Spoiler Warning for Season 8, Episode 5 of “The Walking Dead,” as well as all episodes of the previous seasons. Certain spoilers from the graphic novel series will also be discussed.
After four straight episodes of non-stop gun battles and full-fledged war, “The Walking Dead” slows things down a bit to check in on the characters trapped at the Sanctuary. Negan and several of these characters have been relegated to the sidelines for much of the season while Rick’s crew take out the outposts. This episode explores the inner-workings of the Saviors while also dipping into Negan’s backstory. While not perfect, the latest chapter of All Out War does serve as an excellent study of the villainous group against the scope of their darkest hour to date. With stellar performances and several interesting callbacks, this episode is a fascinating exploration of loyalty, truth and redemption.
“The Big Scary U” begins with a series of flashbacks prior to the events of the Season 8 Premiere to give viewers a bit of context to fully understand what has been happening at the Sanctuary. A chilling prayer from Father Gabriel at the Alexandria church opens the episode as he thanks God for getting him to this point, but asks for a purpose to his life so that he doesn’t die a “fruitless death.” In this prayer, Gabriel mentions his redemption and this episode is a perfect example of that, especially in comparison to his cowardly story arc in Season 5. At the Sanctuary, Simon bursts into a room where Gregory is napping to deliver him breakfast and have a chat about the rebellion currently taking place; in last season’s “The Other Side,” Simon told Gregory to come see him if things get out of hand at the Hilltop and Gregory was shown to be leaving to do just that at the end of “Something They Need.” Some of the dialogue between Gregory and Simon in this scene feels heavy-handed for the sake of bringing the viewers up to speed; that being said, these are two characters that are always enjoyable to watch together, mostly because of the performances from Xander Berkeley and Steven Ogg.
Gregory is a complete kiss-ass and that is shown very clearly when he meets with Negan and the Savior lieutenants, including Gavin, Dwight, Regina and Simon. The group discusses Gregory’s plan to get the Hilltop residents to lay down their arms and fall back in line with the Saviors, but Negan questions whether or not Gregory is actually in charge; he brings up the fact that Maggie led an army of Hilltop soldiers into the battle at Alexandria during the Season 7 Finale as evidence of Gregory’s fractured leadership. Negan even goes so far as to state that Gregory is simply playing both sides and is looking out solely for his own survival, causing him to tense up before Simon steps in and defends him. Simon proposes that if the Hilltop residents don’t listen to Gregory that they be executed as a warning to the other communities, but Negan is angered by this and throws a full-blown tantrum while restating the importance of people as a resource. His plan is to capture Rick, Maggie and King Ezekiel to execute them publicly, sending a message to their followers. Suddenly, a series of synchronized gunshots is heard from outside, tying the timelines together with Negan and the lieutenants stepping out onto the balcony to speak with Rick and the militia. These flashbacks do a great job at establishing the tone of the episode while providing each character with their mission, even if they do retread old ground.
While several weeks have passed since viewers last saw Negan and Father Gabriel finding themselves trapped together in a trailer, only a few seconds have elapsed in “TWD” world. After a brief standoff, Negan tackles Gabriel to the ground and strips him of all of his weapons, including a fully loaded handgun. Things calm down as the two sit down and begin discussing themselves and the sins they have committed; Gabriel tells Negan that he now believes that he ended up in this moment to take Negan’s confession. Morals and backstories are topics of conversation between the two as walkers pound on the windows and scratch at the doors. Gabriel manages to get a small tidbit of information out of Negan’s past in that he used to work with children (comic readers will know what exactly this refers to). Negan asks Gabriel why he became a priest to which he cites his love of God and people, wanting to bridge the gap between them. Talk of leadership also arises as Negan declares that Rick is the reason that Glenn and Abraham are now dead; he also states that the Saviors inside of the Sanctuary will likely die without him leading them. Having these two characters on-screen together is fascinating and rewarding, especially since they’ve only really interacted once in a hilarious scene in “Service“; Negan calls back to this by once again calling Gabriel “creepy.”
