At its best, The Walking Dead can be like a masterful game of chess…strategic, cunning, and intelligent in how the story is laid out and how it unfolds over time. Think back to some of the best arcs and how they impacted you as a reader… Fear the Hunters, No Way Out, and for as controversial as it was, All Out War ended in a way that none of us could have expected.
Since that time, beginning with the time jump at the start of A New Beginning, people have been questioning whether or not Kirkman has been at his best and whether or not the best of The Walking Dead is now in the rear view mirror. There was frustration with Magna and her group coming in and making some rather poor decisions (decisions that mirrored our group in those early moments in Alexandria), there were grumblings with the notion that the undead were evolving, and a continued curiosity as to the whereabouts of some of our favorite characters that have been absent for quite some time (really… where the hell is Michonne?). But when the Whisperers were revealed to be some strange cult wearing zombie suits, Magna and her group were eventually calmed of their desire for revolt thanks to some good old fashioned reasoning and discussion, and we got some good ass-kicking-ninja-Jesus action… it became obvious to me that we are currently in the midst of one of the finest games of chess this comic has delivered yet.
Let’s break down the players in this game as it stands now…
Although we have been accustomed to seeing Rick as the main character, I believe this has shifted for the time being to Carl, who has been driving much of the drama within the community… his desire to apprentice with Earl Sutton, the relationship with his father, and his burgeoning lifestyle as the suave ladies man. He is now older and more capable of holding his own, and not just while dispatching the undead, but also by befriending one of the most villainous characters and now, one of the most enigmatic… all while wrestling with his own personal anger issues.
Although we began this issue with Carl still locked up for the beat down he gave those two little thugs, we get a wonderful glimpse at the humanity within this young man as he not only takes responsibility for his actions, but he pleads for kindness for Lydia, and we get to hear a breakdown of injuries and adventures from the point of view of someone who has grown up within the zombie apocalypse.
But what to make of this Lydia character? Our first direct connection to the Whisperers… and it’s in the form of an adorable sixteen year old girl? I cannot stress enough the cognitive dissonance of what we see, that angelic and sweet face, with what we are hearing… a system of existence within the undead. A symbiotic relationship where each protects the other, and in her world, this has become the norm… once you get over the smell.
And what should we make of Carl chatting it up with her? Is this just his way of trying to be decent? Is he really doing his best to carry his father’s belief system of peace and a better way to someone that he believes he can save? Or, is he simply the greatest apocalyptic playa’ of all time? Have his discussions with Negen given him a skewed vision of having his own teen aged harem? I’m going to give our young protagonist the benefit of the doubt and go with the idea that he is an ambassador for Rick’s plan for a better world… but giving her his hat? That may have been a bridge too far… and a decision that may have some dire consequences for everyone involved.
Why would giving someone a hat have consequences at all? Those parents of the boys that Carl pummeled already think that Maggie is playing favorites and won’t be punishing Carl and Sophia and have a sniveling coward of a deposed leader whispering plans of assassination and coup into their ears… if just seeing Carl out of his cell and working is enough to tip a parent into agreeing to Gregory’s plot, imagine what seeing a genuine enemy of the Hilltop and their way of life wearing the hat of the aforementioned child of Rick Grimes will do to their rising anger. It will further legitimize their belief that Maggie is a bad leader and that Carl can get away with anything.
Maggie is in an interesting position. In many ways, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t… but she is doing what she (and I imagine most readers) see as being the right thing. She is gathering as many facts as she can, attempting to calm the tensions that are growing from within, and doing her best to keep it all together. Of all the characters in the series, she and Carl have probably gone through greater transformations than anyone else… the horny teenaged farmer’s daughter is now mother to two and leader to many. And Carl has come quite a distance from that little eight year old boy in his Science Dog t-shirt running to greet his daddy… we’ve all watched him grow… and as Negen once stated, he can’t wait to see how his story ends, and neither can I.
And as with any great story, there is nothing better than realizing that whatever danger exists within the gates, a greater danger is growing on the outside. None of the communities have had to deal with the Whisperers until recently, but now, with Lydia locked inside and Jesus and Dante (where is Dante anyway?) having taken out a number of their people, they are lurking just within striking distance. What danger will hit the Hilltop first? Gregory and his dopey minions, or the existential threat that is the cult we are calling Whisperers?
Of course, this issue delivered more than just some political intrigue and Carl’s declaration of “The Grimes Doctrine”. In a wonderful moment of levity we see Andrea and Magna acting like two people in the process of getting to know one another without any weapons being pointed at each other (and probably the most likable Andrea has been in ages), Magna trying to better understand the moody nature of Eugene, and Rick’s return to Alexandria. It was nice to touch base with our core group again.
Finally, Jesus and Maggie get to deliver the news to Marco that he hasn’t gone totally mad (although, he seems a bit too far gone at this point in his guilt over having left Ken), and the romance continues as we finally get a follow up to Jesus’ letter to Alex, whom I did not realize was also the Hilltop’s doctor. Is it just me, or are all of the medical personnel in this comic attractive? With the exception of Dr. Stephens, who may have been quite the handsome stud back in his prime, there was Alice, Dr. Cloyne, Dr. Carson, and now Dr. Alex… if you ever doubted The Walking Dead is an apocalyptic soap opera, look no further than the dreamy doctors… now if only someone died and came back to life… oh… wait…
Bringing everything back to my original analogy… how is The Walking Dead currently set up like a game of chess? On one side you have our protagonists; Maggie and Carl at the Hilltop, and Rick, Andrea, and The Euge at Alexandria. On the other side; Gregory and his band of merry traitors in addition to the Whisperers lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce. Four specific groups, all destined to clash. Who will disrupt the order of things first? And more importantly, will the fair be a success, or will some zombie suited weirdos crash the party?
Mr. Blahg can be heard, along with his co-host Grace, weekly on Under the Comic Covers, a podcast dedicated to independent comics. Have any comments or questions for Mr. Blahg, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.