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One of the questions The Walking Dead has interrogated from the very beginning is whether the end of the world and the ensuing social breakdown changes people, or whether it just reveals who they truly are. The show has often played around with the idea that the end of civilization and the lack of rules and order that otherwise keep people in line can forces those caught up in the unrest to become different in order to survive. But it also suggests that for others, the fall of society just gives them license to be who they were the whole time.
The centrality of that question in “Hostiles and Calamities” fuels the episode, a slower character piece, but also uses it to pay subtle tribute The Walking Dead’s network-mate. Breaking Bad. Fans of Vince Gilligan’s seminal drama know the significance of a character hanging onto a cigarette with a loved one’s lipstick still on it. We’re familiar with the notion of a former science teacher enjoying the spoils of war, formulating poisons, puffing himself up, and taking to his new role a little too easily. Most of all, Breaking Bad-watchers can appreciate the exploration of whether changed circumstances may change a person or if they simply let the beast out of the cage.
One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead under showrunner Scott Gimple’s influence is that it has, more or less, eschewed the traditional narrative structure for a season of television. The storyline of the prison and The Governor seemed to be building to a finale at the end of Season 3, but then it didn’t really end until several episodes into Season 4. Afterward, the show embarked on its Wandering in the Wilderness/Terminus storyline that stretched from roughly the midpoint of Season 4 until the beginning of the Alexandria storyline in Season 5. Then that plotline, about our heroes discovering a new community and gradually integrating into it, reached its natural conclusion with this year’s mid-season premiere, where the Rick’s group and the town came together to defeat the zombies at the gates as a whole. Only then, did the current arc begin in earnest.
Which is to say that as Season 6 draws to a close, we’re not at either the end or the beginning of the Negan storyline; we’re in the middle. That’s admittedly a little strange. It’s a departure from the annual Big Bad structure that Buffy the Vampire Slayer established and many other shows adopted. And it’s even distinct from the trend started by The Wire and The Sopranos, where the real fireworks happen in the penultimate episode of a season, with the finale reserved for aftermath and reflection.
How can an episode where so much happens seem so dull? “Twice as Far” features a firefight, a significant casualty, a big decision from a major character, and a reckoning between two people who’ve had unfinished business for a long time now. This is all major stuff. So why did the episode feel so thoroughly lifeless?
In fairness, “Twice as Far” aimed for a certain feeling of routine in the proceedings. It opens with a repeated sequence of supply inventory, guard shifts, and the daily rhythms of Alexandria in order to establish the semi-normalcy that the town has settled into after the most recent bit of excitement. The Walking Dead has thrived on this type of “calm after the storm” vibe in episodes like “The Next World”, but here it felt ponderous and contrived.