This episode is crucial in peeling back the layers of Negan’s character and giving him some actual solid development for the first time since his introduction. Gabriel pokes and prods Negan to try to get him to see that his leadership is toxic, citing the slave workers, his murder of innocents and the “wives” system that he has enacted. He contests all of these and tries to justify them, but the mention of the “wives” really strikes a nerve. Gabriel sees a brief window of weakness in Negan and uses it as a chance to kill/injure him by stealing the gun off of him and firing a shot before darting into another room in the trailer. It’s here that Father Gabriel is finally able to get a confession out of Negan, who reveals that he was originally married to an actual wife before the apocalypse, but that she was sick and later died when the world began to fall apart; he was unable to put her down when she finally turned, which he states is his biggest regret (this is eerily similar to Morgan’s inability to put down his walker wife in the Pilot). This is a partial adaption of the “Here’s Negan” backstory volume from the graphic novels; if I had to guess, I would say that there will be an episode this season or next that adapts the entire volume of backstory. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance here really allows the character of Negan to show of his more human side, which I never expected to actually see; after everything he has done, I just can’t bring myself to hate the character fully, a testament to the portrayal.
The confession from Negan is satisfying to Father Gabriel, who steps out from the backroom and returns the gun. While I initially questioned why Gabriel didn’t just shoot Negan, it’s important to remember that he is not only a man of faith, but he’s also a man with a plan. Negan hilariously punches Gabriel in the face, showing that he is still the alpha in the situation. Negan begins gutting a walker that snuck into the trailer, all the while graphically describing the insides of a zombie while asking Gabriel if he is familiar with the “guts” trick; Gabriel previously used this tactic to escape from the herd with Judith in Alexandria back in “No Way Out.” Negan mentions that the walkers have been rotting in the Virginian sun and questions whether or not this trick has made Gabriel’s group sick to which he responds by saying “we’re from Georgia,” another rewarding callback for longtime fans. They cover themselves in the guts and make their way out into the jam-packed courtyard, but things take a turn when Gabriel trips and falls to the ground, causing some of the walkers to lunge for him. Negan saves him by swinging Lucille around and Gabriel does the same by firing his gun, but all seems hopeless as they are surrounded with no apparent escape. This is a major complain that I have with the episode as the show cuts away from this tense scene, only to show these two characters miraculously safe in the Sanctuary later; both “TWD” and “Fear the Walking Dead” have done this cheap “cut away from a scene so we don’t have to show the resolution” trick and it never works.
Not all time in this episode is dedicated to the Sanctuary as a few moments are spent with Rick and Daryl following their wrangling of the Saviors transporting the machine gun last episode. They question the sole survivor Yago (Charles Halford), who states that all of the Saviors from his outpost, as well as the entire Kingdom was wiped out. Rick puts a knife in his head before investigating the crashed humvee with Daryl; they discover some dynamite while removing the machine gun and Daryl proposes a new plan. He wants to use the dynamite to blow open the Sanctuary and let the walkers in, but Rick voices his concern for the workers and families that are trapped inside. Rick poses a good point that the workers may be angered by this and could side with the Saviors, creating more soldiers to fight. Daryl just wants to kill and this sets off a fist fight between him and Rick that is interrupted when the humvee catches fire and explodes, destroying the machine gun and dynamite. These two are not very good at getting supplies back home, as seen back in “The Next World,” where they were distracted by Jesus as a truck filled with goods rolled into a lake. This fight is complex, because both sides make very valid points and have reasoning to back them up; Daryl knows what happens when antagonists are not properly dealt with, but Rick is right about sticking to the plan that was established.
The two take a moment to catch their breath and Rick tells Daryl that “chokehold’s illegal,” a direct quoting of a line said by Shane to Daryl back in Season 1’s “Tell it to the Frogs.” Obviously, this wasn’t a fight to the death and really comes across more as two brothers letting off steam. They part ways and while walking to a destination, Rick looks up into the sky and is stunned to see a helicopter in the air (yet another callback to the Pilot episode, in which Rick spots a helicopter flying over Atlanta). He continues his journey and eventually winds up at the Junkyard to meet with Jadis and the Scavengers. Where is this helicopter coming from and who is piloting it? Could it be from a Savior outpost that hasn’t been shown yet? Is it possible that the Scavengers have a pilot in their ranks? Is this the first clue to the crossover with “Fear the Walking Dead”? Or did Rick simply hallucinate this, something he is known to do? There’s also the question of why Rick is visiting the Junkyard; is he hoping to strike up a new deal with the untrustworthy marauders? While I definitely appreciate that Rick and Daryl are being featured more heavily this season (a major complaint that I had with Season 7 was their limited screentime), their material feels somewhat shoehorned in to an episode that should have focused solely on the Sanctuary. That being said, Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus continue to have fantastic on-screen chemistry and I’m thrilled their being feature together more.
