let Sasha hang onto the big knife he’d handed her.
But despite the unsettling scene involving Davey, most of Sasha’s portion of the episode is also centered on whether to kill or to die, whether she believes that she had her chance to take out Negan and is finished, or if she thinks she’ll have another opportunity, whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and all that good stuff.
She chooses to go on, to try to complete her mission, albeit in a different fashion, and that means dealing with Eugene. She tries to get Eugene to give her a weapon in the guise of a desire not to become a weapon herself, not to be made into something that can hurt people, especially her friends. She claims she wants to kill herself to avoid that, with pleas that only dopey Eugene would buy. It’s still an unsuccessful feint though, one that only nets her the poison pill Eugene made earlier rather than something she could use to kill Negan. It speaks to the way that Sasha is crafty but desperate, down to trying to trick and pretend and collaborate just to have the opportunity to do what needs doing.
When we see Sasha in her early scenes, she is shot from above, emphasizing how little power she has here. When we see Negan, he’s shot from below, emphasizing the reverse, his position of strength. And when we see Eugene, he is bathed in darkness, underscoring the way he’s thrown in with the bad guys.
But each of them, along with Gregory and Natania, aims to kill, or to allow death to happen through their intervention, because they believe it’s the right call. For some of them it’s moral, for some of them it’s ethical. Morals aside though, most contemplate it because of what killing might change, because of how it could save or solidify their positions.
In the ending tease, we see Rick contemplating Dwight’s presence in the same terms — whether he will help or hurt their assault on The Saviors. The Walking Dead isn’t typically a show that looks at the loss of life in such a utilitarian fashion. Still, when war is on the horizon, each death that secures your place, that could save your friends, that could end this all before it begins, becomes a strategic decision as much as an ethical one, and the moral and immoral alike have to treat it that way.