All images: Gene Page/AMC.

Here’s the thing about The Walking Dead: Even when it’s pretty good, it can still be very frustrating. And there’s probably no better example of that than last night’s “Time for After,” an episode that managed to be tense, interesting, and extremely aggravating, mostly all at once.

The episode is primarily Eugene’s, as he grapples with: the revelation that Dwight is the traitor, the task of getting rid of the zombies surrounding Sanctuary given to him by Negan, the sick Gabriel’s exhortation to help him smuggle Dr. Carson to Hilltop for Maggie, and then finally procuring booze, because he’s having trouble sleeping at night for some reason.

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Eugene is in fine form, churning out memorably bizarre dialogue that rivals Negan: “What cranks my shaft is being safe.” To Gabriel: “You look like a potato in shit casserole.” Explaining to someone why he needs booze: “Ergo I need the giggle juice.” But the real question is whether Eugene has any affection left for Rick and the Alexandrians that Negan purloined him from, whether he’ll risk himself to help save his former “traveling companions,” as he calls them.

Of course, Eugene is an admitted coward whose primarily goal is his own survival, which has earned him a lot of grief from the protagonists of the show (as if they all haven’t also done some bad/selfish things in order to survive). But while living “cranks his shaft,” he does still want to help people. He doesn’t really want to hurt Rick and the others. He doesn’t rat out Dwight’s treason to Negan, instead telling Dwight he’ll keep his mouth shut if he just stops helping Alexandria which, not for nothing, has endangered his life as well as all those workers by surrounding them with zombies. He’s ostensibly motivated primarily by his own survival, but he would like everyone to live. He just wants himself to live the most.

I say ostensibly because Eugene willingly endangers himself multiple times this episode to keep others alive He doesn’t rat on Dwight, despite the fact that Negan will absolutely kill him if he finds out Eugene knows (or that Dwight could have killed him for knowing). He launches his iPod-laden toy plane in hopes of luring the zombies away from Sanctuary with its music, despite being held at gunpoint by Dwight! And, when Daryl and Tara finally enact their plan to crash that garbage truck into the walls of Sanctuary, it’s him seeing the carnage he knows his former traveling companions have wrought—not just on the Saviors, but those downtrodden workers Rick was trying to keep alive—that enrages him. Eugene decides that Alexandria and the others can go to hell; he tells Gabriel to go to hell; he devises a plan to save Sanctuary and those in it (which we don’t get details on); and even then he still can’t quite bring himself to rat out Dwight.

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Yes, he ends the episode guzzling booze straight from the bottle, and surely some of that is because he’s helped Negan continue his reign of machismo-fascism, but it’s just as valid a read that he’s finally processing how many times his life was in danger this episode. He was surely terrified, but he’s not a coward. He helped keep many, many people alive this episode—yes, Negan and the Saviors, but likely many of those workers, too—even including people he knows could be a threat to him personally, like Dwight.

Even if he is still purely motivated by self-preservation, he’s just seen AHK (his acronym for the Alexandria-Hilltop-Kingdom alliance, which I will 100 percent be using in the future) deliberately trying to get everyone in Sanctuary killed, including himself. Why? To survive. Why shouldn’t Eugene be allowed to have the same priority for himself?

Of course, what Eugene doesn’t know is that Rick and AHK aren’t behind this new assault, but instead a rogue operation by Daryl and Tara, which is the first place “Time for After” gets frustrating. We know, narratively, that not only is Daryl and Tara’s plan doomed to fail, it’s going to mess up Rick’s plan, too, thus allowing Negan and the Saviors to maraud once more. If case it wasn’t clear, Michonne spells it out: “We know things are working now,” she says. Why risk messing it up? Why risk themselves and whatever unforeseen consequences by deviating from the plan?

Well, because Daryl and Tara want vengeance more than they want wins. As does Morgan, who shows up ready to help them finish the Saviors off. Rosita and Michonne refuse to be a part of it, and leave—although man, between knowing that all those workers are going to be put in serious danger and that this could endanger Rick’s plan, you’d think they’re actually try to stop Daryl, Tara, and Morgan instead of just leaving. But nope. And Daryl throws a concrete block on the garbage truck’s accelerator, drives the truck into Sanctuary, and the zombies flood in and start chowing down.

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To be fair, knowing that these three are about to blow Rick’s entire operation makes for some real dramatic tension, and I was thoroughly engaged with “Time for After,” watching with dismay as seven full episodes of battle against the Saviors inevitably hurtled towards failure. But man, it would be much more satisfying if Rick’s plan was ruined for a reason that doesn’t involve other heroes being dumb-dumbs.

