If you felt The Walking Dead had been spinning its gore-covered wheels for the last several seasons, well, last night’s episode introduced something that is truly new. It’s arguably the most important moment since Negan and the Saviors swaggered onto the scene, if not before. But since this is The Walking Dead, I have to wonder: Will it actually change anything?
To be fair, the “miracle,” as I call it, was only a small part of “The Key,” getting revealed over a pretty small amount of screentime. Much of the episode was devoted to rehashing many, many things we’ve seen before, and multiple times. A brief list:
• Rick greatly endangering himself and being needlessly willing to die in order to kill Negan, which he completely fails to do.
• Negan making yet another offer to forgive Rick if he basically stops fighting, despite the fact Rick and his people have pulled so much shit on the Saviors that Negan is genuinely looking weak at this point.
• Maggie treating a group of outsiders poorly for the benefit of Hilltop, only to relent and be a halfway decent person in the last five minutes of the episode.
• Simon complaining about Negan’s rule and looking for a way to murder a bunch of people which, looking at it purely through a cost-benefit analysis, is almost certainly the best course of action for Saviors at this point.
But even these storylines had a few new tricks in them. While searching for Negan after Rick knocks his car out of the caravan (which was heading to Hilltop to launch buckets of zombie guts at them) a half-mile through an abandoned town, Simon talks Dwight into assuming/hoping Negan is dead, partially because Negan is an asshole, but mostly because his repeated forgiveness of Rick and the others’ various attempts to kill them will, uh, probably get the Saviors killed.
I bet Dwight can cover up the fact he partnered with Simon pretty easily, but the main point is that Simon is in charge of the Saviors at the moment, leading in Negan’s name, and his first act as acting Negan-in-chief is going to try to kill everyone in Hilltop instead of scare them. Meanwhile, Rick informs Negan that the Saviors massacred all of the Garbage People; and Negan puts two and two together, which is bad news for Simon. Eventually. Assuming Simon is still alive whenever Negan eventually makes it back to Sanctuary.
The potential game-changer comes in Maggie, Michonne, Rosita, and Enid’s storyline, after they spot one of those plastic milk crates college guys love to put albums in, with a balloon attached to it, outside Hilltop. They suspect it’s a trap but go to check it out anyways; inside is a note asking for food and records, in exchange for “a key to the future.” There’s also some coordinates, and the four head there to find an older woman named Georgie (Jayne Atkinson) and two compatriots. What Georgie has to trade is knowledge, she says, although her SUV is also full of food, which isn’t part of the negotiation. After Rosita sneaks around and sticks them up, Maggie orders Georgie, her minions, her truck, and all the food be taken to Hilltop, because 1) Hilltop is still dangerously low on rations and 2) her people are what matter to Maggie and everyone else can go to hell.
What follows is one of those arguments between our heroes about whether they should be decent people or prioritize their own survival over everyone else. It’s also nothing new for The Walking Dead, but it is augmented by the death of Carl. With his dying words still ringing in her ears, Michonne wants to give Georgie the food and records in hopes that this “key to the future” will be worth it, but also just because she wants everyone to try not murdering all the new people they see for a while. Enid, still anguished that Carl died because he helped a stranger, wants to take their stuff and get rid of them, one way or another. She says, specifically, repeatedly, that they should “take their stuff.”
Does The Walking Dead recognize that this is literally what Negan and the Saviors say all the time? That it’s the basis of their tyranny, that demanding goods and punishing those who fail to give them enough stuff is what sparked the rebellion for both Hilltop and the Kingdom? That the danger of being attacked and having their goods stolen caused Rick and the others to assault that Outpost, setting off all the war? Or is The Walking Dead that oblivious? I think it has to be latter because the “good guys” have constantly thought about doing or actually doing the same things as the “villains,” while never once acknowledging that they’re stepping over the same lines that their opponents have crossed. I’m not even bemoaning that this happens anymore because it’s clearly part and parcel of the show; we have chosen our group, and everyone else in the series can effectively go to hell. The problem is that the show never, ever indicates we should question the morality of their actions because they’re the protagonists, and the result is we’re told that murdering a bunch of people who didn’t know they existed in exchange for their food was definitely a good call.
As mentioned above, however, Maggie eventually relents as per usual, loading up the milk crate with records (“No spoken word!” Georgie demands) before ordering someone to also give them the requested food. At this act of belated kindness, Georgie changes the terms of the deal—having obviously passed her little test, she gives Hilltop some of her food, since they clearly need it, but still gives them the knowledge she promised. It’s a book, literally titled “A Key to a Future,” which contains plans for windmills, watermills, aqueducts, ways to refrain grain, and more. As Georgie calls it, it’s “a book of medieval human achievement” that can actually help civilization recover a little from the apocalypse. It’s like nothing that has ever been seen in the world of The Walking Dead, and if Maggie and the others actually manage to implement it, well, it’ll quite literally change everything.
The question, though, is will The Walking Dead actually allow Maggie and the others to implement it? Given how the show almost desperately keeps its characters from growing—or resets them almost immediately whenever they manage it—it’s genuinely hard for me to imagine that there is a really better future in store for Hilltop and its inhabitants. And I don’t just mean because Simon is currently heading there, determined to kill them all.
Georgie tells Maggie that she’s been watching Hilltop for a while, and knows they’re good people capable of great things. I wish I felt as confident as she does. Because eventually, Rick’s going to come back to Hilltop, and if making a better life for everyone isn’t going to help him kill Negan, there’s no way he’s going to bother with it.
• Just to put a bow on it: Rick literally apologizes to Daryl for trying to save innocent people, because he has decided trying to stop Daryl from letting the zombies into Sanctuary where they would (and presumably did) kill the innocent workers trapped there was a bad move. Let me repeat: Rick apologizes for saving innocents because now he thinks it was dumb. He’s basically shitting on Carl’s grave at this point.
• Negan’s line of the night, after dropping off a stairwell into an essentially pitch-black basement: “I’m a goddamn cat.”
• Speaking of, I’m not sure if it was true in the regular broadcast, but in the screener AMC gave out, this entire scene was literally almost totally pitch black. Although my eyesight isn’t doing particularly well these days, so it may have been just me.
• At some point, Negan passes out while fighting the several dozen zombies Rick lets into the basement in hopes of killing Negan at all costs, and wakes up in the passenger seat in a car with Jadis holding a gun on him. Assuming Jadis doesn’t immediately capitulate and agree to partner/work for him again, given that she doesn’t know her people weren’t all murdered on his orders, this should actually be interesting.
• Rick also set Negan’s bat Lucille on fire and beat some zombies with it which set them on fire, and it just felt for all the world like Rick had grabbed a video game power-up. Given that this was basically the Fire Flower and he grabbed the Invincibility Star in season five, I have high hopes we’ll be seeing him in the Tanooki Suit soon.