Now that we’ve been reminded yet again Rick is the worst, it’s time for The Walking Dead to start moving its game pieces in preparation for Protagonists vs. the Saviors round… oh, let’s say four. So “Dead or Alive or” is a bit of a check-in, a bit of re-arranging, and even a bit of housecleaning, all tied together by a very special appearance from the Judeo-Christian deity.
I’m kidding… kind of? The episode follows a bunch of stories, as per usual, none of them particularly more productive than the others, but the primary focus is definitely on the very ill Father Gabriel and the Hilltop doctor/ob-gyn Harlan, who escaped from Sanctuary in the first half of the season, in hopes in getting the doc back in time to help Maggie have her baby. It begins with them not only lost, but Gabriel so riddled with whatever virus he has that he’s losing his sight, and is unable to guide him to Hilltop.
Gabriel relentlessly tells the doc that they’re being guided by God and God is leading their way and all of what they’re doing and all the obstacles they’re facing are His plan, and what’s strange is that for most of the episode the show really makes it seem that God is right there with the two of them, helping them out. God helps Gabriel hear some barely audible bells (it’s actually a clanking sign, but whatever) and leads them to an empty cabin in the woods that near-miraculously has antibiotics. Gabriel starts getting better, although his eyes don’t (the doc suggests they’re permanently busted), but that’s just God helping Gabriel accidentally knock over a piggy bank that—genuinely miraculously—has car keys and a map in it. Even Harlan starts to believe God is leading them at that point.
Unfortunately, that’s when God leads Harlan into a bear trap on his way to the car, and surrounds him with zombies. A few get caught in other traps, but it feels like several dozen fall on the doc, although God doesn’t allow him to be bitten. In fact, God helps lead the two-thirds blind Gabriel through the bear traps and find the gun Harlan had dropped and even shoot at the blur that is the doc wrestling with the zombie and shoot the latter in the head. The doc, and the day, are saved! They get into the car and get ready to head home.
Unfortunately, that’s when God leads the Saviors right to Gabriel and Harlan. When they load them into a truck to be taken back to Sanctuary, the doc, emboldened by all the help God has given them so far, grabs one of the Savior’s guns to shoot his way out—only to be instantly murdered. Suffice it to say Gabriel starts having another crisis of faith. He also starts crying.
I’m not really trying to poke fun here, but since The Walking Dead makes Gabriel mention God leading them in about every other sentence, coupled with the sheer number of contrivances they benefit from, the show is putting Gabe’s belief that there is a kind and benevolent deity in the TWD universe watching over these characters in the spotlight. Although the “wah-waaah” ending was telegraphed to hell and back, it also feels like the show wants us to feel like Gabriel is a dumb-dumb for believing God exists at all, or at least for believing His plan doesn’t involve many, many people, including good people, killed. So make of that what you will.
Meanwhile, in the storylines God is not watching over: Daryl, Rosita, and Tara are leading the Alexandrians to Hilltop while trying to avoid Savior patrols, with Dwight in tow. It’s mainly an excuse for everyone to debate whether Dwight should be killed or not yet again, or if they shouldn’t kill him because he still has loads of useful information on the Saviors. Tara is the leader of Team Murder Him and Daryl leads Team Let Him Help Us Defeat Negan and Then Murder Him. Virtually all of it is treading old ground, which is a bit galling since viewers have already seen plenty of times that Dwight is all-in with the Alexandrians, and the fact that Tara, while understandably wanting vengeance for Dwight murdering Denise way back when, willfully ignores the help Dwight has given makes her character one-dimensional.
So after Dwight advises the Alexandrians to go through a nearby swamp because the Saviors don’t patrol there, it’s agonizingly obvious what’s going to happen when Tara hangs back after Dwight is also told to hang back while a crew clears a path through the zombie-dotted swamp. But we have to go through that, and we have to go through Tara making him go take out some zombies, but only giving him a knife while she’s carrying a gun, then her drawing on him, and, after he explains yet again that he just wants to help defeat Negan and he knows he’s going to be killed after that and is cool with that, Tara shooting at him.
Even the fact that the two of them have to hide when a group of Saviors is about to come by isn’t really a shocker, but it’s nice when they hear the patrol talk about investigating the swamp and Dwight springs out of the bushes, explaining he barely escaped a fight with the Alexandrians, and has been trying to get back to Sanctuary the entire time, and most importantly since he just came through the swamp, he can assure them that there are zero Alexandrians there. Tara is forced to watch as he saves the group, even though it means he has to go back to Sanctuary and pretend to be a Savior again.
