NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “The Walking Dead” are present in this review
After floundering with its unappealing look at the Reapers last week, The Walking Dead actually rebounded this week, with a scattered, but mostly satisfying episode that covered a surprising amount of narrative ground. “Out of the Ashes” continues to spotlight the dire state of Alexandria to strong effect, but even better is that it offers our first true look at civilian life within new faction, the Commonwealth. At the same time, we also get a chance to explore what remains of the ruined Hilltop, as Aaron, Carol, Lydia and Jerry undertake their own mission to secure vital blacksmithing supplies, only to run into some surprising faces.
The Walking Dead’s final season has been pretty uneven so far, but now that the various story arcs are starting to explore some better territory, the potential behind introducing the Commonwealth especially is starting to shine through. There’s even a pretty solid twist behind an otherwise rosy, optimistic introduction to the Commonwealth’s interior here, namely that Eugene, Ezekiel, Yumiko and Princess are granted asylum, albeit as permanent probationary citizens. This obviously isn’t the plan, and before long, Eugene’s desire to get help and return to Alexandria eventually convinces even Stephanie to go along with his plans to make an unauthorized radio transmission to Rosita.
Now, as much as the Commonwealth seems almost sickly idyllic by the standards of AMC’s Walking Dead TV universe, those who have read the Walking Dead comic books in particular will suspect that there are some sinister secrets lurking underneath this faction. The way that the Commonwealth is initially presented on the Walking Dead TV series, complete with a cheesy video guide by influential Commonwealth personality, Hornsby, seems genuinely wholesome and inviting though, especially when Yumiko finally reunites with her long-lost brother, Tomi, who has forsaken his former pre-apocalypse life as a surgeon to instead work in a Commonwealth bakery. Tomi in particular seems to indicate that the Commonwealth truly is a post-apocalyptic paradise, and that makes it seem almost disappointing when Mercer inevitably busts Eugene and Stephanie, alongside Princess and Ezekiel as accomplices, after they manage to get a brief, unhelpful message back to Judith and Rosita in Alexandria. Uh oh!
Speaking of Judith and Rosita, they occupy a smaller, less consequential subplot this week, but said subplot does manage to carry some decent dramatic weight. After Judith antagonizes some teenagers that are senselessly tempting walker bites, following Alexandria’s weakened walls finally being breached by walkers (sadly, this is very believable teenage behaviour for the walker apocalypse), she eventually returns home to find that the wooden handprint boards she made with Carl have been destroyed. This results in a brief moment of tears that Judith shares with Rosita, who confides in Judith that her mother died young, and she never really knew her father. Like I said, this doesn’t have much to do with the current pressing stakes facing The Walking Dead’s survivors, but this nice character moment between Judith and Rosita nonetheless proves to be a sweet reprieve from Alexandria’s otherwise bleak condition.
Speaking of bleak conditions, a highlight story arc actually occurs at the ruins of Hilltop this week, with Carol, Aaron, Lydia and Jerry finding a handful of blacksmith supplies in the charred ruins of the community, only to also stumble upon some displaced ex-Whisperers! After Aaron attempts to intimidate one of the ex-Whisperers, Keith into divulging whether the Whisperers are regrouping and preparing more revenge, Aaron and Jerry cause Keith to be bitten by a captured walker as a means of torture, a move that disgusts Lydia and Carol. Carol eventually puts an end to the display, and Aaron then capitulates to letting Keith live, complete with amputating his bitten hand. This is a clever turn, not just because Aaron’s mercy results in his group organically learning from Keith that Connie survived the cave collapse, but also because it delivers the perfect epilogue to the Whisperer War. Like some of the ex-Saviors, what remains of the Whisperers are no longer a threat, and Alexandria can finally move on from their old battle with Alpha, especially when they’ve now found intel to suggest that Connie survived, which viewers already know.
The only story arc in this episode that didn’t thrive as effectively is the subplot surrounding Negan and Maggie, which unfortunately feels like a bit of a non-starter in this case. With Alden being injured and having to hole up in a church, Negan and Maggie were primed for some grade-A tension, tension that’s constantly threatening to boil over as the two disagree about whether to press on, or cut their losses and return to Alexandria. Despite this promising subplot foundation however, Negan and Maggie only briefly trade blows, only to be quickly interrupted by Gabriel and Elijah, who finally rendezvous with them at the meeting point. This subplot thus largely existed merely to fill space, and create more disposable drama, once again squandering the Negan/Maggie animosity to an unwelcome degree.
Even so, “Out of the Ashes” is one of the strongest episodes that The Walking Dead’s final season has delivered so far. The Commonwealth and Hilltop plots smartly shouldered the bulk of narrative focus, since they’re the most pivotal and appealing story turns, while the subplot with Judith and Rosita helped to fill out just enough space in the episode. Like I said, the only subplot that floundered in this case was the Negan/Maggie subplot, which didn’t really go anywhere, again. Several of the survivors did find a surprisingly rewarding way to learn of Connie’s survival though, plus our first look at the interior of the Commonwealth proved to be a very colourful, memorable switch from the struggling, starving Alexandria. It feels like The Walking Dead’s extended final season is starting to figure out its narrative at this point, with only the Reapers being the consistent weak link for now. Fortunately, we got a week off from the Reapers here, even if we’ll no doubt have to pick back up with Daryl eventually, as he remains in bed with the Reapers over the next three weeks.
The Walking Dead rebounds with a promising introduction to the Commonwealth's true interior this week, alongside a dramatic return to the ruins of Hilltop.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Great first look at the Commonwealth's civilian area
Dramatic encounter with the ex-Whisperers at Hilltop