Sometimes, not often, The Walking Dead gets it exactly right. Tonight’s episode — the final of the first eight-episode chunk of season 11 — finally pitted Maggie (Lauren Cohen) and her herd against the Reapers at Meridian, with an incognito Daryl (Norman Reedus) caught in the middle. There were rants. Action. Silliness. Death. Murder. Betrayal. A bit more silliness. A twist I didn’t see coming. And not one but two cliffhangers, although one of those cliffs is significantly shorter than the other.
I didn’t expect “For Blood” to be as satisfying as it was, mainly because I try not to get my hopes up too much with AMC’s The Walking Dead these days. But other than the big fumbles of the first two episodes, this first third of this final season has been solid. Tonight’s battle for Meridian came at exactly the right time, not so fast that there are no stakes besides a trophy in the form of food supplies, but not so slow as to feel padded out. Plus, Maggie, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari), and their large herd of zombies versus the outmanned but well-armed Reapers feels like a fair fight that either side could win.
It’s so well-structured that the first bit of the episode’s silliness doesn’t detract from it in the slightest. It turns out that for whatever reason, the Reapers had gotten their hands on what seem to be several million mines, and they’re all located directly in front of the zombie herd. Daryl’s extreme concern that his friends could explode at any moment keeps things tense, even as the episoode overindulges itself by showing zombie after zombie after zombie explode. The second bit of silliness is Pope (Ritchie Coster), who has lost his mind to a degree that truly makes you wonder why anyone would have ever followed the maniac for an afternoon, let alone years. Remember, this is the guy who freaks out anytime one of his soldiers gets killed, although he’s the one who puts them in danger, whether by sending them into battle for no reason or by setting them on fire himself. This time Pope sends a guy to try to lead the herd away… but mainly as bait to check and see if his great adversary Maggie is out there.
Leah (Lynn Collins) is justifiably appalled Pope would throw their comrade’s life away to just confirm a hunch. Her day only going to gets worse, but first, more silliness: Someone on the Reapers has managed to build a Multiple Rocket Launcher, chock full of…well, they look a lot more bottle rockets than missiles. It’s all very ludicrous, but presumably, the device will take out a great deal of the zombie horde, including Negan and Elijah, who are still milling around out there. Meanwhile, Daryl spies Maggie and Gabriel sneaking around Meridian’s walls. He kills a Reaper, lets them in, and returns to Leah, where he confesses everything — the people attacking are his people, they’re good people, he lied to her because she was working with a certified lunatic, and he asks her to join him, and leave the certified lunatic behind.
Maggie tells Gabe where to find a hidden rifle, then she hotwires a truck and uses it to knock down Meridian’s front gate, allowing all the unexploded zombies access to the colony. Pope arrives at the rocket launcher, and orders it fired in the middle of the courtyard at his hated enemy, Maggie. The problem, as Leah points out, is that there are many, many Reapers fighting in the courtyard who will be killed as well. As Pope starts screaming about how his God speaks through him and his will is God’s will and yadda, yadda Leah stabs him through the throat. Sorry, God! It’s the perfect time for Pope to die — he finally became too ridiculous for even The Walking Dead and exited right before he wore out his homicidal, imbecilic welcome. But his death also sets up that twist I mentioned before, as Leah stares Daryl straight in the eye, she grabs her walkie-talkie and tells the Reapers that Daryl killed Pope. Daryl wanted to protect his people, but so does Leah. She had to protect them from Pope, and now she needs to protect them from the people attacking them.
Daryl runs off to help Maggie with the all-out brawl in the courtyard, only to hear Leah give the Reapers orders to fall back. But Maggie and the others haven’t won. Leah just wanted to make sure her comrades were gone when she fires 80 rockets into the courtyard, right at Maggie and Daryl’s heads. (They sure sound like bottle rockets, for the record.) Leah’s heel turn is good stuff, and if she decides that Maggie et al. need to die to protect her people (still a weird decision, just leave) I like the idea of the Reapers being led by someone who isn’t banana-pants, who truly cares for her soldiers, and who has an immense amount of emotional baggage with Daryl. They’ll essentially be an entirely new foe, and hopefully they’ll stop wearing those stupid masks, too.
While the episode might have ended with a bang (or several of them), this still feels like a small stakes story, which is a strange choice for the show’s final season. But it’s working, and I’m grateful for it. I’ll take a good, focused, small stakes Walking Dead story over a bloated, supercilious one any day of the week. But I’m also fine if we just hang out with the Pack for the final 16 episodes and try to figure out where their pants went.
- Oh, yeah, Alexandria. A giant storm is wreaking havoc, having somehow started a fire despite the rain and blown off chunks of the hastily reassembled wall, allowing zombies to get into town. Rosita (Christian Serratos) and Lydia (Cassady McClincy) are tasked with holding down the house where Judith, Gracie, and the other kids are. Rosita gets a particularly badass moment where she steps outside and just beats the hell out of a crap-ton of zombies.
- The second cliffhanger is that when zombies finally break into the house, Judith and Gracie get trapped in the basement, with only a thin barrel-bolt lock holding the door in place. I’m not particularly worried.
- In case you missed it, The Walking Dead season 11 continues on February 20, 2022. See you there.
- “Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna lick ya.”
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