Episode 7.2 of The Walking Dead was a welcome break from the horrific blood bath of last week’s episode. But more than that, “The Well” (written by Matt Negrete) was the kind of episode that helps us all remember why we love this show. Between the character exploration, the humor, and the subtle yet powerful emotional beats, this was The Walking Dead in all its story-telling glory.

As the episode opens, we – much like Carol and Morgan – find ourselves dropped into The Kingdom, a strange yet peaceful and optimistic place. It has weapon-wielding guards and secured gates, but it also sports a lovely garden, regular movie nights and a choir group. When a recovering Carol gets wheeled into the “King’s” quarters, Morgan can only tell her that King Ezekiel “does his own thing.” Indeed, Ezekiel’s “thing” includes acting as royal leader of The Kingdom, having a friendly (and funny) steward named Jerry as a confidant, and keeping Shiva the pet tiger by his side. The whole place looks like a local production of renaissance theatre in progress, and the look on Carol’s face when she surveys the scene says it all. But she quickly slides into her Suzy Homemaker routine so she can gather information and make her next move. For his part, King Ezekiel is a grandiose yet instantly likable fellow, who’s hospitality toward Morgan and Carol is given in the hope that they’ll do their part to replenish “the well.” Because after all, as Carol snidely remarks “it’s all about the well.”

Once Carol and Morgan are outside, she lashes out at Morgan, castigating the whole Kingdom and stating her intention of leaving as soon as she’s able. By now, Carol’s need to run away and be alone is tiresome. Her internal pain over committing murderous acts is understandable, but how does she think she can survive out on her own? Didn’t almost dying at the hands of a Savior teach her anything about trying to go it alone in the zombie apocalypse?

Morgan, on the other hand, feels at home in The Kingdom. He’s willing to teach young Ben the art of Aikido, and he lends a hand on a pig-herding mission, no questions asked. Morgan has gone through many changes, even though the character hasn’t had much screen time over the years. He went from a protective father, to a homicidal mad man, to a staff wielding pacifist, to most recently, somewhere in the middle. In many respects, his journey mirrors Rick’s, but unlike Rick, Morgan hasn’t been cocky about having all the answers. He’s just trying to figure things out for himself, struggling to live along the way. It seems clear, though, that The Kingdom is a place where Morgan can live in relative contentment.

the-walking-dead 7.2 Ezekiel and Morgan

It turns out the pig round-up was for a weekly offering (though a tainted one) for the Saviors, indicating that even The kingdom isn’t safe from Negan’s tyranny. Ezekiel confides in Morgan about the arrangement – one the King’s people know nothing about – and Morgan thinks Ezekiel brought him along because the man Morgan killed to save Carol was a Savior. But Ezekiel has learned a lot about Morgan in a short time, and sees that he needs Morgan, who is calm instead of aggressive. It’s interesting, though, that Ezekiel is the one that de-escalates the situation when things go bad. He’s willing to keep the peace and comply – at least for now.

Carol ultimately makes her move to leave, until she’s confronted by Ezekiel. She tells him that he and the place are a joke, so to get through to her, Ezekiel drops the act and we get his backstory. Before the apocalypse, he was a zookeeper who did local theatre, and with tiger in tow, stumbled upon a group of survivors who told tales about him, until Ezekiel embraced the stories and took on the royal part so he could accomplish what needed to be done. He’s not so different from Carol, really. But one thing does set them apart, and that’s their philosophical perspective. Carol feels none of it matters, but Ezekiel feels it all matters very much. He’s in the Glenn/Maggie camp, and his arrival after Glenn’s sickening death couldn’t have come too soon. “It’s not all bad,’ Ezekiel tells Carol. “Where’s there’s life, there’s hope, grace, heroism, and love. Where there’s life, there’s life.”

It was a great moment. But for a second I had to remind myself what show I was watching. And here-in lies my problem with the series. They continue to show us never-ending suffering, death, and the evil of humanity, yet they also throw a bone in our direction, giving lip service to the concept of hope. Only, that’s all it is – lip service. The show has systematically killed off any character that exhibited that hope, including Dale, Hershel, Beth, Noah, and most recently, Glenn. Of course, The Walking Dead takes place within the context of the end of the world, so it can’t be a happy place. Yet the writers seem to have made their choice about which side of the equation they come down on, only to occasionally back-peddle behind the edge of despair. And people can only take that for so long. Or maybe they can take it – for many more seasons to come. Maybe it’s just that I can only take it for so long. Nevertheless, after Negan’s megalomaniacal speech last week, it was sure nice to hear Ezekiel’s.

the-walking-dead 7.2 Carol and Ezekiel

For all his theatrical and well-articulated words, Ezekiel is no fool. He’s not naïve like Deanna and the Alexandrians, talking about pasta makers and planning potluck suppers; He’s not the Governor, volatile and steam rolling over innocents to protect his chosen few; and he’s certainly not Negan, a calculating sociopath. Ezekiel is smart yet empathetic – selling a fictional place to his people but very authentically trying to make a life and community for them in a world gone mad. He understands Carol, but he’s stronger than her in a way: He’s not willing to isolate himself to “just be.” Ezekiel realizes that it might be necessary to put on an act in exchange for gaining some semblance of a life. That life includes meaningful connections with people. And by the end of the episode, he kind of convinces Carol over to his side. She finds a way “to go and not go” by moving into an abandoned house on the outskirts of The Kingdom, a happy medium, as it were. Carol and Morgan’s good bye at Carol’s new home was poignant and fitting, given the nature of their adversarial relationship. She’s alone now, but as Carol saw from Ezekiel’s visit, not completely out of reach.

This episode achieved a near-perfect balance of character development, plot movement and thematical beats. It illustrated the seriousness of what The Kingdom is up against, but kept the implication that hope is not lost. I would love to see this well-rounded version of the show more often.

The writers have stated The Walking Dead’s universe is expanding. Having invested in, and gotten attached to, the core group of characters, I was skeptical. But that core group has gotten smaller and smaller, and I certainly wouldn’t mind spending more time with Morgan, Carol and Ezekiel in The Kingdom. Heaven knows Alexandria isn’t going to be a picnic anytime soon. Maybe it is time to see how other people in the world are surviving. Maybe Rick and his crew – for once – can even learn something from them.

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