You are never going to fully get away from the “Is it right to kill?” question when you’re telling a zombie apocalypse story. One of the core aspects of the genre is forcing people to make life and death decisions in extreme situations. That’s part of what makes zombie movies and shows both thrilling and thought-provoking; they put the audience in the shoes of the characters and let us wonder whether we’d be saints or slayers when the rules of civilization no longer apply and mortal peril lurks around every corner.
But my god, The Walking Dead has been exploring these issues for seven-going-on-eight seasons at this point, and while it hasn’t dug into every possible permutation of them, it’s come close. There’s some benefit to putting new characters into those scenarios and having them vacillate between mercy and lethal pragmatism while trying to figure out the right way to live in this harsh environment. But you can only lean into this sort of “That’s not who we are” back-and-forth for so long on a television show before it starts to become rote.
“The Damned” tries to make up for how many times it pushes that already worn out button by turning most of the episode into an endless cavalcade of paramilitary assaults, firefights, and action sequences. Director Rosemary Rodriguez and editor Evan Schrodek do a nice job of making the images on the screen visually compelling even if the episode’s dialogue and thematic material is lacking.
“The Damned” balances five major escapades all centered around the same multi-pronged attack by the coalition of Alexandrians, Hilltoppers, and denizens of The Kingdom. It features Aaron leading a frontal assault against one Savior compound, while Rick and Daryl sneak in the back and search for guns. It has Carol and Ezekiel hunting down one of Negan’s lieutenants (the one who used a grenade to escape their initial attack last week) who threatens to warn the others of what’s coming. It also features Jesus and Tara executing a raid on the same communications building where our heroes first encountered a collection of Saviors, and it has Morgan stalking his way through the same building, running support.
That’s a lot for one episode to juggle, and while it feels overstuffed in terms of storylines at times, “The Damned” never feels out of sync visually. Schrodek does well jumping from one setting to another while still creating a sense of continuity among these set pieces. And Rodriguez captures the organized chaos of the way these attacks happen all at once, whether it’s Aaron (whose boyfriend might be a casualty here) trading bullets with the enemy, Morgan’s cold, methodical killings from Morgan, or the quieter but ultimately more raw encounter between Rick and a Savior assailant. Given the repetitive notes the show continues to hit, some of these events feel empty in purpose, but they’re nevertheless adept at conveying the heart-pumping, fraught qualities of these potentially deadly incidents.
The problem is that those incidents only lead to the same dilemmas that our heroes have confronted time and time again, with diminishing results. The most obvious of these occurs when Tara and Jesus, mid-invasion, come across a Savior with his hands up and his pants wet. Tara and Jesus argue about what to do with him, with the former arguing that the Savior could be a threat and so they should take him out, while the latter buys The Savior’s sob story and wants to spare him in light of his unarmed, hands-up state. I’m sure there’s some intended social commentary there, but it’s trite for the show at this point, and it doesn’t help when the Savior uses the duo’s indecision over what to do with him to take Jesus’s gun and hold him hostage.
Naturally, the situation works out fine, with Jesus disabling and tying the guy up rather than killing him, but not before plenty more back and forths about whether this new coalition is acting just like The Saviors and whether they should violate their principles to end this now. It’s the same debate we’ve seen a million times, with nothing new to add beyond the idea that there’s some sort of little-mentioned disagreement between Rick and Maggie on this issue that will come to a head in the face of Tara and Jesus’s new collection of Savior hostages.
The episode also dips into the same sort of material with Rick’s hunt for guns in a different Savior compound. He gets into a knock-down-drag-out brawl with one Savior on the top floor, chokes him out, and them improbably impales him on a nearby wall protrusion. This is pretty standard pugilism for The Walking Dead at this point, but the twist comes when Rick nabs a key from his assailant’s corpse and uses it to enter a room where he expects to find a cache of guns. Instead, he finds a sleeping baby.
That development scans as cheap. In fairness, Andrew Lincoln does a great job of selling the moment, with the sort of disbelief and denial that Rick, with a young daughter of his own, would have experience at this sight, which could pierce through his determined demeanor and make him face the horror of his having taken a parent away from their child. But something about the moment feels unearned. It’s a cheap trick meant to remind us that the Saviors, craven as they may be, are still human beings, that fails because it isn’t something developed from story or character as the show’s down with Dwight and others.
In his stupor, Rick ends up being held at gunpoint by someone he met back in Atlanta, who’s now aligned with The Saviors. That tack has some promise as a “how far we’ve come” reflection, but even that ends in another cheesy cliffhanger. As I’ve said before, I’m not interested in the battle for Rick’s soul anymore, and this odd effort to bring more humanity into his pragmatism does little to change that.
“The Damned” also plays the same game with Morgan. He’s still in a fog and a rage after what happened last season, and has now turned into a cold killing machine. As much as his story hits the same notes that we’ve seen over with umpteen characters at this point, it’s still compelling because Lennie James is so talented that he can breathe new life into that shopworn plot. Like Rick, Morgan’s been with the show from the beginning. But unlike Rick, we haven’t seen enough of him to have watched him go through this transformation and untransformation and retransformation several times over, so there’s still some juice left in the idea.
That said, the show can’t help throwing in on-the-nose flashbacks to signpost exactly what Morgan is feeling when James’s performance tells the audience all it needs to know. He, like Rick, nearly kills someone he once knew while caught up in his haze, until he’s stopped via the same moral thought experiment Jesus and Tara were playing out. Exploring Morgan’s experience of his renewed trauma is a worthy goal, but delivering it in these terms is a misstep.
Even the one storyline in the episode that doesn’t play to the same “We are not them” motif is a repeat. Ezekiel boasts to his charges about their doubtless success in their mission, while Carol offers skeptical glances and subtly incredulous queries. The thrust of the storyline is Ezekiel dropping his act to Carol for a minute and admitting that he’s trying to pump his people up, encourage them loudly and publicly even if he has his own doubts so that they don’t visualize failure. We played this game already when they first met, and putting it in a combat setting doesn’t change much, despite some nice work from Melissa McBride and Khary Payton.
I can tell you as a committed Simpsons fan that any show that runs long enough will inevitably start repeating itself. You can only come up with so many novel situations, so many new reactions for characters to have, before you start remixing old ideas.
But “The Damned” isn’t just a familiar beat reemerging in an unfamiliar form. It’s the same, basic zombie apocalypse question being asked and answered over and over and over again. It’s natural, maybe even necessary, in these types of stories to wonder what the ethical lines are in the face of a ruthless, mortal threat. But this is the hundredth mortal threat the survivors on The Walking Dead have faced, and until the show finds new ways to explore that notion, it’s going to feel like old hat, no matter who’s mulling over those moral quandaries this week.