Zombie stories require some suspension of disbelief, but The Walking Dead has generally not asked its audience to hoist it higher than a zombie’s head, opting instead to tell a story grounded in reality. There have been exceptions to that rule — i.e., the self-destructing CDC building, the tank — but there are none as theatrical as a self-styled king who speaks in community theater Shakespearean and has a pet tiger. Negan’s violence may have altered the show’s cast; now, Ezekiels lordliness is altering the show’s apparent intent.
But let’s put this out there before we go further: Post-apocalyptic kings with pet tigers are very cool.
After the teeth-grinding dull misery of the Season 7 premiere, “The Well” is a refreshing about-face. The shift in tone is enough to induce whiplash in devoted viewers, but maybe that’s okay. As the Kingdom is revealed, we’re treated to a fleshy banquet of great visuals, from the capable hockey pad-geared soldiers to the Dylan-singing choir (not the first time Dylan has shown up on the show). This gives the episode actual structure, keeping the wheels turning forward instead of spinning in place. And we meet Ezekiel, who is fascinating.
Veteran voice actor Khary Payton gets a meaty live action role here, expertly spinning both King Ezekiel’s hammy front for his followers and the genuine side he eventually shows Carol. It turns out he talks like a community theater actor because he was a community theater actor, and he figured that the best way to lead in a zombie apocalypse was to fake it ‘til he made it. This makes him a mirror character of sorts for Carol, who’s also adept at throwing up a façade, and gamely does so throughout this episode (this show does not deserve Melissa McBride). Of course, Carol doesn’t share Ezekiel’s optimism about the future and still insists to Morgan that she’s leaving the company of the others as soon as she’s well enough.
Carol is eventually convinced to stay in the Kingdom, somewhat mitigating the high drama, but “The Well” still presents the strongest vision of hope that The Walking Dead has had in some time. I’d be hard-pressed to believe any viewer isn’t now simply anticipating the moment everything will go terribly wrong.
We even see the seeds for future conflict here, with the generally upbeat episode darkened when the Saviors come calling for a tribute from the Ezekiel’s subjects? Interestingly enough, we see that Negan works much more effectively as a villain as an off-screen, seemingly unstoppable force than in overacting flesh and spattering blood. (If the show is smart, it might just show that Negan is cosplaying a Mad Max warlord just as much as Ezekiel is playacting at medieval ruler.)
The safety-death cycle is what Carol has in the back of her mind: The survivors think they’ve found sanctuary, only for stupidity or evil to ruin everything. The answer to, “But maybe this time it’ll work?” can’t be “It will,” because that would mean the end of the show. But in the meantime, it’s interesting to see a non-evil community in this world that seems to have its stuff together, even if a requisite dark secret lies beneath. Although we can take bets now on how many episodes Morgan’s new Aikido apprentice will last.
And, for what The Walking Dead is, that’s actually fine! As long as the show creates at least some investment for the audience, makes the downfall suitably exciting, and does its best to inject some variety into the formula, then it could conceivably go on forever. Which is probably what AMC is hoping for. It could become The Simpsons of serialized zombie dramas. Sure, that’s an unsustainable model in terms of quality, but it’s dynamite for ratings and long-term merchandising, provided they keep the buzz-driving Big Moments coming.
For now, “The Well” is the kind of perfectly agreeable episode The Walking Dead needed to take everyone’s mind off all that misery.