*SPOILERS AHEAD … AS WELL AS RECOGNITION, MUCH OVERDUE AFTER LAST WEEK’S SHOCKING SEASON OPENER, THAT HUMANITY IS AS MUCH, IF NOT MORE, ABOUT THE GOOD AS THE BAD*
Thank god for The Kingdom!
The new community encountered by Morgan (Lennie James) and Carol (Melissa McBride – to be fair mostly Morgan since Carol was either out cold after being wounded at the end of season 6 by a Savior, or rather feverishly stumbling from approaching walkers/wasted who she saw as their old, un-rotten selves in a nice piece of visual poetry – was a sight for bloodstained eyes this week.
Ruled over by a loveable eccentric known as King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), who believes you counter the extreme bad of the zombie apocalypse with lots of good – he is a man who believes in acknowledging, celebrating and employing contradictions and not surrendering to a bleak assessment of the world – and who has put his time in community theatre to good use as a plum-mouthed ruler of an idyllic community, The Kingdom is the absolute and utter antithesis of Negan’s bloodthirsty, nasty reign of brutish terror over at The Sanctuary.
Founded on the idea of “You take from the well, you refresh the well”, a communal ethos that drives everything it does, The Kingdom sits inside in a precinct of historic buildings, including a theatre in which Ezekiel imperiously, and somewhat amusingly, holds court, with the loyal, pun-loving and humourously eager-to-please Jerry (Cooper Andrews) at his side.
[Observation: When did people decide to give their places of settlement really pompous names? What happened to calling things Tigerville – Ezekiel has an actual tiger, Shiva, at his side, a vestige of his days as a zookeeper – or San Bloodthirsty or something? Only Hilltop and Alexandria actually make any sense.)
Frankly after the murder porn of “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”, which essentially celebrated and venerated Negan’s bloodthirsty, bullying rule regardless of whether that was the intention or not, “The Well” was a blessed relief, reminding us that there is virtue and power in benevolence with a firm but gentle edge.
It’d be all too easy to consign people like Ezekiel, who recognises peoples’ need for a safe, authoritative leader who provides clear direction, as the weaker of the two types of leaders, especially when you witness him secretively paying tribute in the form of skinned wild pigs and produce to Negan’s white trash henchpeople. (He is keeping this aspect of The Kingdom’s survival from his people, figuring it would do them no good to realise the precarious place upon which their blissfully peaceful and prosperous home rests, something with which Carol, and to a far lesser extent, Morgan, disagree).
But the reality is that much of what he says to Carol near the end of the episode when she once again wants to do a runner, and when he is out of character as the Shakespearian-toned ruler, chilling and talking as the wise zookeeper he once was, makes perfect sense.
People respond far better over the longrun to kind, well-informed rule than they do to terror and coercion; that is, of course, Negan’s great Achilles Heel, and the likely source of his eventual downfall, since followers of a dictator only stay subservient while their needs are met, withdrawing that support as soon as they see it in their interest to do so.
True The Kingdom looks anachronistically idyllic with open-air schools, verdant vegetable gardens, communal meal halls, and yes even a choir, but there is strength of purpose and a recognition of what ultimately emboldens and strengthens the human spirit there, and writer Matt Negrete did a masterful job of drawing a line without being too obvious about it between Negan’s virulently-nasty Saviors and the people of The Kingdom.
I will wager that all appearances to the contrary that The Kingdom will well outlast The Sanctuary, even though at the handover of the pigs, whose bellies were full of rotten zombie flesh, an invisible “f**k you” to the Saviors by Ezekiel and his group, Negan’s rabble seem to be in a commanding position.
But appearances are deceptive – Ezekiel’s charmingly over-the-top amalgam of every theatrical, British-accented ruler to bestride the globe is proof of that – and if the intent of “The Well” was to draw a line between the two communities and ask which will ultimately prevail, then it accomplished its goal and then some.
But as ever in an episode of this nature, which takes place through an interconnected series of vignettes showing us how The Kingdom works, why it exists at all and the precarious basis on which it survives, is as much about the stories of the people living there as the place itself.
In this instance, the core story was the mentoring relationship that grew between Morgan and Gregory (Xander Berkeley), a father-less young man – his dad died a year previously, one of Ezekiels’ top warriors who didn’t survive the clearing out of a building full of the undead – the result of The Kingdom’s rulers seeking a way for the younger man to defend himself that didn’t involve guns or knives, two weapons with which he has struggled to find an affinity.
He finds his new path with Morgan’s Aikido, devouring the small yellow book The Art of Peace on the non-violent martial arts form developed by Morihei Ueshiba that the Alexandrian has used as his guiding life philosophy until events of late forced him to re-embrace a more gun and knife-driven approach (Carol, for one, would not be alive without his more pragmatic defensive options.)
Rather than talk up Aikido in its purest pre-apocalyptic form, Morgan chooses instead to preach its philosophy tempered with some real world insight, assuring Gregory that there is a way to have your non-violence when you need it and your violence, well-directed, when required.
It’s a very Marie Antoinette approach but it works and it appears Morgan has made his peace with it.
This is a new Morgan, one who still pursues his beliefs but with a realistic eye, one of which he attempts to keep on Carol in a bid to keep her at The Kingdom, a strategy which doesn’t quite work when she’s caught by Ezekiel stealing fruit one night before she bolts from his idyll that she considers “a joke”, and he the chief joker.
The joy of this scene is Ezekiel dropping his imperial persona and getting real with Carol, in the most authentic real way, calling her sweet, doe-eyed persona “bullshit” – the injunction is not to bullshit a bullshitter, a recognition by Ezekiel that he bullshits in his exalted position for a very good and worthy cause – and giving her some well-reasoned and semi-persuasive life advice that she actually heeds.
This near to the end scene, indeed the entirety of “The Well” was a far more nuanced, well-wrought effort than the blunt forced drama trauma of the season opener which smacked of cheap shock tactics and poor writing, setting up the ultimate battle in The Walking Dead as that between brutish “strength” and its more benign caring cousin, which may look weak and soft but is anything but, likely surviving the apocalypse far better than its more outrageously violent counterpart.
- So onward and upward to more brutality, more death and thankfully more Daryl which given his current state of captivity means, boo hiss yell, more Negan in next week’s episode “The Cell” …