Call me crazy, but I actually really liked this episode. It was easy to follow, it featured character development as well as action, and the long shoot-outs were kept to a minimum. Plus, ninja Carol is always entertaining, as is Jerry and the Rick & Daryl roadshow.

I must say, the cold open had me a bit worried. Those opening shots of shirtless Ezekiel looked alarmingly like a flashback scene, and I was afraid we’d be getting an Ezekiel origin story (although admittedly a zoo full of zombie beasts would have been fun). Luckily, the before-the-war flashback was brief, and as much as I like to rag on Ezekiel’s pompous speeches, the guy is pretty damn good at delivering them.

What I didn’t work for me was the silent montage of the Kingdom warriors preparing for battle, complete with Bear McCreary’s emotional music. This was yet another case of mishandled editing as far as I’m concerned: had they shown us these guys before they got decimated by the Saviors in last week’s closing moments, the whole scene would have been much more successful in tugging at our heartstrings. However, it did make sense in terms of showing Ezekiel’s POV, so I didn’t mind it too much.

[Also not really working for me: Ezekiel’s wig. Like Daryl’s bizarrely sparse grey beard and bad hair dyejob, Ezekiel’s dreads are too contrasting with his mostly black beard. I’m guessing it’s more faithful to the comics rather than going for realism, but it’s still a bit jarring.]

Still, this whole scene semi-worked. We see Ezekiel before he puts his ‘costume’ (and his brave face) on, we hear the same speech about how and yet he smiles, and the juxtaposition with the massacre outside the Savior outpost gates is heartbreaking. It’s also a nice callback to Rick’s own state of mind before Negan showed up in Season 6: both appeared too cocky heading in for battle – Rick actually confident, Ezekiel simply playing the part, and inspiring his troops to follow him anywhere.

In this case, unfortunately, they followed him right into a trap, and most of them ended up dead, but not before a couple of brave souls jumped on their king to shield him from the gunfire. Watching him push himself out from under their dead bodies was reminiscent of Glen crawling out from the dumpster, but at least there was no real cliffhanger here, and I’m pretty sure the show didn’t intend for this to be an actual death fake-out.

Ezekiel might be alive, but his leg was injured in the shoot-out. Still, that’s no excuse for him not to haul ass out of there before his men started to turn. I was practically yelling at my screen, not only because he took his sweet ol’ time, but also because apparently he doesn’t carry a knife on him other than his sword hidden in his walking stick…? You’d think he’d hide a blade somewhere in all that armor, but no. Ugh.

At this point I kept expecting a Carol (or Shiva) ex machina to come to Ezekiel’s rescue, but our favorite lady ninja has already managed to sneak into what we can now confirm is Gavin’s outpost: a bunch of Saviors are loading up the weapons Rick and Daryl were looking for. Finally, the show actually takes time to show us where our guys are and what they’re up to – it took a while, but hey, better late than never.

Carol’s doing her Carol thing hiding in the ceiling as the Saviors carry the weapon crates and quickly dispatches them: it’s not flashy, but it’s damn effective. Meanwhile, Ezekiel is in trouble, as a Savior who looks like a hillbilly rapist from a 70’s exploitation film sneaks up behind him and holds him at gunpoint. Granted, we get a lot of unnecessary exposition here, but TWD always does a fine job of making us instantly hate a character, and the more we watch him smile that creepy, giant-tooth grin of his, the more we want him to die a horrible death.

What’s maddening is that the show chooses to repeat needless dialogue (in this case, the part about how Negan wants all three communities’ leaders brought to him alive), yet opted for a very confusing 2-episode arc of action without the slightest explanation of where our guys were or what they were doing. Sigh. It’s even more maddening when creepy guy basically lays out everything Ezekiel has been thinking since his men were massacred a few minutes ago, especially considering both of them should be in a rush to get away from the increasing number of walkers heading their way. I’m still willing to let it go because I actually loved his “You got ’em all killed, they’re still following you” line. And still no Shiva ex machina to save the King’s ass, which ups the tension considerably.

Meanwhile, Carol has followed the crate-carrying Saviors outside the building, and we get a repeat performance of a frustrating scene from The Damned, this time courtesy of Carol: she has a clear shot, the Saviors are busy loading the crates up onto the truck bed, and instead of taking the shot, she watches for a long moment before loading a fresh clip of ammo. And then, as soon as she takes aim, they’re magically ready and waiting, machine-gun in hand, shooting back at her, because OF COURSE.

Creepy Savior continues to taunt Ezekiel and – again, maddeningly – takes time to do a little blood face-paint number on him after the king’s failed attempt to overpower him and steal back his sword. Once again, we get the same old, tired trope of super-slow walkers closing in (as opposed to fast, stealth-walkers when a secondary character needs to be killed off), but this time I don’t mind it too much, because Creepy Savior gets literally sliced in half by Jerry ex machina, who was conspicuously absent from the massacre scene at the top of the episode. [At this point I guess we should be questioning why he wasn’t the first one to jump on Ezekiel and shield his king but I don’t care, I’m just glad Jerry lives. Which we already knew, because we’d seen the whole “thank you for being such a cool dude” scene in the Season 8 trailers, but still. Yeah Jerry!].

Inside the gates, we get another repeat performance by Carol: she fake surrenders long enough to let a Savior approach her, then uses him as a human shield to distract his friends long enough to push the button than opens the fence, letting all the walkers in to finish the job for her.

