It's been a while since The Walking Dead has been truly terrifying — I mean TRULY terrifying with a corrosive sense of dread, not just slicing and dicing through mobs of walkers — but "The Same Boat" had me biting my fingernails down to bloody nubs. I'm calling "The Same Boat" the best episode of this half-season even though it didn't match the zombie body count of the blood-and-guts-filled midseason premiere "No Way Out," or the human body count of last week's violent "Not Tomorrow Yet," because it did two things incredibly well and fixed some things that were broken. It put two beloved characters in the maw of mortal danger, and it matched them with competent and skilled antagonists. It's a simple formula, but the simplest ideas, when executed well, are often the best.
"The Same Boat" picked up last week's cliffhanger by cleverly repeating it through a different set of eyes (and binoculars). Carol (Melissa McBride) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) got captured by members of the Saviors, and we now know this splinter group was led by Paula (Justified's Alicia Witt), and from there, a good old-fashioned hostage episode unfolded (and I love me a good hostage episode of TV!).
The opening minutes set the stage for total paranoia brilliantly, thanks to some great choices by longtime Walking Dead director Billy Gierhart. We watched the early stages of the hostage trade that started at the end of "Not Tomorrow Yet" through the P.O.V. of Paula's binoculars, establishing the upper hand that Paula's group had. They could see Rick (Andrew Lincoln), but he couldn't see them. They had two of Rick's people; Rick only had one of theirs. And when Paula ordered Maggie and Carol to have their jackets pulled over their heads like hoods, the P.O.V. moved to Carol and Maggie's limited view of everything, while Paula chatted (in military jargon) over walkie-talkies in highly coordinated communication with whoever was on the other line.
Going into this episode, we didn't know who the Saviors were, really, except for a bunch of greasy dudes on bikes who tried to bully some of our survivors and were stealing resources from the Hilltoppers in exchange for not beating them up. When Rick agreed to exterminate them for slimy Hilltop leader Gregory, we had only the word of the wimpy Hilltop community to vouch for the Saviors' abilities, and because the local chess club could have taken Hilltop by force, Gregory's word didn't mean a whole lot. Additionally, Rick's assault, even though it caught the Saviors by surprise, was an entirely lopsided affair, in the same league as the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals, as indicated by the shutout that Rick's team pitched. No deaths, no casualties, not even a scratch on his side, and total slaughter and complete annihilation of the Saviors who were inside. Long story short, were any of us impressed by the Saviors at all heading into this episode? I certainly wasn't. I was more scared of Sam Anderson, dead or alive.
But thanks to these directorial choices and organic details that trickled out, the Saviors went from sad to bad in a few moments without pulling a trigger. Obviously it helped that they had control over Maggie and Carol, but Paula and her goons made the Saviors credible and competent threats before our two favorite survivor ladies were tied up on the killing floor of the Saviors' stash house. All of a sudden these people were an experienced organization, and near mirror images of Rick's group --sometimes down to the individual, as I'll discuss later — in that they were regular people who found a way to survive. They were at least more threatening than the other dead Saviors, who couldn't even shoot the side of a barn if they were inside it. This changed everything and set the stage for the Olympics of mind games that would ensue for the rest of the hour.
The situation — we had one of theirs, they had two of ours — set up a near stalemate, with the odds slightly favoring Paula because they had backup coming and double the hostages, hence an extra body to drop to get their point across. (Well, better odds if you ignore the fact that they aren't the stars of the show.) With Rick uncertain of their whereabouts, it became clear that this episode was all about Maggie and Carol, and they'd have to work their way out of trouble largely on their own. Spoiler! They did, in supremely badass fashion.
We'll start with Maggie, who has been happy to put her life in extreme danger all season long, despite carrying baby Glenn in her belly. She's been stuck by herself on guard towers that were surrounded by walkers, held guns on sketchy men (Jesus) while her friends abandoned her to clear buildings, and refused to stay in the safety of Alexandria while the group attacked a gang of well-armed bad guys as they slept. But after "The Same Boat," I'm borrowing a quote from Breaking Bad's Walter White: she's not in danger, she is the danger! Did you see her at the end there? She was a beast.
Maggie also had an interesting conversation with one of the Saviors, a woman named 'Chelle (Jeananne Goossen), who seemed somewhat protective of Maggie after finding out she was pregnant (i.e., telling another Savior to stop smoking around her). This subtle connection between the two, gently breathed into the episode by writer Angela Kang, was part of an ongoing theme that elevated the hour. 'Chelle and Maggie were two sides of the same coin, with shared experiences (crossing my fingers Maggie doesn't lose her baby, too).
The similarities between captor and captive were especially noticeable with Paula and Carol, who (pre-apocalypse) were subservient women in boring stereotypical female roles — Paula was a secretary and Carol was a battered housewife. But the outbreak changed them into hardened killers, where they were able to actualize tougher (though not necessarily better) versions of themselves. Paula's metaphor about boiling certain items was pretty sharp--carrots went soft, eggs became hard, and coffee beans changed the boiling water. Paula claimed to be coffee beans and said that Carol, who had been sandbagging it as a scared, hyperventilating, religious woman, was a carrot. It turned out that wasn't the case at all; Paula was the egg and Carol was the coffee beans because Carol has done more in this hellish world than just become hardened. She's rewriting the rules of survival and has adapted better than anyone else.
If there's one bit of confusion I have from "The Same Boat," it's Carol's recent change in attitude. We saw her fret over her murder journal last week, and this week she had problems killing anyone. Mind you, this is the same woman who killed a child, had no problem killing attackers in Alexandria, wanted to kill Morgan's wolf prisoner, and mercy-killed a wounded Alexandrian without thinking about it not too long ago. So I'm a little perplexed at what happened to make her pull back on the violence. Carol has been my favorite character in the show ever since she went through this arc of doing whatever it took to survive, starting with the barbecuing of Karen and David back at the prison. And her arc may have plateaued, prompting the writers to think a new arc of guilt was necessary. But it's weakening her for me, and more evidence of rubber-banding characters--they go to one extreme and then snap back to a mellower medium. (Rick's done that about 50 times in the series.) Is Morgan's nonlethal ethic finding its way into Carol's thinking? Is this the natural progression of humans pushed to the brink? Or are the writers stuck trying to figure out what to do with her? There are shades of Carol in there still --playing weak and sharpening a crucifix as a tool, for one — but the old Carol would have no problems killing Paula or anyone, particularly if it meant ensuring Maggie's safety, and brushing it off. I just don't totally get this new Carol, and I don't think the show did a good enough job explaining why she's going down this path.
But at least she was able to kill both 'Chelle and Paula when it came down to it. And her plan with Maggie to draw the Savior reinforcements into a room and set the floor on fire was pretty savage. Nice work, ladies!
All this and we still haven't seen Negan, unless we're really buying the repeated answer that all Saviors are Negan. I have no idea why they think they're all Negan or what it means, unless it's some form of cult indoctrination, but we're going to need some answers and visual evidence that Jeffrey Dean Morgan has actually been cast in this show soon. My guess is, now that he's seen Rick and company decimate his forces --Maggie and Carol added about eight more casualties to Negan's forces, and Rick's group has yet to take a loss — he'll show his face very soon. If he has anyone left, that is.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.