The Walking Dead is, at its most basic level, a procedural about survival. Every week, the characters face mortal peril and have to figure out how to live to fight another day. Some episodes are more procedural than others, and some are better than others. Season 10's midseason premiere, "Squeeze," was highly procedural, and really, really good. It had great tension, great character stuff, great technical stuff, and gross and surprising sex stuff.
"Squeeze" was the first midseason premiere not directed by executive producer Greg Nicotero since Season 3, and was instead helmed by Michael E. Satrazemis, the franchise's other signature director, who created the look of the rebooted Fear the Walking Dead. Mike E. has one of the best eyes in the Walking Dead Universe, and on this episode he and director of photography Jalaludin Trautmann did really impressive work with darkness, as most of the episode took place in a cave lit primarily by lanterns and torches. A huge shout-out is due to The Walking Dead's scenic team as well for building that elaborate and huge-seeming cave set.
The episode picked up where the midseason finale left off, with Carol (Melissa McBride), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Aaron (Ross Marquand), Jerry (Cooper Andrews), Magna (Nadia Hilker), Connie (Lauren Ridloff), and Kelly (Angel Theory) trapped in an underground cave packed with Alpha's (Samantha Morton) horde of walkers. They ended up there because Carol, who is so consumed with lust for vengeance against Alpha that she doesn't care if she lives or dies, followed the Whisperer leader into the cave, either not realizing or not caring that it was a trap. And the rest of the gang followed her, which of course ended in disaster. Whether that disaster was fatal remains to be seen, but in any case, Carol's Mel Gibson-in-Lethal Weapon death wish has gone way too far. It's affecting other people too much.
Carol's continuing downward spiral and Daryl's attempts to pull her out of it are the emotional core of the show now. We've been seeing them have this conversation all season, in which Carol's grief over Alpha killing her son Henry (Matt Lintz) manifests in emotional isolation and reckless behavior, and Daryl keeps trying to get her to talk to him about how she's feeling and stop acting so self-destructively. It's not a conversation I'm sick of yet, because Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride are delivering some of their best acting on the show to date. The writers are giving the people what they want, which is Daryl saying "We fight for our future, we don't fight for revenge," and Carol putting her head on his shoulder.
Carol, it turns out, has claustrophobia, and was hyperventilating with anxiety as they moved through the cave, fending off Whisperers and walkers all the while. Magna was mad at Carol for getting them in this mess, and was having anxiety of her own, because she was afraid she wouldn't make it home to mend her relationship with her girlfriend Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura). Connie, meanwhile, tried to comfort Carol, tracing "U R OK" into Carol's palm as Carol panicked, which helped her calm down before they squeezed through a tiny passage in the cave. If you're claustrophobic, you probably had to turn the episode off at this point.
They all made it through the crevice, but Jerry almost didn't. I was very worried about Jerry in this episode, because I thought he might be too big to fit, but the walkers that grabbed his feet when he got stuck didn't manage to bite through his boot, and his friends were able to pull him to safety. And it's a good thing they did, because if he wasn't there to hold up that boulder after Carol set off that dynamite, things would have turned out even worse.
Kelly found a crate of sweaty dynamite straight out of the movie Sorcerer that Jerry deemed too dangerous to use to try to blast their way to daylight. But as Aaron tried to bash out an opening with his mace-arm, Carol snuck away with a stick of dynamite to try to blow up Alpha's horde. She had promised Daryl she was going to stop doing stuff like that, but she's too out of control to keep that vow. He went after her anyway, and saved her when she slipped and almost fell into a pit full of walkers. But she dropped the dynamite and it blew up, bringing the roof of the cave down onto her friends. Most of the group made it out before Jerry couldn't hold the boulder anymore, and when that rock hit the rest of the dynamite, the cave imploded with Magna and Connie still inside.
Kelly was beside herself about losing her sister, but she was right when she said that the noise of the explosion would draw walkers from all around, and they couldn't stay and try to dig to Magna and Connie. Daryl almost lost it on Carol, who broke down sobbing, saying that he should say it, she deserved it, someone he cared about was dead because of her. But instead of laying into her, he told them all to go home and tell them they found the horde, and he was going to try to find another way into the cave. I don't think this is really the end of Connie and Magna; I definitely hope it's not.
Elsewhere in the episode, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) had some weird stuff happen to him. The man who now lives among the Whisperers but can't stop talking warned Alpha that Gamma (Thora Birch) seemed like a spy. In the single best scene of the episode, Negan interrupted Alpha while she was peeing ("The latrine is at the edge of the camp for hygiene, not privacy," she said, waving off his apology) and told her that he had been in her exact position before, and she could learn from his mistake. Gamma is to Alpha as Dwight (Austin Amelio) was to Negan when he was the leader of the saviors, a trusted lieutenant who started working as a double agent out of resentment, and Negan didn't realize until it was too late. If you're the boss for long enough you start to believe your sh-- doesn't stink, he said. "The thing is," he said, taking a dramatic sniff of the latrine-scented air, "it still stinks." She put a knife to his privates and said she would cut them off if he told anyone about his suspicion, but she could tell he was probably right. Then she pushed him into the foul ditch.
When Gamma didn't follow through on the task Alpha assigned to her, Negan's suspicions were confirmed, and Alpha sent Beta (Ryan Hurst) to get her. Then Alpha took Negan into the woods with her. When she ordered him to take off his clothes, he thought she was going to kill him, but then he turned around and saw she was naked, too — except for her mask, of course.
"You're a crass man," she said. "I reckoned you might appreciate a crass reward." Since he was right about Gamma, she wanted to express her gratitude in a way he'd understand.
"Are you just gonna leave that mask on?" he asked.
"Does my true skin disturb you?" she answered.
"Not at all," he said, smiling his wolfish smile. "Weirdly, the opposite." They almost kissed, but then he asked her if she was going to praying mantis him. "It's been a long time. I reckon I'll take my chances," he said when she didn't answer. All she would say was, "Stop talking." They kissed, and it was one of the grossest things I've ever seen on this show. Could you imagine pressing your face against that dead skin mask? Could you imagine what Alpha's breath is like? Bleccccch! It's been so long that Negan is really, really desperate. The last we saw of them, they were naked, embracing. That's gonna be a really interesting relationship to watch develop!
The Walking Dead is back, with energy and vigor. This is going to be a good half-season.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.