“What It Always Is” was another filler episode, but the best kind, full of promising character development and an assurance that the worst — and best — is yet to come.
This recap of The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5, “What It Always Is”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Every episode of The Walking Dead‘s tenth season has been a filler episode, more or less, and “What It Always Is” was no different, though I don’t mean any of this as a criticism. Now that the show is competently character-driven, its time is being spent developing and wringing tension from the still-too-large cast and their various relationships and conflicts. It’s assembling the pieces on the gameboard; stacking the dominoes it’ll eventually set tumbling.
The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5 was a bit different in that rather than choosing to focus on one or a small handful of the cast, it bounced back and forth between almost all of them, furthering various subplots and teasing various interpersonal dramas. It felt a bit worse for being stretched like that, something of a reminder of how overstuffed the show can become when it isn’t pared down. But its character choices are becoming so consistently well-handled that there isn’t really a weak link in the chain. Everyone has a purpose and a personality that feels like a logical extension of what they have experienced; we’re safely beyond the point of arbitrary, nonsensical decision-making for the sake of set-pieces. Mostly, anyway.
Nowhere is this more apparent than how the last two seasons have treated Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is suddenly the show’s hero — or close to it. The outsider status that kept him a vaguely villainous threat also kept him separate from the wonky leadership that led everyone into the path of the Whisperers and threatens to do so again; now, thanks to some patiently-developed in-roads he has made with other characters, especially Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Lydia (Cassady McClincy), he has been subtlely repositioned as the savior he claimed to be when he was the show’s villain. When he is reunited with Lucille and his jacket in “What It Always Is”, you aren’t worried that he’s going to go after the heroes. You’re excited that he’s going to take on the villains.
He’s partnered up with a villain of a sort for much of The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5, mostly to highlight how he is not the character he once was. This guy’s name is Brandon (Blaine Kern III), raised in Alexandria but born to Saviors, and creepily obsessed with the legend of Negan and his head-pulping exploits. It’s Brandon who reunites Negan with Lucille and the jacket, though he doesn’t want either at first. But it’s also Brandon who reminds Negan what an awful character he was at his worst, mostly by gleefully re-enacting all the dopey affectations that the show once mistook for terrifying mental instability, but also by killing a woman and her child in order to impress him. Negan, unimpressed, smashes his head in with a rock; one more line in an impressive head-smashing tally that Negan racks up in “What It Always Is”.
This is all good, useful long-term character-building, and it leads to a cliffhanger climax in which Negan, now in his classic attire, marches happily into Whisperer territory to start some trouble. Held up against it, some of the other stuff in The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5 feels needlessly contrived. I hate how Kelly (Angel Theory) gets herself in a ridiculous predicament — she’s out hunting, alone, despite rapidly losing her hearing — just to excuse the revelation that she and Magna (Nadia Hilker) have been stealing supplies from Hilltop. This out-of-nowhere subplot allows for some decent moments in “What It Always Is”. Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Connie (Lauren Ridloff) continue to bond, and he says more to her in this episode than he has said to almost anyone in the last few seasons. And when Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) sees through their cover-up and confronts Magna about her behavior, we get to see a further breakdown in their relationship that is a welcome bit of drama between characters who’re still comparative newcomers. I’m not sure I care about them as much as the show seems to assume I do, but I appreciate that The Walking Dead is bothering with these micro-conflicts rather than devoting time exclusively to the macro ones.
Another detail, though not really a conflict: Ezekiel (Khary Payton) has thyroid cancer, a hereditary thing, given away by a giant tumor in his neck. He isn’t long for this season, I think that’s for certain; he has already lost almost everything that his character valued — Carol (Melissa McBride), the Kingdom — anyway. Siddiq (Avi Nash) bonds with him for a while but leaves for Alexandria when he learns that Rosita (Christian Serratos) isn’t well. That’s the way the show’s going, too, leaving Ezekiel behind for those who still have more to offer. Will his inevitable death matter?
It might be used to further the conflict with the Whisperers, though I’m not sure we really need any further confirmation of how evil Alpha (Samantha Morton) is. The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5 provides more just in case. After learning that she has indeed been responsible for the various acts of sabotage around Hilltop and Alexandria, we also learn that it is causing dissent in her ranks, with people unsure of why she wouldn’t just destroy her adversaries and have done with it. The lesson is learned painfully, though I’m not sure it sticks for everyone. Gamma (Thora Birch) remains the Whisperer weak link, and you have to wonder if a potential face-turn is on the cards after seeing her interact with Aaron (Ross Marquand) in “What It Always Is”.
Either way, the war is coming, and thanks to the efforts of this season, we’ll probably feel for its casualties more than we ever could have imagined doing a couple of years ago. The Walking Dead is still an unwieldy show, with too many factions, communities, and characters, but they’re as well-defined now as they have been in ages, even longstanding fixtures like Daryl and Negan who have been given new life and purpose. The only downside of taking so much time to properly set up the midseason finale is that if it disappoints, it’ll retroactively taint all the time spent carefully getting there. But we’ll have to wait and see. At the moment, though, I’m pretty confident this new version of the show, back from the dead, can pull the task off.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.