For a while, it felt like The Walking Dead had found a nice, consistent rhythm in its storytelling. Since about Season 4, each season would include a handful of episodes that featured everyone in the cast, but most would be smaller, more standalone affairs that focused on a narrower subset of characters. These episodes would tell individual stories and focus on small facets of bigger events that deepen our understanding of the personalities and problems at play. It gave the show a certain decompressed feeling that raised accusations of “boring,” but which also provided The Walking Dead with the space to flesh out its characters and make those stretches between the big set pieces feel less like wheel-spinning and more like an effort, however variable in its success, to make those grand finales matter.
But Season 8 has seemingly abandoned that tack. While not everyone has showed up in every episode thus far, each installment this season has felt like an immediate sequel to the prior one. The siege that began in the premiere continued in last week’s episode. And this week’s episode, “Monsters,” follows directly from there, depicting the same moral conflicts and the same lingering issues that Rick, Daryl, Carol, Ezekiel, Morgan, Jesus, Tara, and Aaron faced in the prior episode. We’re getting one giant story here, rather than a collection of related, but distinct plots that become part of a larger mosaic.
It’s not a mode that The Walking Dead works well in. Game of Thrones does the same thing to a certain extent (though it’s generally good about telling mini-stories or crafting unifying themes within episodes), but The Walking Dead isn’t nearly as consistent in terms of its writing and performances to be able to sustain that approach. The result is that the first three episodes of Season 8 feel like one big muddle, where the show jumps from place to place and person to person with little sense of direction or progress. While there are still individual stories being told, they come piecemeal, with none of them able to sustain any real momentum.
The other problem with this mode of storytelling is that if something isn’t working, the audience is just stuck with it for the foreseeable future. Last season, if you didn’t enjoy Tara’s seaside excursion, you might enjoy Eugene’s stay with The Saviors. If you didn’t like Rick’s adventures at the dump, you might like Carol’s encounter with The Kingdom. But now, it’s war, and if the war seems dull, if this siege doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere, then you have no choice but to either give up or ride it out and hope that eventually, the show takes a turn for the better.
In the meantime, “The Damned” picks up exactly where it left off last week. Carol, Ezekiel, and the Kingdom’s soldiers are still on their Savior hunt. Rick and Daryl are still handling Negan’s crew inside a different compound. Aaron is still dealing with Eric being wounded in the battle outside. And Morgan, Jesus, and Tara are still wrestling with what to do with their Savior hostages. The only new addition to that storytelling milieu sees Gregory returning to The Hilltop where Maggie is forced to decide what to do with him.
That overstuffed continuation results in the same “Have we stared too long into the abyss?” ruminations that the show dealt with in an uninspired fashion last week. The worst offender on this front is the showdown between Rick and the long-forgotten Morales, who’s now a Savior. It’s a neat trick to pull a character the audience hasn’t seen since Season 1 out of your hat to try to underscore your “My, how far we’ve come” message, but the episode doesn’t really capitalize on that. Instead, it indulges in the kind of stilted, blunt colloquies that have been the series’ bread and butter for ages now.
There’s meaning to be wrung from having characters return to the show after long absences and letting the audience measure how they, and our heroes, have evolved since they left. That was part of what made Morgan’s return engagements so compelling. But when the only purpose is to have the person show up, make some bog standard declarations about how things are different now and give a few vague, pseudo-philosophical statements about everyone being the same at heart, before unceremoniously kicking the bucket, it’s cheap rather than meaningful.
“Monsters” similarly squanders the continuing power of Morgan’s emotional breakdown. The fact that he’s taunted by Jared (the Savior from Gavin’s crew who killed his surrogate son Benjamin) is a chance to really test Morgan’s limits at an already fraught time. Instead, we get a kickboxing match between Morgan and Jesus (was anyone asking for that?) to somehow settle their brutality vs. mercy debate. Like I said last week, Lennie James is a good enough actor to elevate the material (he even makes the cheesy “I know I’m not right, but I’m not wrong” line sound passably profound), but this is, at best, a strange way to dramatize his internal conflict.
The same goes for the mandatory walker attack on the Jesus/Tara/Morgan convoy. I understand that the show needs to meet its action quota, but the seams and perfunctory sense about these walker incursions have become clearer and clearer as the series wears on. The reasons for the horde emerging out of nowhere are feeble, and the novelty of such attacks has thoroughly worn off.
In the aftermath, the show is left with two factions, one that’s having second thoughts about this siege and wants to be “better” than The Saviors, and another full of “meet evil with evil” pragmatism. Morales’s cornball speech gets to Rick, but Daryl kills him, and another Savior who gives them valuable info, with hardly a second thought. Morgan, by contrast, catches himself before he goes off the deep end, but he’s still reeling from Benjamin’s death and stands ready to wipe out The Savior hostages (with Tara’s approval) while Jesus is still kickboxing for kindness.
The only instance where kindness really wins out is with Maggie, who is holding court at The Hilltop. She decides to let Gregory return, despite the fact that he’s clearly a scumbag who’s sold them out more than once. And then, to double down on that devotion to being humane, she agrees with Jesus to let the Savior hostages stay in trailers in the back of the Hilltop compound. She values that brand of mercy (frankly against all reason) in the name of being better than their enemies, and while the debate over the choice is tedious, it at least sets up a ticking time bomb that will no doubt go off at an inconvenient, zombie- and gunfire-filled time.
That just leaves Aaron saying his unwitting goodbye and then mourning his partner, Eric. As opposed to the rote back and forths on whether to be harsh or forgiving with their enemies, this is the one storyline in “Monsters” founded purely on the human experience of the losses in this conflict. But it too falls flat, though no fault of anyone involved.
Instead, the fault comes from the fact that we barely know Eric, and have hardly ever seen his relationship with Aaron developed. Ross Marquand gives a hell of a performance when conveying Aaron’s grief over the loss, but that grief basically exists in a vacuum. Eric is a rarely-present tertiary character, and while Aaron’s reaction to his death gives it some weight, it’s hard to be too moved by the scene when, whether for reasons of narrative economy or cowardly network squeamishness, we’ve hardly seen the two of them together.
And that’s the problem with throwing all your stories together like this. None of them has time to breathe. There’s no room to explore these characters and get to know them better before they’re unceremoniously killed off. In some alternate version of The Walking Dead, the third episode of the season is a spotlight episode on Aaron and Eric, where we learn more about them, see more of them as a couple, so that the severance of their connection has meaning and weight.
Instead, it’s just thrown onto the pile of plots in “Monsters,” with the other reheated ruminations and empty deaths that the show throws out in ever-greater numbers. That’s not fun, and it feels like an attempt to mask the fact that The Walking Dead been hitting the same notes this whole season. The war against The Saviors has been an undifferentiated slog, and there’s no sign that the show’s storytelling is going to resolidify anytime soon.