“Warlords” is a solid episode utilizing the show’s favorite timeline and perspective gimmicks, and it’s a tense hour despite the setup asking some awkward questions of the writing.
This recap of The Walking Dead season 11, episode 13, “Warlords”, contains spoilers.
After several weeks of gradually showing the true colors of the Commonwealth in the gaps between the white-painted armor of its devoted soldiers, I can’t say I was necessarily expecting an episode like “Warlords”. This is very much The Walking Dead of an old-school vintage; a tense, action-heavy standoff between one community and another, complete with slightly insane leaders and bookshelves full of bleached skulls, arranged in neat little rows. But it’s also – rather cleverly, as it happens – a continuation of the themes and ideas that this season has been espousing since the beginning; a strong argument against the Commonwealth and Hornsby specifically, a check-in on an AWOL character, and crucial development for several others, including Maggie, Gabriel, and Aaron.
The Walking Dead season 11, episode 13 recap
As The Walking Dead is sometimes all-too-keen to do, “Warlords” employs multiple perspectives on slightly separate timelines, so we get several viewpoints on the same events. It all begins, though, where we left things, at a struggling Hilltop where Maggie is hemorrhaging people after the Commonwealth’s compelling offer of salvation. Lydia is the latest to jump ship, but her exit is interrupted by a blood-soaked man on horseback, who succumbs to his gunshot wounds only after handing over a map and imploring Hilltop to help.
Maggie, of course, is reluctant to help anyone. But given the general sentiment around Hilltop now seems to be that she’s making decisions for others that might not necessarily be in their best interests – and are also against the altruistic principles on which the community was built in the first place – she has no choice but to save face by heading out with Lydia and Elijah for a rescue mission. A little way down the road, the gang encounters a trio of shambling Commonwealth soldiers who have been neatly killed through the gaps in their armor, and then a frantic Aaron, who fills them – and by extension us – in on the next bit of the story.
The community in need is Riverbend, a giant apartment block full of deeply religious isolationists whom the Commonwealth has been trying to bring into the fold with regular supply drops. Aaron is now fronting the Commonwealth’s immigration initiative under an eccentric man named Carlson, who just can’t wait to “help” as many people as possible. Aaron pitches the mission to Father Gabriel, who has begun to hear the voice of God again in his sermons, and explains that they need his help specifically because of Riverbend’s piety. A clerical collar can do a lot of heavy lifting, after all, though it probably doesn’t help that Gabe turns up to the apartments looking like an exorcist.
The young man who rode to Hilltop also works for Carlson, which doesn’t bode well. “Warlords” deliberately presents Carlson as a naïve clown who, by his own admission, hasn’t helped a group larger than four – there are supposedly forty people at Riverbend, which means his usual approach a) isn’t likely to work in the best case and b) might get them all killed in the worst, but he’s adamant about following through his own way. They’re greeted at the door by a shaven-headed woman who carries a scythe, and they’re cautiously led inside a candlelit shelter festooned with religious iconography. Upstairs, they’re introduced to the group’s leader, Ian (Michael Biehn), whose bookshelf is full of the skulls of those “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who came to Riverbend pitching many of the same things as the Commonwealth are now. Well, perhaps not two movie theatres, but you get the idea.
In a neat, surprising twist, Carlson turns out not to be a bumbling missionary after all. He plays the role convincingly while Ian holds him at gunpoint, and he leaves it to Aaron and Gabriel to negotiate their release with various common-sense arguments – including why anyone would want this shithole in the first place – that Ian seems surprisingly receptive to. And then in the first opportunity he gets, Carlson wounds Ian, kills his men, and puts the entire building into lockdown. Uh-oh.
As it turns out in another flashback, this one to Carlson meeting with Hornsby, Carlson is an alcoholic former CIA assassin whose new, pacifistic job remains tenuous enough that Hornsby can strongarm him into covering up his mess. The exact specifics of Hornsby’s mess remain a mystery, though. He’s taking resources from Milton and diverting them to some “other thing” he has going on, but his latest convoy of weapons was intercepted, he claims by Riverbend, and responding in an official capacity would alert Pam to what he’s up to. So, he despatches Carlson to recover the shipment under the guise of a friendly assimilation meeting, with Gabriel, Aaron, and the enthusiastic young horseman none the wiser.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Hornsby seems to be making a critical error doing all this in front of Aaron and Gabriel, two representatives of a community he kind of needs to believe the Commonwealth is full of happy-clappy do-gooders who just want the best for everyone. What was the best outcome here? That Aaron and Gabriel witness Carlson kill everyone and just accept it was necessary? It seems much likelier that Carlson would be under orders to kill them too, in which case everyone who came from Alexandria would be out for blood after two of their number just so happened to be killed on a clandestine mission for Hornsby. I honestly think “Warlords” is really well put-together in terms of how the structure makes for several genuine surprises and builds legitimate tension, but that’s in the short term. In the long-term, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the writer’s room really putting much thought into this at all.
Anyway, Aaron and Gabriel try to intervene in Carlson’s massacre, which results in Gabriel being taken captive and Aaron almost being killed, and the young man who rides to Hilltop taking a bullet from Carlson as he tries to speed away during the carnage. (Another thing: Why send this guy? He can’t contribute anything worthwhile, and he flees at the first sign of bother, so he obviously thought the Commonwealth’s whole humanitarian shtick was legitimate. It makes no sense for him to be here other than the show needed someone to ride to Hilltop to bring Maggie and co. into the fold.) And I know what you’re thinking. How did he know to go to Hilltop? Well, as chance would have it, Negan is a member of Riverbend, and he gave the dude a map and told him to tell Maggie that Aaron and Gabriel were in trouble. Then he and his friend were able to sneak inside, liberate Gabriel, and take shelter with the other residents of the apartment complex, who’re all ready to fight for their home.
At around the same time, Maggie, Lydia, Elijah, and Aaron all make it to the apartments, meaning that Carlson and his men are now in big trouble, and Hornsby is closer than ever to having his nefarious schemes exposed. Finally, things are heating up.