One of the nice things that The Walking Dead has going for it is an extended cast that can help provide a break from the bleakness of certain major storylines. So far this season, the show has used its ever-expanding roster to introduce new characters and locales (and ways of thinking) in an effort to help break up the dreariness of the main thread. At times this has been successful – think the Kingdom and Ezekiel – and not so successful – think last week's flat 'Go Getters' – but it has given the show a lot more storytelling real estate than it might normally have had sticking with just a Rick vs. Negan storyline.
That's the case with 'Swear', which promises another new thread for the show to follow, as it checks in with Tara and Heath on a mission to find some much-needed supplies. The shift to underused characters is the sort of transition that would be more exciting if the show saw fit to hand them a task beyond discussing the current state of the world and how everything has changed. There was a time when The Walking Dead might have benefitted from testing two characters out by giving them a task that's as simple as, say, go out and find the things that would ensure their continued survival. At its heart, though, these potential digressive episodes wouldn't really be about the acquisition of stuff; it would provide a rare chance to get to know who these individuals are largely outside any agenda the show may have in terms of Big Bads or killing characters off.
Those days may be long past, now that The Walking Dead is living in a post-Negan world. There are positives and negatives to this being the… uh, state of the things as far as the show is concerned. One positive is that the series could one day become less reliant on survival as its primary plot engine. But a clear negative is that the show's primary response to being less reliant on day-to-day survival is to throw new characters at the story as a means of jumpstarting a new plot engine. In 'Swear', those new characters aren't the Whisperers as some on the internet had presumed, but the community known as Oceanside.
The community is a curious addition to the season at this point that demonstrates how fully committed The Walking Dead is to the idea of an eventual war with the Saviors. The show now has yet another group of miraculously well-armed survivors getting by in some slightly unique fashion and creating their own set of rules for disposing of strangers who happen to wander into their territory. Like The Kingdom or Hilltop, Oceanside presents the possibility of the show opening up and exploring how life could be different in each of the established communities that now make up the world of The Walking Dead. But instead of investigating the differences that make each colony distinctive and how that might be an advantage, or how the individuals populating them have principles and ideas that could change the way survivors from, say, Alexandria think, the show settles for surface details. Here, they call walkers "bobbers" for obvious reasons, and for even more obvious reasons, their diet consists mainly of fish. That sort of geographical specificity only goes so far in terms of making Oceanside (or Hilltop, or The Kingdom) a unique place filled with interesting individuals. So the show goes one step further and reveals the colony to be populated solely by women.
Time and time again, 'Swear' seems to be telling the audience, "Don't worry, there's a reason for this." That reason, of course, is the Saviors, who came along and killed all the men and boys for an infraction that's of little consequence as the story is only there to reinforce just how unstoppable Negan's group is and how they are capable of anything because the story wants them to be. The trouble is, the story doesn't really need another example of what an oppressive and well-organized group the Saviors are; the audience has already seen it again and again. Every episode so far this season has been presenting the same evidence over and over again. The Saviors are bad news and they have their boots on the necks of everyone within reasonable commuting distance from their home turf. There's really no difference between the Saviors bullying Hilltop, The Kingdom, or Alexandria and the story told by the women of Oceanside.
Even the device of getting Tara from her supply run with Heath to Oceanside is so clunky it acts almost like a confession of how forced the entire episode feels. The survivors have been battling zombies for a good while now, so any prolonged fight between human characters and the undead has long ceased to be interesting and has begun to feel like gross incompetence on behalf of those doing the fighting. Besides that, fiddling with the chronology of the episode by breaking up the zombie attack on the bridge to suggest that Heath might be dead is a cheap way of building tension.
For the most part, 'Swear' winds up feeling like an episode The Walking Dead could have done without. It's completely unessential. And that's a shame because there is something unique in a character like Tara that's worth exploring. Her demeanor is completely different from almost any other character, and that makes her an asset in terms of switching things up and getting away from the pessimism that so often drives this show. It seems as though 'Swear' wanted to try and give Tara a chance to bring something new to this season, but the looming threat of the Big Bad and the series' desire to continue building them up robbed the character of her big chance.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Sing Me a Song' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Gene Page/AMC