NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “The Walking Dead” are present in this review
The Walking Dead gets very busy in, “What It Always Is”, balancing quite a lot of separate events between Hilltop and Alexandria once again, despite seemingly moving away from some of the paranoia surrounding the Whisperers. Even with the survivors supposedly distracted after the previous week’s events however, there’s nonetheless plenty of story developments to chew on here, as Negan finds himself fleeing Alexandria, Kelly becomes lost in the woods after her senses act up again, and a series of supply thefts puts everyone on edge at Hilltop. We also see the Whisperers finally return in the flesh within this episode, as Gamma has an unlikely encounter with an Alexandrian.
There’s quite a lot to unpack in this episode of The Walking Dead, and like the episode that preceded it, this collection of narrative elements feels a little uneven in terms of appeal. Between the storylines, it’s likely Negan that gets the best one in this case, once again being unleashed on the wilderness by his lonesome, at least at first. A close runner-up would potentially be Ezekiel’s surprising revelation to Siddiq that he has thyroid cancer however, which is apparently hereditary in his family line. While this does explain Ezekiel’s possible suicide attempt during the previous episode even more, it’s also true that Ezekiel suddenly being cancer-stricken wasn’t really heavily foreshadowed, despite his symptoms apparently manifesting after putting out the forest fire. This is ultimately a minor nitpick though, since the revelation is still done with plenty of weight. There’s also disappointingly little emphasis once again placed on Ezekiel in this episode though, with the only other development being Ezekiel almost confessing that he’s sick to Carol via radio, before deciding not to. Well, that was a whole lot of nothing.
Still, even if the otherwise good Ezekiel twist was a bit undercooked, the standout Negan storyline is an overall winner. After Negan flees from Alexandria, he ends up coming across another deserting Alexandrian, a young man named Brandon, who apparently worships ‘Classic Negan’, and his reign with the Saviors. Brandon has never really been seen before now, but he did nonetheless provide the backbone of another standout Negan storyline, as Negan’s past once again catches up to him in an unexpected way. This is despite Negan claiming to be a changed man as well, even going as far as to save a woman and her son from being devoured by walkers on a bus, and telling Brandon to leave when he threatens to attack them himself.
If there’s been a brilliant sort of subtext to Negan’s character, particularly after his imprisonment at Alexandria, it’s the fact that he’s actually got a strong desire to be linked to family, despite his outward bravado. In particular, Negan appears to regret never having children with his late first wife, Lucille before the walker apocalypse. This no doubt explains why Negan constantly bonded so easily with young characters like Carl, Judith, Lydia, and now this boy that he’s rescued, which is done in a standout scene, wherein Negan reflects on the disappointment behind the boy missing out on pre-apocalypse amenities that Negan always took for granted. Once Brandon inevitably comes back and kills the boy and his mother as well, Negan violently bashes Brandon’s head in with a rock, ultimately picking up his old leather jacket and newly-reformed wire bat, and appearing to shack up with the Whisperers during the final seconds of the episode! Negan ultimately falling back into old habits is something that probably should have been explored over more than one episode, but the twist of Negan joining the Whisperers is pretty awesome, and presents great promise for the rest of Season Ten’s front half!
The Whisperer subplot meanwhile is a little clumsier, despite also presenting an interesting premise. After Gamma continues using walker bodies and organs to dam up a river at Alpha’s request, toward some unknown end, Gamma encounters Aaron, who eventually tosses her a bandage when Gamma accidentally injures herself. Despite showing the bandage to Alpha, Gamma is nonetheless troubled after seeing Alpha kill another dissenter, sending his re-animated body to be used with Gamma’s dam effort. Again, this is a cool idea, though Gamma seemingly struggling with Alpha’s brutality, particularly after Aaron’s kindness, feels like it’s all happening too quickly. Remember, just a couple of episodes ago, Gamma let her own sister die to curry Alpha’s favour! Why is Gamma all of a sudden struggling with her loyalties then, when she’s already irredeemably bonded herself to Alpha’s animalistic ideology beforehand?
The remaining subplot in this episode is also a bit of a clunker, taking place at Hilltop. Kelly being lost in the woods with her senses being on the fritz is a good idea on paper, especially when it allows Daryl and Connie to once again team up on a rescue effort. Apparently though, Magna and Kelly have been skimming supplies from Hilltop, which the community has since noticed. Daryl and Connie ultimately cover for the two women, but this turn is littered with narrative problems. First of all, I get that Magna has some beef with Yumiko right now, but how exactly does that motivate her and Kelly to begin hoarding supplies for themselves? Second, Magna acting guilty as hell by openly blowing off her guard duties, and being as rude as possible about it, is just stupid. Finally, why was Kelly hunting alone in the first place? This whole story arc felt like it was full of holes, and only existed to force another issue at Hilltop, without once again probing at the growing Whisperer paranoia that’s now becoming a problem again within the survivors’ communities.
Negan dominated a huge chunk of the appeal in, “What It Always Is”, with the rest of the story ideas once again working to mixed effect. The prospect of Negan teaming with the Whisperers alone is a pretty promising one, but it would have been ideal if the Whisperers weren’t also saddled with a disappointingly weak Gamma subplot here. Likewise, the Magna/Kelly hoarding effort is just stupid on multiple levels, especially when the current strained relationship between Magna and Yumiko feels similarly forced. Maybe the next handful of episodes will explain what’s up Magna’s ass lately, but like Daryl says, it’s hard to believe that Hilltop is tolerating Magna’s shit to this extent! If there’s one character that really needs more narrative love at this point though, it’s Ezekiel, especially since he’s been seemingly marked for death now. The emotional struggle from Ezekiel’s and Carol’s divorce still clearly has a big payoff waiting in the wings though, one that I hope gives Ezekiel a dramatic send-off worthy of the fallen Kingdom eventually.
- Negan's emotionally-charged escape effort
- Daryl and Connie getting to team up again
- Ezekiel revealing cancer symptoms to Siddiq
- Magna/Kelly pilfering drama feels stupid and forced
- Still not enough focus on Ezekiel
- Gamma's loyalty to Alpha suddenly falling apart