*SPOILERS AHEAD … AND ALL TARA ALL THE TIME*
What isn’t lovely about a trip to the seaside?
All that sun, surf, fresh, salty air, building sandcastles, swimming and … bobbing zombies … wait WHAT?!
Yes folks even idyllic survivor communities by the seaside are going all Lord of the Flies on the collective ass of humanity now, all in the service of keeping themselves alive and intact of course, and there’s nothing anybody, including Tara (Alanna Masterson), can do about it.
To be fair when first she washes up on the shores of the coastal retreat known rather prosaically as Oceanside – in this instance, you can’t blame the beleaguered survivors of the apocalypse for poor naming choices based on the time pressures of survivor exigencies; this was a pre end of the world exercise in unimaginative nomenclature – Tara is in no fit state to take on anybody.
In fact so dead-soon-to-be-zombie-looking is she that she is almost speared through the head by a bloodthirsty 10 year old named Rachel (Mimi Kirkland) who, like her older but wiser companion Cyndie (Sydney Park), who still possesses a human soul thank you very much, is under strict order to kill every stranger they meet, living or dead.
Yep, not exactly a warm embrace, firm handshake, chocolate on the pillow kind of deal now is it?
Turns out they have good reason to have pulled in the welcome mat and brought out the Kalashnikovs; every man in their community over 10 was murdered in cold blood by Negan’s Saviors when they didn’t toe the party line.
So when Tara is allowed to live by Cyndie, who leaves the unconscious survivor, sans Heath (Corey Hawkins) – who was last seen running for cover from zombies on a bridge AWAY from Tara – with food, water and a spear beside her prone, driftwood-obscured form, it’s a pretty big deal.
Just how big a deal though doesn’t become clear until Tara follows Cyndie back into the village and all hell breaks loose with everyone able-bodied woman in the village grabbing high-powered rifles and slipping into shoot-first, ask-questions-later mode like we might slip into comfy slippers, cup of cocoa in hand.
As shots ring out around her, it becomes palpably clear that Tara is not welcome, that Oceanside doesn’t want anyone new joining and that coastal tourism, at least in this part of the world, is no longer a going concern.
Remarkably Tara somehow survives – thankfully the Oceanside people have the aiming ability of drunk penguins on a bender – and is taken prisoner by the leader of the group Natania (Deborah May) who chains her up before feeding her fish stew and making a pitch for her to stay.
In a script by non-staff writer David Leslie Johnson, peppered with some very funny oneliners – at one point Tara says she was a fisherperson pre-apocalypse, agreeing with one of her guards that she worked on a “larder” boat; yup a great big floating pantry apparently … oops caught in a lie! – we get to see Tara at her best.
Cheeky, funny but also wary and resolutely optimistic, she is also strong enough to face down Natania in the most engaging of ways – let’s face it you don’t duke it out with people carrying LOTS of guns unless you have some wit about you – convincing her, so it seems, to let her return to Alexandria to her girlfriend Denise (Merritt Weaver) – uh-oh – her best friend Glenn (Steven Yeun) – UH-OH – and the blissfully perfect surrounds of her fortified home (yeah give up now will ya?).
For all the lack of welcome she’s endured, save for Cyndie who is a kindred soul of decency and residual humanity, Tara remains firm in her belief that civilisation of the best possible kind, rather than Negan’s coercive, rules-based , punitive nightmare, is possible.
The point of the episode, as of pretty much anything these days in The Walking Dead, is that that ship of hope has well and truly sailed.
Like a kid who builds things up only to knock ’em straight down, series creator Robert Kirkman seems unable to find any drama in people actually making a go of things, consigning everyone, including once idealistic Heath to the “Woe are we all, none of us are here for each other” school of thinking.
And so it is that Tara’s hope that Oceanside and Alexandria can be BFFs comes a-cropper when the two women walking her back to the bridge from whence she came TRY TO KILL HER.
After all in the nihilistic world of The Walking Dead, that’s all anyone is capable of anymore and while you can argue it’s realistic, it also makes for dejectedly repetitive television.
That’s not to say this was a bad hour of apocalyptic drama.
Balanced between some nail-biting action – the arrival of desiccated, mummified sand walkers was a masterstroke, injecting some never-seen-before terror into things – and meditative character development, “Swear” – the title is drawn from Tara’s honourable pledge to keep Oceanside’s existence a secret, which she duly does, even when circumstances might dictate its big reveal to the crew back home – was the standout episode of the season so far.
Granted it came off a very low creative base with The Walking Dead now backed into such a tight, depressive corner that it’s reduced to endlessly bleating about the evilness of humanity over and over, destroying, always destroying and never building up, but it still stood alone, a brilliant example of what can happen when you just let a storyline and a character breathe.
No doubt, there are those who will see it as far too slow and far too languid but then they are the same people who see Fear the Walking Dead, by far the more sophisticated of the two sister shows, as severely lacking in enough bloodthirsty humanity-killing-humanity action.
The reality is though that The Walking Dead needs more not less episodes like “Swear”, stories that take the time to tell a nuanced tale of humanity’s ability to survive some pretty grim odds and start all over again.
Yes they subscribe to Kirkman’s dark idea that no good can come of the apocalypse, but even Oceanside, and Tara and Cyndie, are all trying to rebuild in a genuine way from the horrors they have witnessed, part of a new wave in apocalyptic storytelling that believes the majority of humanity would rebound from the apocalypse and successfully, and most crucially, peacefully, start all over again.
The Walking Dead needs to tell more stories in that vein, and grab onto a little more hope, if it’s going to survive in the long term.
Giving into the idea that there is nothing worth fighting for but survival itself pretty much dooms you to ever-less-satisfying narratives that overlook the fact that while humanity is capable of the very worst, it is also able to summon up the very best.
That’s not stupid idealism, it’s a fact evidenced in every natural disaster, war and horrible life event you can name, and fine episode though “Swear” was, it’d be nice if The Walking Dead would actually remember more than once a season.
- And we’re back to Negan in “Sing Me A Song”, who is convinced that the only way to salvation lies in blood, dictatorship and swaggering delusion. No, The Walking Dead, just NO …