When someone gets murdered on The Walking Dead — which happens a lot — you almost always know who committed the deed and why, since the murder is shown on-screen, as the reason is usually “they needed killin’.” But this second third of season 11 has been willing to buck the show’s norms to go to some weird, unexpected places — places like the pre-post-apocalyptic Commonwealth, the weird political scheming in last week’s episode, and tonight’s honest-to-goodness murder mystery, which was a delight.
Honestly, I doubt “Warlords” will make anyone’s Top 10 Best Walking Dead Episodes list when all is said and done, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable hour of TV that I’m still pleasantly surprised to receive from TWD. It gives up a deeper, but still wonderfully intriguing look at the sinister shenanigans of Deputy Governor Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton), who was revealed last week to be scheming to become the ruler of Alexandria, Hilltop, and Oceanside, if not the Commonwealth itself. I’m going to do the recap just as the episode goes back and forth through time, because it was so effective at unspooling the mystery.
Several months after last week’s episode: Despite Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) best efforts, Hilltop 2.0 is struggling mightily. Lydia (Cassady McClincy) has given up and is about to head out to the Commonwealth herself when a lone rider, grievously wounded, runs up on horseback, falls out of the saddle, and mutters “They’re slaughtering them” to Maggie, Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari), and Lydia with his dying breath. Who is this young person? Who killed him? What’s he talking about?
The kid was carrying a map featuring a route between Hilltop and an unknown location (called Riverbend). Lydia and Elijah decide to look for and help these people in need, and Maggie eventually and reluctantly decides to join them. On the way, they find three Commonwealth soldiers on the road — or rather ex-Commontroopers, because they’ve had their throats slit and are now zombies. What the hell happened to them? Suddenly out of nowhere, Aaron (Ross Marquand) runs up the road toward the group. Where’d he come from?
One Week Ago: Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) has done a complete 180 during the time-jump. He’s preaching again, he feels he hears the voice of God, and he’s talking to the people of the Commonwealth about how they were “forced to see the humanity in each other” back in the wild, but are strangers again now that they’re safe. I’m glad he’s found God and morality again, but this is bananas because he was absolutely the person on the series who least saw the humanity in people, at least once Rick made his grand exit.
Aaron, who’s been working with the Commonwealth’s immigration initiative, asks Gabriel to join him on a mission to make first contact with a supposedly friendly settlement (called Riverbend), per Aaron’s boss Carlson’s (Jason Butler Harner) request. They’re a religious group, and Carlson thinks a man of the cloth could help. Makes sense!
A Little Over 12 Hours Before the Kid Shows Up at Hilltop: When they arrive, the place is ominously rundown, and both Gabriel and Aaron want to leave it the hell alone. Yet Carlson forces Aaron, Gabriel, and a kid named Jesse (Connor Hammond) — the one who died in the intro! — to accompany him into Riverbend, alone and unarmed, and most bizarrely, without the platoon of Commontroopers they’ve brought. What’s about to happen that gets Jesse killed?
This is exactly as stupid a decision as Aaron and Gabriel knew it would be. Riverbend is awful, full of grim people wielding scythes, holed up behind triple-locked steel doors, and run by (another) paranoid cult leader named Ian (Michael Biehn), who has a bookshelf of the skulls of people who messed with Riverbend. Ian threatens to kill Carlson, who grovels and snivels for his life until Aaron and Gabriel convince Ian that his people have absolutely nothing the Commonwealth would possibly want, and besides, if they were secretly cannibals, they probably wouldn’t have given Riverbend so many free MREs. Rather than risk a battle with the Commontroopers, Ian decides to let them go… which is when Carlson transforms into a coldblooded killer, grabs Ian’s gun, and shoots him and the other Riverbenders with brutal efficiency. The hell? What? Why?
One Week and One Hour Ago: Hornsby calls Carlson in for a mission to retrieve a convoy of supplies which appear to have been stolen by Riverbend — supplies Hornsby has secretly allocated for a mysterious “other thing.” While it turns out Carlson really does love bringing new people into the Commonwealth, he also used to be a CIA assassin, and Hornsby wants him to use his old skills to retrieve the supplies at any cost. Hornsby tells him to bring Aaron, who’s resumed his old Alexandrian work of finding and sorting out the good people wandering around the zombie apocalypse for rescue, as well as Gabriel, since the Riverbenders are religious and maybe a priest will be an asset. At any rate, they should all look innocent and harmless enough to be brought into the compound, when Carlson can do his thing.