When everyone regroups, Daryl, oddly, is the one who emphatically joins Team Murder Him, yelling that Dwight’s betrayed them all, while Tara explains that no, in fact, he saved them. But Daryl only really calms down when he realizes he’s scaring the hell out of a child.
Meanwhile, at Hilltop, Maggie is faced with two dilemmas: 1) they have no food, meaning everyone has to drop down to one-third rations just to get through the week, and that’s if the prisoners get nothing, and 2) the prisoners (and Gregory) ask for a little time out of their jail, to walk and exercise and such, since they’ve all been on good behavior. Maggie initially decides the prisoners can starve and they deserve no kindness or consideration whether or not they appear to have changed their behavior, but by the end of the episode she’s decided that everyone’s getting quarter-rations, including the prisoners, and that two of them will be let out on occasion, under heavy guard. But she is very grumpy about it.
Eventually, the Alexandrians arrive at Hilltop and Daryl and company are forced to inform everybody that Carl is super-dead, all done without dialogue (Carol’s pretty rocked by it, but Enid obviously takes it worse). But now just about everyone’s together in one location—someone even announces Rick and Michonne are at the gate, although we don’t see them—and Maggie is certain they can’t lose their war against the Saviors.
The easy retort would be “Now you have even less food” but they have a much bigger problem than that. See, while all of this going on, Negan finally puts Eugene in charge of that outpost with the workshop where he can make the post-apocalypse’s only known supply of new bullets. He’s got workers and women (whom he immediately starts treating badly) and, most importantly, wine. He even gets a near-blind man to help sort shell casings, when Negan drops off Father Gabriel, who’s too stunned at the realization that this is the path God set for him to do anything, really.
And it gets worse because of course it does! When Negan tells Eugene that he can’t wait a few days for his new supply of ammo, Eugene has a brilliant/horrible idea—zombie catapults. Since any part of a zombie that breaks a person’s skin causes them to become a zombie, launching a big pile of undead heads of limbs has a fair shot of causing a least a little amount of body damage, which is enough (also, as Eugene points out, getting a bunch of rotting corpse pieces shot at you at high velocity would have a demoralizing effect on just about anybody).
So Negan stages one of his Saviors company-wide meetings, where he talks about the new direction he’s taking them in: using zombification itself as a weapon. He illustrates this by rubbing his bat Lucille deep inside a zombie’s face (which is impressively gruesome), covering the barrel in infected blood and gore. Now, even a scratch of Lucille’s barbed wire is enough to effectively kill somebody. And Negan promises he’s going to take care of everyone who hasn’t acceded to the Saviors’ “protection”—“Dead or alive… or some kind shit in-between.”
God’s plan may seem less than benevolent for our heroes, but don’t count Jehovah out just yet. Sure, giving the other side zombie catapults isn’t great, but it turns out Siddiq, the guy Carl sacrificed himself to save? He’s got a bit of “medical experience”! Maggie’s baby might make it! And hey, once Gabriel recovers, maybe he’ll discover he’s right where he’s supposed to be, in a place where he can find a way to sabotage all the Saviors’ new bullets. God may indeed have a plan… it just looks like it’s going to include a lot more people dying first.
• I really thought the Savior Maggie killed and put in that coffin she sent to Negan was the long-haired asshole who killed Henry’s brother Benjamin in the infamous cantaloupe episode, but apparently not.
• That’s because said long-haired asshole was still in the Hilltop jail, and Morgan really wanted to tell Henry who killed his brother so the 12-year-old could murder the jerk and get his vengeance. Even Carol thinks this is a godawful idea, and after the Alexandrians arrive and let everyone know Carl is dead, Morgan tells Henry it was Gavin, the dude Henry murdered in the midseason premiere. So now Henry is mentally and emotionally fine forever.
• Gregory the Weasel makes a welcome appearance to be weaselly and suggest to Maggie that everyone should probably abandon Hilltop and just run.
• What the hell was with Eugene shitting on Negan-wife Frankie (I think it’s Frankie) for? Did the power of running an outpost immediately go to his head? Is he so disgusted with himself that he’s lashing out at those he feels more powerful than? Given his drinking problem, signs point to the latter option, but still, what an asshole.
• When Dwight joined the group of Saviors and grabbed the gun from one of them, I did actually think he was going to turn around and gun them all down. But I suppose given the choice between going undercover again and staying with the group that’s constantly about to murder him, going undercover is the more sensible choice, since him staying alive would be the most conducive to killing Negan.