The Walking Dead has a “bad guy” problem. It’s a problem that many shows face. Dexter had a habit of using a different villain every season, and while that worked for a little while (Season 2 of that show was especially great), once the show entered Season 5, that structure imploded, doing more harm than good. The same thing happened in Sons of Anarchy. The first couple seasons did a great job utilizing a “Big Bad” in order to function. But around Season 5, and especially during Season 6, that structure also imploded and became absurdly repetitive. Playing it safe can work for a little while, but for shows that use singular human enemies, those enemies can eventually become more boring than anything else.
It’s not necessarily the failing of The Walking Dead that this becomes a problem. There’s only so much you can do with human enemies, and after Shane, The Governor, The Claimers, The Cannibals, Pete, and The Wolves, it makes sense that The Walking Dead is running out of things to do with the “bad guys”. So it’s trying something novel, something that I appreciate, even if it’s inherently flawed. The Walking Dead is trying to make Rick and his group operate in a grey area, neither good nor bad, while also trying to position The Saviors in the same area. And that’s great, as it goes to show that Rick’s group is like the other groups in the world: savage, brutal, and unflinching when they have to be, but also kind and mournful to those around them. It’s a great way to invite complexity into both Rick’s group and The Saviors.
But. As much as The Walking Dead wants to invite complexity, Rick’s group is still the “good guys” and The Saviors are still the “bad guys”. While Maggie and Carol end up killing pretty much everybody at the end of the episode, they’re kind of put in the place where it’s something that they have to do, something that they’ve resigned themselves to doing. And that’s different than The Saviors, people who extort other groups and kill them when they don’t comply. Of course, The Saviors have suffered their share of violence, from the slaughter at their base to Carol shooting one of them in the arm. But the show subtly does position them as the aggressor, and Rick as “doing what he has to do”. Even though The Saviors here don’t murder Carol and Maggie, they’re still positioned as highly aggressive to the point where killing them is justified (however thin that line may be).
So “The Same Boat” is kind of a shaky hour, even though the focus is funneled to the point that other great episodes of The Walking Dead are. But the focus on Carol and Maggie really is great, and pivots their characters into interesting new directions. Carol has been solidified as one of the most brutal characters on the show, and it has done wonders for Seasons 5 and 6. Carol in “No Sanctuary”, Season 5’s premiere, was absolutely fantastic, and provided a great deal of excitement to the show’s more action-oriented sequences (her presence in “JSS” was also absolutely fantastic). But that characterization has a timer on it, as she can’t be this way forever without either being killed off or simply becoming boring. In this episode, she’s positioned as being sneaky (downplaying her familiarity with murder) while also feeling bad about Maggie being in harm’s way. She may eventually go back to murder (as she does at the end of the episode), but seeing Maggie and her child in harm’s way shows her how she realizes that Rick’s actions can be harmful. Being ruthless can put innocent people in harm’s way. And an innocent person being harmed is something that can’t be taken back.
Maggie’s character development is a little subtler, as she finds herself becoming more hardened and more brutal as a result of being put in harm’s way. Now that she’s pregnant and worried about her unborn child, she’s more willing to justify killing and maiming others in order to survive. It still bothers her to light a group of people on fire or stab a person to death, and she certainly bonds with her captors during her interrogation, but the choice she makes is ultimately the brutal one. She realizes that sometimes she has to do horrible things to stay alive, but understanding the humanity behind some of her victims can at least give her an honest understanding of what she’s doing and how she’s living in the world.
Side Note: I REALLY like how The Walking Dead has somewhat shifted its narrative from being gruff men grunting at one another to complex women living in a difficult world. That shift doesn’t get as much credit as it should, as it’s a remarkable shift from a popular, male-centric show.
“The Same Boat” attempts to add complexity to the conflict between Rick’s group and The Saviors, but really just adds complexity to Carol and Maggie, both of which become richer and more interesting as a result. This season is building to a turning point at the finale, and the season’s long game won’t really be revealed until then, but it makes sense for now that Rick’s group is being positioned as self-important and brutal, and that such a mentality will eventually bring them down a peg. Just as Rick’s tactics ended up slaughtering Jessie’s family in “No Way Out”, it’ll only take so long before he pays for his sins once more. And who knows how bad it’ll be then.
What did you think of “The Same Boat”? Who do you think will end up dead by the finale? Let me know in the comments!