Outside, Ezekiel and Jerry aren’t doing so well: the walkers are closing in, Jerry’s ax can’t break the chain to open the gate, and then the ax head breaks off. Carol can see their predicament from her vantage point and now she has a choice to make: either kill the last two Saviors and get the guns, or save Jerry and the King. And we all know Carol’s just one big softie at heart, so it’s no surprise when she shoots up the walkers and lets the Saviors go.

Time for a flashback, but this actually works for me here – and would have worked a lot better if it hadn’t been preceeded by Creepy Savior’s monologue. I’m even willing to let slide the fact that we’ve already heard this before a couple of seasons ago, because this time we get the answer we never got during Carol’s no-violence days at the Kingdom: even though Ezekiel bared his soul to her about his true story, all he gets in return is her honest answer to his question and no detailed life story or heart-to-heart.

“Were you always this strong, this brave? Or did you decide who you want to be today?”
“I decided, like you. And life decided some things too.”

In the here and now, life decides a few things for Ezekiel. He’s injured, he’s lost his men, he’s slowing down Carol and Jerry, he’s disillusioned and willing to sacrifice himself to save their lives. After all, he’s just “some guy“. Except not: much like Rick was some guy before this whole thing began, he rose to power because he inspired people to follow them. Much like meek and helpless Carol, he decided to take charge of his life and be someone else. His self-deprecation is admirable, but neither Jerry nor Carol will have it, and definitely not when they know they still have a fighting chance: the Saviors may have escaped with the weapons, but Rick and Daryl are close at their heels, and we get a great chase scene.

If you want to nitpick, then I guess you could point out that Rick could have at least made an effort to shoot the Savior in the truck bed working the machine gun, but, again, I’ll let it slide, because the shot of Rick swerving to the side and Daryl coming up from behind the jeep to kill the Savior was brilliant, as was Rick jumping into the Savior truck and tossing the driver out the door. Operation: heavy artillery is a success.

Sadly, this small triumph is followed by tragedy, as Shiva-ex-machina finally arrives at the nick of time and delays the walkers long enough to allow Ezekiel, Carol and Jerry to make their getaway, but is ultimately overpowered and sacrifices herself to save the life of the person who had saved hers. This is what makes the almost-unnecessary flashback a lot more poignant, and it was a hell of a lot sadder than the sad music montage flashback at the beginning of the episode. It was also exactly like the scene from the GoT Hold The Door scene, but I think it’s sequence lifted straight out of the comics, so I can’t really fault it too much. [Man, TWD really hates animals, doesn’t it? So far we’ve had multiple horses, dogs, squirrels, pigs, bunnies and a goat die at the hands of Rick, Daryl, stupid Lizzie and the walkers, and now Shiva is gone too.] RIP Shiva. You’ll be missed, even if the bad CGI won’t be.

Was this a stellar episode? Not quite, but I enjoyed it more than the previous Season 8 installments so far. There were no character inconsistencies, the action didn’t become confusing, I like Khary Peyton’s acting, Carol was great as usual, and Rick & Daryl are always fantastic together. As much as I regret the way this had to happen, we did need to see Ezekiel knocked down a peg, just like Rick last season.

Did we really need all the flashbacks? No, and even though I thought the second one did have its place in the episode, it wouldn’t have hurt the storytelling if it weren’t there. For the most part, all these flashbacks just feel like filler, or at least a way to delay the action in order to get to whatever we’re heading towards, in time for the mid-season finale. And now that this phase of the war is over, hopefully we won’t have to go back and forth between smaller groups to follow the action.

Still, several questions remain:

  1. What does the Kingdom’s loss mean for Ezekiel’s future as their leader? Jerry doesn’t seem to think his king should drop the act (and the title), but I have to wonder if the rest of his people will feel the same way after the massacre that took out every single one of their fighters.
  2. What happened to Gabriel and Negan? For all we know, they’re still trapped inside the box car, surrounded by walkers. Is it fair to assume that the Sanctuary men have cleared the herd or at least secured part of their compound by now? Are we getting yet another iteration of an Alexandria prisoner being fed dogfood sandwiches and subjected to awful music, or will Gabriel follow in Eugene’s footsteps? Out of all the group’s main characters so far, those two have been the most weak-willed, but Gabriel made a hell of a comeback to redeem himself last season and I’m hoping this won’t be the end of his hero arc.
  3. Much as I love Maggie, I’m still not convinced she’s leader material. Sure, she’s a sympathetic figure, she’s brave and a great warrior, but is everyone’s certainty that she’ll “know what to do” about the hostage situation really warranted? From where I stand, she just invited a bunch of horrible people into the Hilltop, which means extra mouths to feed and extra guards to keep watch. Not to mention weasely Gregory, who’ll probably do his best to undermine her as soon as the shock wears off.Add to that the recycled conflict between Jesus and Morgan’s philosophies, and I fear we’re headed towards disaster.
  4. I hate to bring this up because we’ve been doing fine all this time without them, but where are the trash people in all of this? Surely they’ll be coming back at some point, so all I can hope for is that their screen time will be as brief as possible. Maybe the tough ladies from Oceanside will finally make their way back to the area to lend a hand? And what about Sherry? Surely she’ll turn up somewhere as soon as Dwight finally leaves the Sanctuary and joins up with Rick & Co?

It looks like we have a long way to go before All Out War is over, and as much as I hope it can be wrapped up before 8B, stretching the action at the Savior outposts over three episodes doesn’t bode well for a quick resolution. Still, for the first time this season, I’m actually excited to see where this is going – which probably means things will slow down and we’ll get an overload of Negan next week… Hope springs eternal though, and at least this time around we got 4 full episodes of action without really slowing down, so fingers crossed for a great rest of the half season.