'The Big Scary U' is an episode that's longer than it needs to be, padded out with filler, but still has some of the best scenes of the season.
[WARNING - This review contains SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 8, episode 5.]
Last week, The Walking Dead turned in one of its best episodes in some time with the Ezekiel-centric 'Some Guy'. It was an episode that completely broke the king, but in doing so, revealed much about him and his kingdom. This week's episode, 'The Big Scary U' tries to give Negan and The Saviors the same treatment, catching us up on what's been going down at The Sanctuary since Rick and friends wrecked the place. And while narratively this episode isn't as tightly structured as 'Some Guy', or its focus as clear, 'The Big Scary U' does offer an intriguing peek behind the curtains at the inner workings of The Sanctuary.
But first, the episodes needs to backtrack and needlessly explain what was happening at The Sanctuary in the moments before Rick's attack. It also offers up a flashback to a scene of Father Gabriel praying, presumably before leaving for The Sanctuary with Rick. And if that weren't enough backstory, 'The Big Scary U' feels the need to also show us exactly how and why Gregory came to arrive at The Sanctuary. This is a lot of story to tread back through before the open credits begin rolling and none of it is really necessary. Gabriel's fear of a fruitless death could have been established with a line of dialogue; it was already pretty obvious why the weasily Gregory came to Simon for help; and while getting to see what was happening right before Negan opens the door to confront Rick's posse was an interesting idea, what we learned we either already knew or would be told again later in the episode. 'The Big Scary U' is an extended episode, having an extra ten minutes of airtime, and this is what the show decides to do with their additional time? Why?
That 'The Big Scary U' still winds up including some great scenes is emblematic of what's become the whole problem with The Walking Dead - its embarrassment of riches when it comes to airtime. Season 8 has contained more than its fair share of good material, but it has also featured some of the worst. Giving The Walking Dead more time to fill only leads to these extraneous scenes that don't add anything significant and only hurt what would otherwise be great episodes. And it isn't just the opening minutes, the C-plot of Rick and Daryl's scuffle over their next move could have easily been held for another episode where it could receive greater focus. Instead, it becomes a one-and-done scrap that, while amusing, doesn't really imply their conflict will grow into the Rick versus Daryl civil war some were expecting. So why is it here?
Somehow, though, 'The Big Scary U' - which is a very odd choice of title, being how Gregory refers to the unknown - is able to produce some of season 8's best moments; specifically, Gabriel and Negan's scenes while locked in that trailer. The Walking Dead forced us to wait longer than it needed to before answering what happened after its season premiere's cliffhanger, but at least what does happen is an intriguing dialogue between the two characters that produces a surprisingly introspective examination of Negan's character. Most of the time, Negan's strutting, macho attitude is dialed all the way up, making a show of his total control over The Saviors. But while trapped with Gabriel, he calmly expresses his worldview and sounds almost reasonable in his explanation. He also shows actual remorse when remembering his dead wife, and can't really defend having his own harem, recognizing his hypocrisy. What this does is paint Negan in shades of grey, demonstrating he isn't a madman and teasing, perhaps, a rationale conclusion to this conflict.
Gabriel, too, is at his most interesting in these scenes, displaying a sense of conviction that's been a long time coming. Starting from such a low and cowardly place, Gabriel's developed into a selfless and brave character who manages to really get under Negan's skin in these scenes. It's an interaction with Negan that's unlike anything we've seen with any other character (except maybe Carl), and it's enlightening for both parties. Additionally, Seth Gilliam and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are simply acting their butts off, delivering such deeply felt performances that it's almost excusable that the following scene of their escape from the trailer is utterly ridiculous.
Working in tandem with Negan's confession to Gabriel is the breakdown of order back inside The Sanctuary. While the boss is away, his lieutenants bicker over what to do next, eventually coming to the conclusion that one of them must be a mole, reporting to Rick with valuable information of their operations. Obviously, we know this is Dwight, but they all suspect Eugene for other obvious and valid reasons. But then Dwight keeps acting too obvious, defending Eugene and making it clear he's at odds with Negan and his subordinates's decision making, leading Eugene to become suspicious. Those suspicions are later verified thanks to Dwight's sloppiness when it comes to that all too distinctive red paint. And sure, it's not the most complex of storylines, but it efficiently raises the stakes for Dwight and offers Eugene an opportunity to betray The Saviors and get back in with Rick. It's an out for Eugene that's only strengthened by Gabriel's arrival and his developing illness (Who knew rubbing zombie guts on yourself was bad? Not us until just now.), giving him even more incentive to do the right thing.
'The Big Scary U' is an episode that's longer than it needs to be, includes extraneous scenes that seem to only be there to pad out the runtime, but it somehow also contains some of the best scenes in season 8. The Negan and Gabriel scenes, yes, but even getting to spend a little more time with characters that, as the season's main villains, should be better defined and as nuanced as their enigmatic leader. Unfortunately, next week it's back to Jadis and her garbage people, so do appreciate the fact we've had two pretty good episodes of The Walking Dead because we probably won't be so lucky next week. (Though that helicopter is super interesting, but then, it'll probably go unreferenced for a long and frustrating time.)
The Walking Dead season 8 continues next Sunday with 'The King, The Widow, and Rick' at 9pm/10c on AMC.
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