Episodes like these make me thank Heaven that The Walking Dead didn’t start airing on network television in the era of twenty-two episode seasons. With scores of characters, multiple locales, and plenty of plotlines, the show should be plenty capable of finding enough plot and incident to fill an eight-episode half season with minimal wheel-spinning. Sure, not every episode can advance a major season arc, but there’s still tons of space for character development, illuminating vignettes, or details that make it more meaningful when those major arcs do finally come to a head.
Instead, it feels like every half season has at least one episode like “The King, The Widow and Rick” which cannot, even charitably, be called a table-setting episode. At best, it’s an episode devoted to tying up loose ends. It throws out a few miscellaneous plots here and there, but those storylines don’t move the ball in terms of the overarching story of the series; they don’t really tell us anything new about the characters, and they don’t add much, if anything, to the show as a whole.
Instead, “The King” is one big grab-bag, one that finds some miscellaneous task for most of the major characters to do, without ever managing to make it interesting. After two episodes of relative focus, TWD has returned to its hodge-podge episode ways, and the results are a cornucopia of dullness.
That starts with the closest thing to the “main” story of the episode, which centers on what Maggie should do with the Savior prisoners who are currently tied up behind The Hilltop. The episode tries to play coy about what she’ll decide, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel, naturally, is Jesus, who is handing out excess turnips to the prisoners and encouraging Maggie to let them live. The devil is Gregory, who makes a series of “heavy is the head that wears the crown” appeals to Maggie to convince her to execute her enemies and be done with it.
There might be something to this debate if The Walking Dead hadn’t been having this specific argument since the premiere, and a more general version of it practically since the show started. Neither Jesus nor Gregory cover any new ground here, and the episode’s efforts to leave it ambiguous what Maggie’s going to choose are unconvincing.
Naturally, she splits the baby. She has the remaining Hilltoppers build a cage for the Savior captives; she reads them the riot act and tosses them in, but she tells Jesus that it’s a temporary measure, and a strategic one. Depending on how things go in the big battle vs. Negan, she may still send them all to meet their makers if she can’t trade them for her own people. It is, at a minimum, a pragmatic choice from Maggie, without seeming pointlessly craven, which is the sort of decision-making that’s in short supply on The Walking Dead these days.
The smartest thing she does, however, is toss Gregory into the same cage. The episode only makes the most perfunctory of handwaves as to why Maggie let Gregory hang around her or the prisoners in the first place, so locking him up with the rest of the baddies is a nicely poetic and practical touch after his defection. And the way the transparently slimy Gregory turns obsequious and debased as soon as he realizes what’s happening is a tribute to how thin the veneer of his bravado was and is.
But while Maggie’s telling Jesus about her reasons for doing all of this, she’s also holding the baby that Rick found and Aaron recovered from the Savior outpost, evincing the image of Madonna and Child. That’s more than a coincidence given the less-than-subtle theme the connection between mothers and children that the episode explores in a typically heavy-handed fashion.
The peak of this approach comes in Carl’s portion of the story, where he once again encounters Siddiq (the young man Rick scared off at a gas station earlier in the season) and tries to make amends. The shared reference point for the two teenagers is their moms. Carl returned to find Siddiq because of the values that Laurie instilled in him — to help other people, even when you don’t have to — that live on in Carl regardless the ways in which Rick has grown more pragmatic (or at least has vacillated between mercy and murder) over the course of the show. In the same way, Siddiq feels bound by his mother’s belief that killing The Walkers frees their souls, and so he goes out of his way to set traps and take out zombies to live her values.
Of course, the episode dramatizes that with a corny walker encounter between the two boys and the latest undifferentiated horde. The uninspired sequence hits the same old beats, employs the same last minute save, and falls victim to the familiar sense that none of this matters since there’s no way they’re going to kill off Carl in a random interstitial episode. “The King, The Widow and Rick” doesn’t really make hay out of the maternal allusions, taking pains to foreground it as the foundation of the bond between Carl and Siddiq without really doing anything with it.
But the one bright spot on that front, as usual, is Carol’s portion of the story, which, whether through the talents of Melissa McBride, or the more subtle writing, or simply greater investment in the situation, pays better narrative dividends. She seeks out Ezekiel to help bring the next stage of the coalition’s plan to fruition. But she’s rebuffed by Jerry, and instead goes out on her own.
Or so she thinks. The younger brother of one of the Kingdom denizens (whose sibling was slaughtered in the Saviors’ assault) tries to come with her. The imagery of her instructing this little boy, and her tone she takes with him, is another clear allusion to parenthood. It’s another echo of the loss of Sofia, and Carol’s instincts to protect kids like her daughter, to ensure that no one has to suffer what she did, helps drive her to pull Ezekiel back into the world and fight.
That effort proves the lone powerful scene in this installment, where Carol confronts her friend and tries to convince him to rise out of his crestfallen state. She asks him why he kept visiting her when she stayed holed up in that house at the edge of his domain. He gives a simple but potent answer — “You made me feel real.” She gave substance to his fiction, and in return, he gave her the time and space to heal and eventually recover, at least a bit. Now she’s trying to return the favor, and the pathos and kindness in that, and the performances of the actor, offer the one redeeming portion of this episode.
Otherwise, it’s just more tooling around with little purpose or reason beyond faint teases and pointless escapades. Michonne and Rosita venture forth to scope out The Sanctuary, nominally because they “need to see for themselves” what happened, but more realistically because neither has had much to do this season, and so the show throws them into a random bad guy encounter to make up for it.
Their interlude with the two Saviors at the cache is pretty dull, save for Rosita’s use of a rocket launcher. And the fact that they meet up with Daryl and Tara seems like an obvious means of getting various characters in the right place at the right time for whatever comes next, rather than an organic confluence of events.
Last, and possibly least, Rick walks into the Junkyardigans’ compound and offers them another deal, which Vulcan Allison Janney, the leader of their dump-dwelling crew, rejects once more. It is, in all likelihood, a feint, part of some elaborate Stage 2 that Rick’s concocted. But in this episode, there’s nothing more to it than set up, another piece in place on the board for the next big event, but no rhyme, reason, or intrigue in the current moment.
That’s all “The King, The Widow and Rick” has to offer. It’s hard to call it a skippable episode, if only because it’s so clearly devoted to positioning the characters for the fireworks to come. But it’s one that you’d be just as well off reading Wikipedia summaries for, save for the Carol-Ezekiel scene. While plenty of consequence (however mild that consequence may be) happens here, none of it is especially compelling; much of it feels stitched together, and few, if any of these incidents, have anything to do with one another.
In its eighth season, The Walking Dead is not a good enough show to just throw out a bunch of unrelated scenes and let the characters play in its sandbox. Instead, it turns into a rudderless episode, that diminishes the promise of what’s to come by how dull the path to get there is.