This week's The Walking Dead wasn't exactly a disaster, but was no classic either. But somehow, neither was it a middling episode that fell squarely between those two camps.
Instead, episode 5 of season 8 was totally haphazard – by turns brilliant and awful, wildly inconsistent in terms of pace, plotting and performances. In short, 'The Big Scary U' was everything that's good, and everything that's bad, about the show right now.
Let's start with the good: Negan and Gabriel might seem like an odd pairing on paper, but locking these two very different men away together turned out to be a masterstroke.
With Negan's confessional, The Walking Dead recaptured much of what was so compelling about the series in its heyday – how it took recognisable (if not always sympathetic) figures and planted them in the middle of a mad dystopia, allowing a talented cast to act their socks off as they explored their characters' traumas and changing perspectives.
'The Big Scary U' did so much for the Negan character, more than his previous 11 appearances put together. First, we were served select highlights from his tragic backstory, revealing his widower status and details of a previous life where he worked with kids. (The comic books explicitly state that Negan was a gym teacher, which is perfect.)
But we also got some terrific insights into the character's frame of mind. Why does Negan do what he does? Can his violent crimes ever be justified, or at least explained? 'The Big Scary U' had a decent swing at it (pun intended).
"I like to help people through their weaknesses," he reveals. The way Negan sees it, he has to be strong, unflinching, utterly ruthless, because "people are weak" and, without men like him, the world would collapse. "I make them strong," he argues. "Which makes this world strong."
He's not the man he wants to be. He's the monster he needs to be.
Up until this point, Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been forced to play a Negan who's almost all bluster – a comic-book villain too ridiculous to either fear or sympathise with. ("I wear a leather jacket, I have Lucille, and my nut-sack is made of steel!")
But 'The Big Scary U' proves he's able to do far more with far less – Morgan is superb when he's gifted a rare reflective moment, when the script allows him to give us a more considered, less cartoonish Negan.
Even better, the episode retroactively gives some context to the character's larger-than-life moments – the Negan we've seen up till now is a front for the real man, who's certainly no saint, but is a more complex figure than the wild, exuberant brute who delights in violence.
With Seth Gilliam just as impressive as a driven Father Gabriel, the scenes set in the trailer are thoroughly compelling. So why isn't this episode a five-star masterpiece? Because every time 'The Big Scary U' cuts away from Negan's confessional, it totally falls apart.
The episode begins on a bum note, with a lengthy and ultimately pointless prologue. The opening 11 minutes – almost a quarter of the total runtime – are devoted to a sequence detailing (in flashbacks) Gregory's stay at the Saviours' camp.
Simon brings Gregory pancakes. Gregory lays out a plan to banish any Hilltop residents who don't join him in surrendering to Negan. It's a plan we already know will fail – a plan we already saw fail. None of it adds anything.
It's the kind of turgid, inane storytelling that The Walking Dead wallowed in last season, a self-indulgence that saw the show raked over the coals by critics. While this season so far hasn't been perfect, it's at least trimmed the fat and upped the pace. Now, to quote Negan, "Are we back-sliding?"
Besides the Negan/Gabriel scenes, the monotony is broken only by moments of complete and utter nonsense. Sure, prolonged, talky scenes that achieve nothing are bad, but so are random bursts of action that do a disservice to character – see Rick and Daryl's ridiculous playground scuffle, a painful echo of the embarrassing and pointless kung-fu bout between Morgan and Jesus in 'Monsters' a few weeks back.
The episode's other big crime? When we cut away from Negan and Gabriel, we're mostly not cutting back to characters that fans have a proven investment in – Carol, or Maggie, or Michonne. Instead, The Walking Dead sees fit to introduce more colourless, nondescript characters to a show that already has a surplus. (Who the heck is Regina, and why have we not met her before?)
Twenty series regulars is far too many for any show. Even with certain characters sidelined by necessity – Christian Serratos falling pregnant means less Rosita, while a scheduling clash for Danai Gurira accounts for Michonne's absence – The Walking Dead is still struggling to properly service them all.
When The Walking Dead stumbles, it's frustrating precisely because it still has the potential to be brilliant. This week's episode proves that the show can still produce great drama, simply by picking out a couple of key cast members and handing them some meaningful material to play.
Bigger isn't always better. Cut back on characters, strip the storytelling down to its bare essentials, and this could once again be one of the best shows on television. 'The Big Scary U' proves it.
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