As absurd as it feels to be typing these words, “The Obliged” was a truly stellar episode of a thoroughly reinvented The Walking Dead, and I’m here for it.
This recap of The Walking Dead Season 9, Episode 4, “The Obliged”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Just what on earth is going on here? Who took the necrotising, shambolic corpse of AMC’s flagship zombie drama and sneakily replaced it with this new show, which is not just good but consistently improving and, in “The Obliged”, actually rather excellent? Angela Kang replacing Scott Gimple as showrunner can’t have hurt, obviously, but who’s responsible for the suddenly-great writing? Or the wildly-better staging and structure? Or the performances?
Either way, I’m here for this new version of The Walking Dead, even if I am suddenly annoyed that viewership is drastically down and Andrew Lincoln is leaving just when it has all started looking up. Shit, he might even be leaving next week! “The Obliged” found him thoroughly in the shit – skewered on a piece of rebar, and surrounded by two encroaching herds of zombies. (Hey, notice how that merger was alluded to earlier in the episode? Good writing!) There’s always a chance that Lincoln’s very public departure might be used as a red herring here, and Rick will keep on trucking for a few more episodes at least, but who can tell, these days? I’m still in a state of shock that the thing is suddenly competent again.
Here’s how Rick found himself on the menu: Maggie (Lauren Cohan) is making her way to Alexandria to finally do away with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and Daryl (Norman Reedus) is in on the plan. Having sabotaged the radio relay to ensure Rick’s warning doesn’t reach anyone who can get in Maggie’s way, Daryl then tricks his fearless leader into riding with him and intentionally veers off-course. A scuffle ensues, and the pair finds themselves in a deep sinkhole. Oops.
Negan, meanwhile, is on hunger strike, leading Michonne (Danai Gurira) to visit him for a chat before he takes things to the next level and starts a dirty protest. The Saviours kick off with Carol (Melissa McBride), and Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) decides not to turn her new lover-boy Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) over to that mysterious letter-oriented community she’s been chatting with on the radio.
This is the broad shape of the plot in “The Obliged”, but don’t worry too much about it. The reason the episode works so well is that the details of each beat are so finely-tuned that every time the show cuts away to another tangential plot thread, you’re both disappointed to have left the current one and eager to see what’s happening elsewhere. I can barely recall the last time an hour passed by so quickly. It was exceedingly well put-together.
Even minor moments, like Carol’s stand-off with the Saviours, were played for maximal tension. But the bulk of “The Obliged” was a pair of conversations, one between Daryl and Rick and the other between Michonne and Negan, which were exceptionally well-written and acted. The episode opened with a little montage of Michonne’s double life; loving city builder by day, katana-wielding head-lopper-offer by night. So when Negan, who has now had his eccentricities dialled back to recognisable human levels, began to taunt her about how ill-suited she is to the child-rearing, crop-growing lifestyle, it actually had some impact. You could see the kernel of truth in what he was saying, and so could she. Both their reactions felt measured and appropriate and sensible.
And then there’s Daryl, no longer a tight-lipped hick whose only job is to wear leather and look gruff on a motorcycle. In his argument with Rick, he actually got his point across. He showed flashes of real emotion. He came to a natural realisation about his relationship with Rick and how what he has planned to do with Maggie might, potentially, be a mistake. It was legitimately great, and I never thought I’d write those words in relation to The Walking Dead ever again.
Yet, here we are. I can’t put my finger on how it happened, but at this point, The Walking Dead might just be essential viewing once again. Of course, nobody is doing much viewing of it these days, and the show has nobody to blame for that but itself. But maybe my small contribution in insisting that this shit is really quite good again will go some way towards convincing an ambivalent viewership that there’s life in the zombies just yet. I hope other critics and commentators do the same. It might be fun writing scathing reviews each week, but it turns out it is more fun to write surprisingly enthusiastic ones. Who’d have thought?