Picking up with the various plot lines left hanging, 'Monsters' does manage to do something with each, creating a more satisfying episode that more clearly illustrates the moral quandary The Walking Dead is exploring this season.
[WARNING - This reviews contains SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 8, episode 3.]
After coming out of the gate with a strong opener, The Walking Dead season 8 took a stumble last week with a confusing mess of an episode that ended on perhaps the most lackluster callback imaginable. Picking up with the various plot lines left hanging, last night's 'Monsters' does manage to do something with each, creating a more satisfying episode that more clearly illustrates the moral quandary The Walking Dead is hoping to explore this season.
In as overt a way as possible, season 8 of The Walking Dead is using the war with Negan to discuss how and if the survivors can reestablish a society with a moral code that doesn't involve frying someone's face with a hot iron or beating their brains in with a baseball bat. The Saviors' society is orderly, there's no question of that, but it doesn't demonstrate the compassion expected of a fair and just society. These are ideals, of course, and in practice nothing is ever as simple - Rick is perhaps the guiltiest, after all, when it comes to indiscriminate killing for the sake of peace and safety - but striving for a world view that's more nuanced than kill or be killed is a worthy effort; not to mention an important step along the way to rebuilding civilization.
With 'Monsters', this dilemma comes across in two story lines: Jesus, Tara, and Morgan leading the prisoners back to The Hilltop, and Rick and Daryl's continued search for the weapons cache. In the one, the whole debate is hinging on the fact that Morgan has switched back into a cold-blooded killer (a monster, if you will), pitting him against the mercy Jesus displays for their prisoners. It makes for an obvious point of contention - not to mention, it basically sidelines Tara, who took Morgan's side of this argument last week - and it also so clearly paints Morgan in the wrong. To shoot fleeing, unarmed, and shackled prisoners is the wrong thing to do, and having that be what has Morgan coming to blows with Jesus is dumb. But hey, it does lead to what is one of the cooler fight scenes The Walking Dead has produced in a while, so there's a bonus.
Back with Rick, Daryl, and their old pal, Morales, they too must grapple with this moral dilemma in a time of war. Picking up right where last week left off, Morales has his gun trained on Rick and he's calling Rick a monster, to which Rick struggles to come up with enough conviction to argue back because, well, Morales is kind of right. That's the change Rick is going through this season - finding another way that doesn't involve killing. However, before Rick can even make this pitch to Morales, Daryl enters and shoots Morales in the back of the head. While the scene absolutely nails the point 'Monsters' is aiming for, it's also laughable in its execution that the series bothers to bring back a long absent character, only to kill them minutes (and a week of speculation) later. Surely, the same could have been achieved with any character, possibly even Gracie's father (if that is who that man Rick killed last week was), while still demonstrating the savagery of Daryl's actions.
So while Morales' random reappearance drew attention away from what Daryl's actions were meant to imply, one of the episode's final scenes definitely got the point across - after Rick promises one of The Saviors that they'll be merciful, Daryl does otherwise, shooting him dead after he gives them the information they need about where the weapons have gone. It's unsettling, with Rick staring in disbelief at what Daryl's done, horrified that Daryl would kill an unarmed man who had basically surrendered. Clearly, season 8 wants to pit Rick and Daryl against one another, each diametrically opposed to the other in a debate over whether or not to show mercy towards The Saviors. While it's an unexpected development - one that would surely renew interest in a series that's beginning to trail in the ratings - it doesn't do Daryl any favors, sticking him in the wrong just as much as Morgan.
Elsewhere in the episode, Eric died from his injuries and became a zombie in a heartbreaking sequence for poor Aaron. If only the show had bothered to get us truly invested in their relationship, but hey, he got a free baby out of the ordeal (win?). Ezekiel continues to prove how passionate leadership can turn the tides of war, with his small army managing to overtake a compound, but that zeal is still no match for a well-positioned sniper whom no one bothered to check for. He's likely to survive the hail of bullets, but only because others threw themselves in harm's way. Meanwhile, Gregory remains both the worst and most entertaining character, worming his way back into The Hilltop where he's sure to stick around being a pain in the ass for everyone - but especially Maggie.
The pacing of 'Monsters' was a big improvement over last week's episode, and some strange editing at the start aside, this was a far more enjoyable episode of The Walking Dead. It more clearly communicated what was happening in relation to the other story lines, had exciting action instead of repititive shootouts, and made sure to keep the theme of what's the moral obligation of those wishing to be the "good guys" at the center of events. All the more reason, really, that last week's episode should have been folded in with this one, lessening the filler and more quickly returning to events at the The Sanctuary to check in with poor Father Gabriel. Is he dead or what?
The Walking Dead season 8 continues next Sunday with 'Some Guy' at 9pm/10c on AMC.