And speaking of dumb-dumbs, let’s check in with Rick, shall we? He’s still being imprisoned by the Garbage People, although he’s also been stripped to his skivvies. He’s taken out briefly so that one of the Garbage Men can draw him and so the Garbage Lady can take photos of him to sculpt “after,” because these people really are some kind of bizarre performance art group that survived the zombie apocalypse but never lost their love of art or challenging the social norms that all died horribly all those years ago.

Rick is taken out again when it’s “time for after,” wherein the Garbage Lady has her men bring out that weird Mad Max zombie with the spiked helmet for Rick to have a rematch, which is aggravating in the extreme since Rick’s reason for being there at all is so stupid. Rick acquits himself well, though, in that despite being tied up he grabs the pole the Garbage People use to direct the Spike Zombie while keeping him away; Using the pole as a staff—yes, despite it still being welded firmly to a zombie’s skull—Rick manages to defeat the Garbage People who are there, rip the zombie’s head off it body (more or less making the staff the world’s grossest morning star) and throws Garbage Lady to the ground, inches away fron the Spike Zombies severed, growling head.

And Rick asks her to join up again.

The Waking Dead is a show about the dead reanimating with a desire for nothing but human flesh, but Rick’s idiocy here is easily the most unrealistic aspect of this show. The Garbage People have not only betrayed him once, killing many Alexandrians, but forced him to fight the Spike Zombie when he first encountered them. He wanders, alone, back to their dump to offer them another chance to join up, which is moronic, and then, when they imprison him and force to fight Spike again, and he wins, he offers them yet another chance to join him.

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He shouldn’t trust the Garbage Lady to let him out the front gate unless he’s holding a gun to her head, but he lets her go, and she tells her men to stand down. I will say, though, I really appreciate how ballsy/terrible the Garbage People are in that after Rick has just shown he can murder Jadis right then and there, and she’s betrayed him once already, she demands all the Saviors’ stash when they win. Rick is adamant on them only getting a quarter (the Garbage Lady attempts to score a quarter and a chance to sculpt Rick nude, but no-go), but even I, who am obsessed with the protagonist showing forgiveness and compassion, would be fine if Rick said, “Help us and we won’t attack you for what you did.”

There are only two options here, and they both suck. Either the Garbage People really will hold true to their word this time because Rick made an extremely dumb gesture to them, which based on what we know should not affect them in the slightest. They absolutely should betray him again. But if they do betray him, then it proves Rick is the imbecile he seems to be, and that’s going to be awful, too. There’s no win here.

Worse, Rick’s stupidity calls into question his current plan to get the Saviors to surrender, thus giving legitimacy to Daryl and Tara’s Operation: Kill ‘Em All. But we’ll never know, because when Rick leads the Garbage People to see what he’s done to Sanctuary, he finds one of his sentries dead. He can’t reach any of his snipers on the coms. And when he finally gets to high ground to survey the Saviors’ compound, he sees not a single zombie in sight. The battle is over, and the war continues.

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Obviously, Eugene’s mysterious plan worked, whatever it was, and I suspect we’ll find out the truck crashing into the building made Eugene’s plan possible. And I also suspect that this attempt by the Alexandrian forces to kill everyone inside Sanctuary—instead of just holding a zombie siege—has made Negan’s workers so terrified of these outside forces that they’ll adhere totally to him for protection, when before they might have been excited to escape their grasp. And I suspect the Garbage People may just take advantage of this new predicament. Rick Grimes and the Alexandrians snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yet again.

I’ve still mostly enjoyed this season, guys. I’m just, well, frustrated that after next week’s midseason finale we may end up almost exactly where we were when we began. Well, except for one thing. Rick played his hand in the season finale. With Sanctuary free, it’s Negan’s turn to counterattack.

Assorted Musings:

  • Gabriel has multiple infections from smearing rotting corpse bits all over himself. This makes an infinite amount of sense to me, and I appreciate The Walking Dead dipping its toe into a bit of verisimilitude.
  • Negan offers Eugene his hand, and a baffled Eugene nervously attempted to kiss it. When Negan explained he was actually offering him a handshake as a sign of his respect, it was actually kind of sweet, in a twisted sort of way.
  • Props to Andrew Lincoln, who looks great without looking like he’s been on a crazy superhero movie exercise diet/regimen. That would have looked super-weird, and I appreciate it. Also, rowr.
  • There are no more RPG rockets. Rosita used the last one to blow up a single dude.
  • Yes, I know her name is Jadis and they’re called the Scavengers. But “Garbage People” is just far too accurate for me to not use.