The continued struggle of The Walking Dead is remarkably consistent. The show’s unhurried pace often gives it time to delve deeply into the theme of the week and really chew on it rather than just gulping it down and moving on like the eponymous, ravenous zombies who populate the series. Sure, some episodes are little more than epic climaxes or piece-moving adventures, but for the most part, even the worst episodes of the show have something they’re trying to say and some idea they’re trying to dig into.
But the show is almost impressively bad at crafting the sort of dialogue for its characters that can ground those examinations in something that feels like real human experience and interactions.
There’s various ways around that. Some folks on the show, like Lennie James and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, are good enough performers that they can spit out pretty much anything you give them and make it sound convincing despite the larger-than-life qualities brought to bear. And others, like Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride, are more laconic (which helps the script-writers from tripping over themselves) but also so good at the nonverbal side of acting, at communicating the experience of the moment in other ways, that it covers for other flaws in the writing.
And then there’s Eugene, who has such a particular flavor of verbiage that it sort of loops back around on the ridiculousness and papers over some of the show’s failings. I like Eugene’s cadence and use of language. He’s an outsized character, or at least one of the few that cuts away from the veneer of realism the series tries to maintain. But he adds distinctiveness to the stew of different people in various shades of muddy beige and faded green that wander through this franchise.
But in “Time for After,” when The Walking Dead turns a solid chunk of the episode over to Eugene and fills the hour with nothing but speechifying — from him, from Negan, from pretty much everyone else who trots out on screen save for the traditionally terse Daryl — it becomes too much. A little ridiculousness, skillfully deployed, can add a certain flavor to your world. But overdo it and all you do is undercut the audience’s ability to take your serious stuff seriously.
Which is a shame because there’s a solid theme to “Time for After.” It comes down to the question of whether to act or whether to wait, a very Hamlet-esque consideration on the precipice of the show’s midseason finale.
Eugene is the biggest focus of that. The episode spends tons of time with him struggling over whether he should side with his old friends from Alexandria and aid Dwight in collaborating with them, or whether he should stay with Negan, the cruel man who Eugene thinks gives him the best chance of survival (or who at least provides the path of least resistance at the moment). The episode isn’t subtle about that internal conflict, but it’s a good thematic throughline that ties into what we’ve already seen of Eugene’s journey.
At the same time, the crew of Michonne, Rosita, Daryl, and Tara continue their clumsily-established mission from the last episode, now joined by Morgan (whom we see for the first time since he stormed off a few episode back). They too are struggling with a big question — whether they should strike now and ram a truck into The Sanctuary so as to let the walkers in to finish the job, or whether they should follow the original plan, however impatient they may feel at the moment, and let The Saviors starve and rot until they’re willing to surrender on the good guys’ terms.
Philosophically, it’s an interesting question. The script for the episode injects the sense that this isn’t necessarily a question of strategy for most of our heroes. For many of them it’s a thirst for revenge and a yearning not to just sit idly by and wait for justice to happen, even if that’s what everyone agreed to. For others, there’s a concern about acting rashly, or about taking too many innocent lives in the process of achieving their goals. Some of the survivors are even just questioning whether or not this is really the sort of level they’ll stoop to, in the same way the show’s done over and over again this season.
But there’s legitimate questions of strategy too: whether proud Negan would ever really surrender, whether the good guys can win the fight without The Kingdom’s combatants, and whether one ragtag group with a truck full of speakers could spoil the whole deal.
The problem is that The Walking Dead does what it always does, even when it has an interesting idea. It weighs that idea down with grandiose, overwritten oratories that aim to elucidate What All Of This Means, with characters who simply announce their emotional states.
And when you have an actor like Danai Gurira, you can almost pull it off. And when you have someone who can use non-verbal cues like Norman Reedus, you can get away with low-syllable clichés and make it work. But when you get speech after speech after speech, especially in a fashion that feel like the show’s killing time before the midseason finale, it’s easy to just tune it out after a while, particularly in an episode like “Time for After” that’s chock full of them.
There’s fewer speeches in Rick’s part of this installment, which bookends the episode. He’s still imprisoned by The Scavengers (who get a name on-screen now) but escapes in pretty much the least-plausible way imaginable. I’m not one to slate The Walking Dead too hard for its lack of realism. It’s already a series about the dead coming back to life, and its plot mechanics serve the story rather than the other way around. That’s pretty much what the show’s always been, and it’s a choice I can respect even if it makes me roll my eyes now and then.
But man, Rick managing to not only save his own bacon when tied up and forced to fight against “Peggy Olsen’s patented Walker-On-A-Stick,” but then being able to convince the Head Scavenger to join his fight against The Saviors (again) is just absurd and insane. Why he thinks he can trust The Scavengers in the first place is loony, but the whole sequence just screams “we needed to keep Rick out of the way for a while because of other things happening in the story, and this is something for him to do,” rather than an organic part of the narrative.
Still, the part of “Time for After” that is organic is Eugene’s internal conflict. His struggle between his impulses to do “right” even as he resists the definition of that terms, and his impulse for obsequious self-preservation that has kept him “vertical when so many have gone horizontal” is a compelling one. There’s a series of one-on-one’s between Eugene and his friends and acquaintances here: Dwight, Dr. Gabriel, one of Negan’s wives, and Negan himself. Each one seems to push him one direction, only for Eugene to struggle to justify his course of action.
It’s solid material. Josh McDermitt does a nice job of showing Eugene ostensibly correcting or rebuking others who try to nudge him toward doing that right thing, while clearly trying to convince himself that what he’s doing is okay. He makes excuses; he sets limitations on himself, and he tries to believe that he’s actually saving more people by aligning with his captors.
The episode does well to convey much of this visually too. When Eugene sits by Gabriel’s bedside, the scene is framed with the light bursting through a window, giving it the sense of a religious painting where a divine presence seeps in. When Dwight has Eugene at gunpoint, Eugene lingers on one side of the screen while Dwight is positioned at a different depth on the other, communicating the sense in which Dwight is trying to push Eugene toward something, while Eugene feels like he has nowhere to go.
And even the big conversation with Negan has Eugene seeming small in the background, while Negan himself looms large in the foreground, his bat in particular jutting out, signifying the way Eugene feels powerless in the face of this larger-than-life man, and how the threat of violence keeps him in line. Even when the show can’t muster the dialogue to match its lofty goals, it finds the visual language to say much of what it’s trying to convey.
Because of that, and the strength of many of the ideas “Time for After” is playing around with, it’s a still an above-average episode of The Walking Dead, one that ends with Eugene nigh-literally unable to keep down his own self-directed B.S. But like much of TWD, the force of those high points is weakened by how the show piles it on, offering speech after speech after speech to hammer the point home, rather than just letting it happen naturally. The Walking Dead has always had a certain operatic bombast despite its nominally realistic take on the zombie genre, but when it goes for those big, blunt monologues, it hurts, rather than helps, the points it spends so many words trying to make.