What if, for however long the show ends up lasting, The Walking Dead becomes a quasi-anthology about various characters stumbling upon new isolated communities?
The Alexandria area has proven to have an ever-escalating number of enclaves, heretofore undiscovered by our heroes, despite the fact that they’re all within walking distance of their home*. As far back as “the Vatos” in Season 1, the show has been padding out its seasonal arcs by interrupting the comic’s storyline with encounters with newly invented groups. Four of the six episodes to air so far in Season 7 have now been dedicated to putting the audience inside new communities. This is an awful lot of place-setting.
*Although, if Oceanside is in fact by the ocean, then it’s a hell of a lot farther from Alexandria than a two-day walk.
While Oceanside, the main setting of “Swear,” doesn’t have a tiger like the Kingdom, it does have the intriguing quality of an all-female population. And they very much value their privacy, to such a degree that they immediately shoot all strangers on sight. Into this setup stumbles this week’s focus character, Tara. This is promising, because it combines an interesting scenario with one of the show’s few natural vectors for comic relief. Alanna Masterson is so breezily funny that the writers even seem to relax their usual stick-up-the-ass grimness when giving her material. The scene in which she’s interrogated by the Oceanside denizens is a prime showcase for this — witness the way Masterson downplays Tara’s immediate surrender of her cover story when confronted with a contradiction. If an episode is going to focus on someone not named Carol or Morgan, then I’m glad it’s her.
There are other bright spots in “Swear.” The episode features my two favorite action scenes in this series to date. The first fight on the bridge is exciting, with the skeletal zombies emerging from the big mound of sand making for some almost Harryhausen-like horror (the beat where Heath uncovers the spent bullet casings just before all hell breaks loose is terrific). Later on, the way Tara wordlessly works out that she’s being marched to her execution and then improvises an escape is more evidence that it always behooves this series to shut up for a bit.
This is further reinforced by the closing sequence, wherein Tara does some shopping for Denise on her way back to Alexandria. The show effectively uses the dramatic irony of Denise’s death for pathos. There’s some solid direction from Darnell Martin this week; all props given. Granted there’s also the idiotic scene of Tara entering Oceanside, in which the entire community first fails to spot her and then fails to shoot her. And then there’s the second fight on the bridge, which is both redundant and dramatically weightless. (I laughed at the fake out with the female zombie which Tara mistakes for Heath.) But still, there was more good than bad here, cinematically speaking!
With all the positives, it’s a shame that the ladies-only mystery of Oceanside doesn’t bear satisfying fruit. But then, my mind anticipated some kind of Amazonian gendercide, so maybe I was irrevocably set for disappointment. It turns out all the men were simply culled by the Saviors, and the women and children then up and left to go into hiding. (Again, like a few days away from wherever the Saviors are, at most.) Once more, an episode’s role in the grand scheme of things is to emphasize for the who-knows-what-number-we’re-at time just how dangerous those guys are.
It definitely doesn’t help that no one we meet in Oceanside is anywhere close to memorable. There’s … um, leader lady, her granddaughter who is the token not-asshole, and the short-haired one … and also another soldier who tried to kill Tara? I think? Did she get a name? It was probably in the credits. Seriously, it angers me that The Walking Dead bungled the women-only community trope this badly. If none of them expresses a cartoonish disdain for men, what is even the point?
Despite all that, “Swear” does eventually come around to an honest-to-god character arc for Tara, which completes within this one story. (Emphasis on the “eventually,” since this is one of those episodes with an extended runtime for no apparent reason.) The debate over whether it’s better for the survivors to try to band together or keep to themselves is clumsy, and the connection to Tara’s part in the raid on the Savior outpost in “Not Tomorrow Yet” is tenuous. Yet the episode is ultimately able to boil this dilemma down to one big moral choice for Tara to make, one which feels both legitimately difficult and arrived at honestly. It’s simple, but that’s a large part of its power, and it truly feels as though the series has put Tara through a change in the process. Whether it will stick or be forgotten like a lot of other Walking Dead lessons remains to be seen.