The Walking Dead: The Well
The Walking Dead can be a divisive show, but I think just about everyone can agree on one thing: Last week’s season premiere was hard to watch. That episode was intended to break down the characters and the audience with an hour-long barrage of graphic violence, gore and hopelessness. Whether or not that is something of merit is up for debate. But I think most viewers would agree that you couldn’t follow up the season premiere with more of the same. So it comes as something of a relief that the second episode of the season switches characters, location and tone.
“The Well” sidesteps the fallout of last week’s episode by shifting the focus from Rick Grimes and friends to Carol and Morgan. On some level, this may frustrate some viewers who wanted to follow-up immediately on the events of the season premiere. Back at Alexandria, you know there is a lot of sulking going on. Instead, this episode begins the redemption of two characters who were badly mishandled last season.
I don’t think the writers were ever fully prepared for the popularity of Morgan’s character. He was only in one episode of the first season. I think the writers figured they could just move on. But fans demanded more Morgan and it’s easy to understand why. The pilot episode promised that he and Rick would reunite some day and for much of that season Rick left messages for Morgan so they could find each other. The early episodes seemed to be setting up a story that viewers assumed would eventually pay off.
A stand-alone episode showing Morgan as a broken man following the death of his son only whetted viewers appetite for the character and eventually Lenny James was brought on as a regular member of the cast. But here’s the problem. Morgan was never intended to get a lot of screentime. In the comic book, his character returned as a mourning father who didn’t have the will to live. After a few issues of moping, he sort of wasted away. But the TV show couldn’t make a fan favorite like Morgan into a throw-away character, so they reimagined him as a foil for Rick.
In theory, that sounds like a pretty good idea. In the comics, Rick has had lieutenants like Tyreese who occasionally challenged his decisions. At that point in the show, Rick was in one of his “take no prisoners” stages, so Morgan was made into the ultimate pacifist. He was also given Jedi-like abilities that require a massive suspension of disbelief, but some things just have to be accepted. This is an episode which introduces a character with a pet tiger, after all.
The main problem with the reinvention of Morgan is that as written, his philosophy didn’t make any sense. His refusal to ever take a life, any life, directly resulted in several people being killed and several more being put in mortal danger. There’s a story to be told there in which a pacifist learns that his actions (or inactions) can have unintended consequences and the world isn’t so black and white as he thought. But there are two problems with that. One, the show has told that exact same story multiple times with characters like Rick and Tyreese. And two, Morgan’s stubborn resistence to kill bad guys was taken to such extremes that he came across looking like an idiot most of the time.
Contrast Morgan with Carol. Carol is also a character who met an ignoble fate in the comic book. She didn’t even suffer a tragedy. In the comics, Carol just wasn’t cut out for the apocalypse. After she took her own life, Sophia was raised by Glenn and Maggie which gave all of those characters a bit more to do than the stories they have been given on the show. The trade off is that, like Morgan, TV Carol has a much more prominent role on the TV show than she does on the comic book. It’s one of the relatively rare instances of the show improving on its source material.
Going all the way back to the seasons set in the prison, the writers were faced with the problem of reinventing Carol. At the time, Rick was going through a “peaceful farmer” phase, so they reinvented Carol as a no nonsense woman of action who does whatever it takes to survive. New Carol killed and burned the sick in order to prevent disease from spreading. She would put down a child who prevented a danger to the rest of the group. There was really nothing New Carol wasn’t prepared to do.
Last season, the writers pitted Morgan and Carol against one another. It makes a certain kind of sense. Both characters had personalities grafted upon them as a reaction to where Rick Grimes’ head was at. That arbitrarily made Morgan a reckless pacifist and Carol a remorseless killer. The writers’ intend was obviously to bring both characters closer to center, but once again execution is key.
While Morgan mostly learned whatever lessons he learned off-camera (he is willing to defend himself and tells his new protege that he is no longer certain he has all the answers), Carol did an inelegant 180. When threatened, Carol started having panic attacks. It was so sudden that most viewers assumed it was a ruse. Carol frequently defeated her enemies by getting them to underestimate her. But it turned out the panic attacks were real. Carol 3.0 was so put off by violence that she decided she needed to leave her loved ones behind rather than defend them. No, it didn’t make any sense.
By the end of last season, Carol had reached a low point. Like her character in the comic books, she seemed to be looking for death. But Morgan came to her rescue and even broke his code against killing to save her. It was an obvious payoff that wasn’t worth the build-up. Now, this episode begins the process of building these characters back up while also introducing viewers to new characters and locations.
Morgan brings the wounded Carol to a new community called The Kingdom. It’s leader is an eccentric man who goes by the name King Ezekiel. As I mentioned previously, he has a pet tiger which gives his Renaissance Fair theatrics a little gravitas. Carol spends the episode trying to retreat from the promise of a new community while Morgan takes on a padawan (who will almost certainly be killed before the season is over). Morgan displays that he has learned a lesson or two over the show’s hiatus while Carol is somewhat charmed by Ezekiel.
There really isn’t a whole lot to discuss in this episode which was mostly devoted to world building. So I am going to continue for a moment comparing the TV show to its source material. One of the challenges the show faces is that it has to expand on the original stories. In just this one episode, we have already spent more time in the Kingdom than the comic did in several issues. In the comic books, the Kingdom was a potential ally against Negan and the Saviors. Most of the scenes that took place there consisted of Rick negotiating with Ezekiel. It wasn’t until the big showdown approached that Ezekiel let his guard down and told someone his backstory.
That someone was Michonne, not Carol. Obviously Carol was long dead by this point in the comics. Comic book Michonne was in a similar position to TV Carol in that she was a weary warrior woman. In the original story, Rick and Michonne were never a couple. Instead, Rick started a relationship with Andrea who was still very much alive. So now that Michonne has taken over Andrea’s storyline, apparently Carol will be playing the part of Michonne. The TV show may shuffle the deck regarding what happens to whom, but invariably it comes back to the comic book for inspiration.
Since the show is spending so much time with Ezekiel and the Kingdom, it really couldn’t ask viewers to play along the way readers of the comic book did. In the comic, Ezekiel’s reveal that he was an actor in a community theater who rescued a wounded tiger from the zoo carried a bit more weight since it came towards the end of the story. But I don’t think TV viewers could have dealt with this guy for hours on end if we had been questioning what his deal was the whole time. So it’s probably for the best they just cut to the chase on that one.
The clips for next week’s episode showed us scenes with Daryl as Negan’s prisoner which suggests it might be another week before we check in with Alexandria again. It’s hard to imagine an entire episode of Daryl in captivity, but given the show’s track record for padding things out nothing would surprise me at this point.