Zombie eats man, woman inherits the Earth.
So it goes in “The Same Boat,” a female-dominated bottle episode that happens to be one of The Walking Dead’s best all season, and a surprisingly introspective look at motherhood, faith, brutality, and the ever-blurrier line between the good guys and the bad.
Carol, a once-meek character whose ability to transform into a Rambo-like warrior of the apocalypse has made her a fan favorite, seemingly softens again, though only as a ruse to outwit her captors, three vicious Savior women. (The only man among them dies early of an arm wound. His epitaph, uttered by the woman he’d been sleeping with and, apparently, sucker-punching every once in a while: “Guys can’t handle pain.”)
Carol’s plan works, her captors die, yet she emerges shaken and unsure of herself. For the first time in years, she admits she’s not OK—because for the first time, she’s been forced to stare straight into a warped reflection of herself, mirrored in the pitiful psyche of a younger woman who no longer feels guilt over killing.
That younger woman, Paula (played a superbly acid Alicia Witt), is revealed to be the voice Rick heard over the walkie-talkie at the end of last week’s episode, in which team Alexandria stormed a Savior compound, stole every weapon, murdered everyone inside (many in their sleep), and took one lone straggler hostage.
The “eliminate them before they eliminate us” victory felt hollow: Maggie and Carol were captured and the group’s No. 1 enemy, Negan, is still nowhere to be found. But the win also raised murky questions: If the Saviors deserve to die because they kill and terrorize people, is Rick’s team here really so different? And after the brazen brutality of the raid, isn’t ’Chelle, a Savior, right to snarl at Maggie, “You’re not the good guys. You should know that”?
Even through all her crocodile tears, Carol begins to recognize the hypocrisy. And to her horror, she suddenly sees too much of herself in her captor. Paula boasts about losing track of her human kills “somewhere in the double-digits,” when she stopped feeling remorse—and love and empathy, or so she’d have you believe. Carol has a kill list 20 names long.
Like Carol, Paula’s life once revolved around keeping others happy: she was a secretary (“I fetched coffee for my boss and made him feel good about himself,” she says), a wife, and a mother to four girls. A flash of pain crosses Carol’s face when the only man in the group hits Paula (her own now-dead husband, Ed, was an abuser) but Paula insists that this and everything else she’s lost have only made her stronger—the same narrative one might have assigned to Carol before the cracks in her façade began to show.
So when Paula asks Carol, “Are you going to kill me?” Carol’s response (“I hope not”) is both pained and complex: It’s a way of keeping up the ruse, and it’s sincere, but it also tells us Carol recognizes herself in Paula—and that she does not want to become like her.
While Carol comes to a discomfiting realization about herself and her group—even as she reluctantly perpetuates more violence to stay alive—this unwitting change is most visible in Maggie, a formerly religious mother-to-be known more for her loyalty and natural leadership in Alexandria than brutality or ruthlessness.
Maggie and her assigned captor, a deep-voiced woman named ’Chelle who seems close to her in age, also share a few things in common, though only enough for Maggie to momentarily sympathize. Upon seeing her captor’s severed finger (punishment for trying to steal gas from the Saviors) and a tattoo of the name “Frankie” on her wrist, Maggie asks if Frankie was the name of the boyfriend she’d lost. “Hell, no, I barely knew him. He was a dick,” ’Chelle replies. “Frank was my dad. That’s what I was gonna name the baby.”
This line totally destroyed me—all at once, it explained the stricken look on the woman’s face when she learned Maggie was pregnant, and it humanized her over-the-top aggression. Maggie whispers “I’m sorry” but doesn’t let this stop her from insisting to Carol that they “finish” off every Savior before escaping.
Soon, ’Chelle's a goner and Maggie is using the butt of her gun to bash in an old woman’s head (Molls, who nicknames Carol “nervous little bird” and utters the iconic comic book line, “We are all Negan”), leaving behind a disfigured mess that must have resembled the Polaroids Glenn saw on the wall of the Saviors’ compound, depicting Negan and his barbed baseball bat Lucille’s handiwork. She screams at Carol to kill Paula, which she does. And for the grand finale, they trap a late-coming scout crew in a locked room and light it on fire, standing outside as screams erupt then subside.
Another victory for the good guys. Right?
The impact of these last two episodes is evident in Rick’s final act: shooting their captive Savior, Primo, in the head after the group finally finds Carol and Maggie. Two weeks ago, audiences might have barely blinked an eye. After “The Same Boat,” the act feels almost inhuman, a feeling reflected in Carol’s (Carol’s!) aghast face.
In part, this is a credit to the work of actors like Melissa McBride, who can tell volumes of Carol’s story with a look or a richly multilayered tone, and Steven Yeun, who made Glenn’s pain-turned-disgust at having to kill another human for the first time in last week’s episode resonate in the most stomach-turning way.
This week's script by Angela Kang was also a welcome rarity for the show, both for delving almost immediately into new characters’ backstories (a tactic I wish the show used more often, since it makes both their presence and deaths more impactful) and for giving an hour-long, Bechdel-happy spotlight to one of the show’s most underused MVPs, Maggie, and Carol, a character we can never get enough of anyway.
Last week, Tobin cannily observed that the reason Carol so often seems invincible is because she’s a “mom,” both to her own dead children and the people of Alexandria. It’s a role that gives her—and many of the greatest action heroines of the last 50 years, like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley—incredible strength. The women of this episode were all moms, and all survivors in their own right.
But the phrase “We are all Negan”—and all the brutality and immorality that implies—is supposed to apply only to the Saviors. You know, the “bad guys.” These days though, everyone looks much the same.