This week’s episode of The Walking Dead (“The Well”) felt like our heroes fell into an episode of Z Nation. Imagine Carol and Morgan finding themselves in Murphy’s Spokane safe zone, inside the zombie moat, holding court with the blue-skinned monologist about the future and his grand plans. I imagine Carol would have given Murphy the same goofy, OxyContin grin she gave King Ezekiel this week and made quick plans to slip out, arm herself and level the entire affair with heavy artillery. Or fire. Or whatever she could throw into a pressure cooker.
Morgan, the pragmatist, knew that Carol needed help and it didn’t matter if it came from a dreadlocked thespian with a tiger or a blue-skinned, brain eater with delusions of rebuilding the world with “blends” – though the idea of “saving” Carol with the Murphy vaccine might have been a deal breaker.
Still, the royal court of Ezekiel pushed some of the barriers of believability that Z Nation gleefully shatters every week but then brought the affair back into that comfortable box of human drama before the end of the first act. Ezekiel runs “The Kingdom,” another community which, like Alexandria, has created a new society. Ezekiel is a benevolent dictator, a theatrical presence bursting with so much goodwill and purpose that even the Saviors respect him. Well, that and he delivers their tribute to Negan on time and as promised. All of this keeps Negan’s goons from knocking on their front gate which allows his subjects to focus on taking care of one another, studying, creating art, and forgetting the world outside and all the bad it represents.
Morgan immediately sees the value in this, taking on the task of mentoring a young man in need of fighting skills. Carol, on the other hand, is having none of it. She puts on the “homemaker Carol” disguise to steal supplies and prepare for a day when she’s strong enough to escape the local Society for Creative Apocalypse group. She thinks Ezekiel is crazy and his subjects even crazier for buying into it. But this isn’t exactly The Saviors. They aren’t the Wolves or Termites or even Woodbury. As Carol rolls around the place there are no signs of exploitation or violence, just work that leads to a sense of purpose. Yeah, it’s pretty much a socialist’s utopia, but where artistic expression and individual development are encouraged. (Is there such a thing as a socialist monarchy? Great Britain?) Carol either sees this as a weakness and an inevitable failure (especially knowing the cruelty that lurks outside its walls) or a feeling of hope she cannot afford to have dashed again. She just wants to leave.
It’s interesting because Morgan and Carol have no idea the terrible outcome of last week’s episode. Viewers can react to their first-hand accounts of The Saviors with “Oh, you have NO idea. Daryl, Rick and Carl aside, you guys are the last first season characters left alive on this show and the only thing keeping you alive now is your online popularity…maybe.”
We learn that The Kingdom exists because of a treaty with the Saviors. So long as they deliver supplies as ordered, no one dies. This week, Ezekiel helps with rounding up wild pigs which are slaughtered far from the Kingdom and delivered by truck to a rendezvous point. The pigs are fattened up on walker meat, which raises some interesting questions no one in the show tries to answer. Granted, we haven’t seen any undead animals which means the show is consistent with the comic book rule that animals aren’t sickened by the virus that reanimates humans. But, what about the undigested stuff? Sir Squarejaw of King Ezekiel’s imperial guard/pig wranglers explains he feeds walkers to pigs so their “bellies are full of rot” knowing full well they were going to The Saviors. If they were for his own people, would he still allow it? Doubtful. Of course, walking baconators are known for eating and digesting all sort of filth without ill effects and I’m not an expert on necroambulate-swine biology. I also imagine if there’s a chance the Saviors would get sick off the meat the consequences would be bloody so perhaps they have it all worked out.
While the tribute goes well and the Savior leading the transaction seems quite reasonable to deal with, there has to be that one guy who has to be the cartoon bully and mess with the good guys and it leads to a close call with slaughter. It’s Sir Squarejaw who gets tangled up with the kid who likes torturing animals and it is Ezekiel’s command of his people and the respect he earned from the Saviors that prevents Squarejaw from getting executed, though he’d not off the hook. If “produce week” doesn’t go as promised, he’s first to get a bullet to the face.
It’s a look into how Alexandria’s future dealing with Negan. Unfortunately, Rick and his group haven’t built up a community that can take care of itself much less provide anything of value for the larger Savior camp. While Ezekiel’s Renaissance Faire dream seems ridiculous at the beginning, it actually works. He keeps the terror of the Saviors away and his people are happier and more productive which leads to meeting deadlines and quotas and continues the cycle of industry keeping everyone alive. When Ezekiel drops his mask in an effort to get Carol to drop hers she seems to be a little impressed by the operation and the plan. But she still refuses to stay. Ezekiel is just a zookeeper whose best friend is a tiger and somehow, he used his theater background to inspire hope in people and lead them to a place of safety and unity. And it isn’t torn down and discarded by the end of the episode.
This is how TWD differs from Z Nation. Where the latter would play up the spectacle with pan flute music, Romani dancers, corsets, and armored knights, the former thinks out the situation as a matter of practicality founded in Ezekiel’s humanity. In ZN, Ezekiel would be a lost soul trapped in a useful kind of madness, played primarily for yuks. When you compare Ezekiel to Murphy, Murphy is a boilerplate despot who gives great speeches and controls the masses with mind control drugs. He has no complex plan or adversary to execute. (He does have the largest collection of vomit shots of both series in last week’s episode.) He’s a cartoon villain in a town held together by whatever the plot needs in the moment. And that’s okay, but it’s a different kind of show. A mad king with a tiger wouldn’t make the Top 20 weirdest things encountered by Warren’s team in the last three seasons.
After last week’s murderfest, this was a very different show. It doesn’t seem that Negan had to “break” anyone in The Kingdom, certainly not to the degree Rick was broken. There isn’t that kind of haunting fear that lurks behind the eyes of its leaders and I’m not sure how Ezekiel could hold on to that carefree attitude if he had to witness two of his officers pulped by Lucille or if he were forced to cut off Shiva’s head. My guess is that King Ezekiel is cunning and diplomatic and will make a great ally to Rick and Co (and Hilltop) when the time comes to bring them all together.