Inside the Sanctuary, the Saviors are thrust into chaos as they are forced to deal with the crisis without Negan’s leadership. Being that Simon is the second-in-command, he takes control and begins to lash out at those who’s faith is slightly wavering, like Regina. Gavin points out that the timing of the whole situation makes it clear to him that someone is leaking information to Rick’s group. It’s here that the Saviors really begin to turn on each other as Regina proposes that they sacrifice the workers to the walkers so that they may escape, but Eugene states that this would be in vain due to the size of the herd. Eugene is obviously suspect-number one due to his history with the Alexandria group, so his Savior colleagues really begin to slyly question his loyalty. Later, Eugene pays a visit to Dwight’s apartment to thank him for not turning on him; in typical Eugene-fashion, he presents a jar of pickles to Dwight as a token of appreciation. He also inspects a recently-painted chess set that Dwight created himself, getting red paint on his hand (the Saviors later find a bag of guns with a bit of red paint on it that was given to Rick’s group and Eugene deduces that Dwight is the mole). While Eugene and Dwight have only interacted a handful of times, I’m really fascinated by their relationship, especially considering where they began with the dick-biting in “Twice as Far.”
It’s becoming more apparent that the plan by Rick and the communities wasn’t necessarily to kill the Saviors themselves, but rather to have them turn on each other. We really see this start to happen as the workers migrate from the factory floor and congregate in a hallway outside the “command room” to demand answers from the lieutenants. The power has been cut and the temperature is rising, causing Simon to have to deal with plenty of angry workers. Suddenly, a worker pulls a gun on Simon, but Regina puts a stop to it by firing her own gun. The haunting whistle is heard approaching, causing everyone to drop to their knees and kneel as the Savior King makes his return. Even Gabriel kneels as he listens to Negan reassure his people that everything is fine and that they will find a solution to this problem, calling Simon out specifically and seemingly placing some blame on him. He then orders that Gabriel be taken to a cell before he speaks with Eugene about his faith in him; Negan tells Eugene that he will kill him if he doesn’t come up with a workable solution, so that he doesn’t have to see things get bad inside the Sanctuary. Later, Eugene goes to check in on Gabriel in that all-to-familiar cell that Daryl and Sasha were kept in last season; Eugene mentions that he and Gabriel have been long-time companions, even mentioning that they ate dog together on the road. He is stunned when he opens the door to find a sickly Gabriel asking to meet with Dr. Carson, before telling Eugene that they have to get him back to Maggie. Boom…cliffhanger! Did Gabriel get bit? Is he faking?
“The Big Scary U” is a necessary break from the constant action of war to really develop the Savior characters and see things from their perspective. Eugene, Dwight, Simon, Gavin and Negan all receive strong material here as they are forced to deal with an incredibly tricky situation, balancing their own desire to survive with the needs of the Saviors as a whole. Father Gabriel really stands out as his growth as a character is shown in full-force; when cowardly Gabriel was first introduced, I never expected that he would end up as one of the most heroic characters. This episode does suffer a bit from some in-your-face plot armor, clunky dialogue, odd lighting and irritating cuts from scene to scene. The performances are a definite highlight with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Seth Gilliam, Steven Ogg and Josh McDermitt really selling their portrayals of Negan, Gabriel, Simon and Eugene. I also have to point out how impressed I am with the character of Gavin, who is clearly overwhelmed by both Rick’s forces and the Saviors; Jayson Warner Smith absolutely nails the character and helps to showcase the intricacies of his personality. The countless callbacks, the exploration of Savior politics and the cinematography also contribute to the greatness of this episode. Next week looks to check in on nearly every group, including Michonne, Rosita, Carl and the mysterious stranger, all of which haven’t been seen since the Season Premiere.
Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.