A Little Less Than 12 Hours Before the Kid Shows Up at Hilltop: Aaron and Gabriel are shocked that Carlson has killed these people in cold blood, and utterly baffled when he asks the wounded Ian where some unmentioned supplies are. When Ian claims his people found the convoy empty, Carlson clubs him with his gun, Gabriel punches Carlson to save Ian (which is still absolutely mind-blowing to me), and immediately gets arrested by a Commontrooper. Carlson shoots Ian and begins kicking the corpse in rage, but bursts outside when he hears Jesse riding away on a horse. He orders — guys, I’m sorry this is so much stuff, but this episode cooks — a Commontrooper to shoot the kid in the back, but Aaron clubs the soldier to prevent a second shot. Carlson tries to shoot Aaron in the head but is out of ammo, and Aaron runs off. And then when Carlson heads back inside, he finds one of his troopers dead and Gabriel missing. Whew!
Slightly Before the Present: Aaron tells Maggie, Elijah, and Lydia about the massacre, the arsenal of weapons the Commonwealth lost, and that they’ve taken Gabriel. The group heads to Riverbend.
Exactly 12 Hours Ago, During the Attack on Riverbend: Jesse is running from the bloodshed to a horse, where he’s stopped by a Riverbender named Annie (Medina Senghore) and — drumroll — Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who’s become part of the group. Negan gives the kid a map that leads to Hilltop and tells him to let Maggie know that Aaron and Gabriel are in trouble. Then Negan and Annie hustle back to Riverbend, kill the soldier Carlson found previously, and free Gabriel. But now, the three are trapped in the building with a score of Riverbenders.
The Present: The Riverbenders have had their weapons taken, and are being forced to listen as Carlson keeps pushing people off the roof until someone tells him where the weapons are, just as Maggie, Aaron, Elijah, and Lydia make their way inside.
There’s a great deal of fun — and surprisingly unconfusing — storytelling in “Warlords.” The best part is that I have no idea if The Walking Dead has an explanation for these remaining mysteries, or no idea and hopes people won’t notice. Sure, the episode has some major inconsistencies, even beyond Gabriel’s babyface turn. My favourite is that when Aaron, Gabriel, and Carlson first come to Riverbend, its inhabitants all look like hardened killers led by a lunatic. But when Carlson has his heel turn and we’re supposed to hate him and the Commonwealth for their nefarious deception, the Riverbenders all suddenly are depicted as normal, non-threatening people because now the show wants us to root for them as Maggie, Negan, etc. lead them to freedom. Yet their deranged boss was boasting about his skull shelf less than two hours ago! So ridiculous, but also fun.
Still, it was very awkward to realise I had been underestimating The Walking Dead last night. I truly thought we’d get no explanation for much of anything, particularly why Aaron and Gabriel were conscripted for the mission. I was trying to justify the seemingly nonsensical reasoning for this other than the show needing a protagonist to finally watch the Commonwealth be real baddies, and then Hornsby came along and explained it all himself. Again, I feel weird about this, but I’m also delighted to realise the show is currently smarter than I’ve been giving it credit for.
With “Warlords,” The Walking Dead has officially passed the halfway mark for its 11th and final season, but now, mysteries still abound. What happened to the weapons? Were those Commontrooper zombies the soldiers who were supposed to protect the weapons in transit? Who killed them if not the Riverbenders? What “other project” is Hornsby referring to? And will TWD continue this hot streak of entertaining episodes until the show ends?
- I honestly can’t remember any mysterious murders other than the two plague-ridden folks in season three. Eventually, Rick learned Carol took them out for the safety of the group, and Rick was appalled at her cruelty and banished her from the prison. How times change!
- Did anyone else feel weird when Aaron and Gabriel took one look at the building the Riverbenders lived in and refused to go because it looked like a place where shotgun-wielding maniacs lived while waiting for some idiot to come to their doorstep? As far as the world of TWD goes, they’re absolutely correct, but perhaps they shouldn’t judge these things by their covers. In the zombie apocalypse, defence beats aesthetics. And come on, where was Ian going to get glass to fix all the windows, anyway?
- Hornsby thinks Aaron and Gabriel will fall in line with the wholesale murder of the Riverbenders. He’s wrong, but frankly, it’s a very educated guess on his part. Had Hornsby tasked them with this anytime between season nine and last episode, they’d likely have been fine with it. Especially Gabriel.
- Maggie wonders what the Commonwealth would need with so many guns. Um, my dude? They have a standing army that needs to stay well-armed to protect the settlement from zombies and the countless maniacs running around. Anyone would be thrilled to find a free arsenal, including you, Maggie.
- MVP Seth Gilliam with one of the show’s best lines and line readings ever: “Yeah, I’m not doing this.”