Arguably the strongest characters in The Walking Dead
universe are women: among them, Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), Michonne Grimes (Danai Gurira), Rosita Espinosa (Christian Serratos), and Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan). The franchise makes its women suffer, but it allows them to transform that suffering into courage and grit and cunning. By the end of the flagship series, countless battles under her belt, Maggie is heading up the community at Hilltop, which thrived under her governance years before. She is a seasoned fighter and leader - smart, accomplished, and brave.
And yet, in “Who’s There?,” the second episode of The Walking Dead: Dead City
, she displays virtually none of these skills. Instead, the dynamic in her uneasy partnership with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) becomes that of the veteran warrior (him) and the young hothead (her), with Negan lecturing her on how and why to negotiate and cautioning her against unnecessary violence. Maggie is on a knife-edge in this episode - as in all of them - while Negan is wearily tolerant of her aggression and rash decision-making.
There is weariness, too, in one of the episode’s pivotal moments, when Negan enacts a performance reminiscent of his days leading the Saviors. Ambushed by a team of the Croat (Željko Ivanek)’s people, Negan captures one, drives his head through multiple panes of glass, and then slits his throat and guts him over the edge of balcony, allowing the man’s blood and gore to splatter onto his companions below (mysteriously, they do not move out of the way). His sarcastic patter to the attackers is tired, a half-hearted summoning of his former persona that borders dangerously on self-satire, and when he turns to a clearly triggered Maggie afterwards, he looks worn, chagrined, and perhaps regretful.
The killing embodies an argument Negan makes earlier in the episode: “I was only a monster when I absolutely had to be. When I had to put on a show to protect my people.” Faced with a mutual enemy, Maggie is now one of Negan’s ‘people’, and the gruesome grandstanding he does is as much for her protection as for his own. This claim by Negan is not one that stands up very well to scrutiny - The Walking Dead
allowed him numerous opportunities for gratuitous violence, and the pleasure he took in it, whether the violence itself or simply the exercise of power, was unmistakable. Effective leadership does not require the kind of creative, torturous cruelty practiced by the Saviors. Maggie, who lived for years alongside Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), should know that.
This scene, and the conversation that precedes it, resonates with the series finale of The Walking Dead
, in which Negan apologizes to Maggie, after a decade, for beating her husband to death. Now, two years after that apology, he tells her, by implication, that the line-up was just part of his schtick, and that it was “necessary,” in the same way, one assumes, that burning his henchman’s face with an iron or keeping a harem of “wives” was necessary. Maggie did not accept the apology when it was made, and it seems she was right not to do so - it has become a flimsy thing, a token that has little value in the Dead City
universe, where Negan is merely a victim of apocalyptic circumstances who enjoys baseball.
“Who’s There?” gives the audience their first meaningful encounter of the series with Hershel (Logan Kim), a moody, hostile teenager who, in a flashback, skips weapons training and is rude to his mother when she confronts him about it. By contrast, the similarly aged Ginny (Mahina Napoleon), now living in Hershel’s room under the protection of Maggie’s people, clearly misses Negan, and towards the end of the episode runs away to find him. In their parenting, as in their other interactions, Maggie is used as a foil for Negan’s altered self, her troubled relationship with her son revealing the rapport between Negan and his foster child. Conflict with a teenager is not unrealistic; the tension between Hershel and his mother is painfully true to the experience of raising an adolescent. But the contrast between that and Ginny’s obvious affection for and attachment to Negan - emphasized by the juxtaposition of the scenes, which also take place on precisely the same bed in the same room - is unavoidable.
Less entertaining than the opening episode of the series, “Who’s There?” nonetheless has moments of both excitement and amusement. Negan and Maggie zipline between skyscrapers in a sequence which is fun to watch. Negan threatens to pierce Tommaso (Jonathan Higginbotham)’s jugular with a sharpened pigeon bone, and Amaia (Karina Ortiz) and Tommaso’s group uses novel weapons that look like hairdryers, although thankfully they fire hooks rather than hot air. Regrettably, Maggie does not get a chance to use her James-Bond-Junior-like boot!knife again, but she does crush a man’s neck under her foot.
On the other hand, an interlude involving marshal Perlie Armstrong (Gaius Charles), which is intended to be heart-wrenching, simply isn’t. This is not due to Charles’s performance, which is very good, but to the fact that Armstrong is virtually a stranger to the audience, and the scene feels like a clumsy attempt to muster feeling for him. Elsewhere, the Croat’s people, and the Croat himself, don spiked motorcycle helmets for the purpose of head-butting walkers. Not only must these drastically reduce their peripheral vision, but the short spikes require that wearers get within kissing distance of their targets. In such details, as in much of the dialogue, I get the feeling the show is hoping viewers will not think too much about what they’re seeing and hearing. Don’t consider the impracticalities of such weapons. Don’t consider the peculiarity of no one from the flagship show being mentioned or seen at Maggie’s settlement. And, above all, don’t assume you know “Who’s There” based on the characters’ histories. Showrunner Eli Jorné’s attempt at re-tuning the dynamic between Negan and Maggie ensures that the answer to that question is not simple at all.
In Maggie Rhee and her found family, The Walking Dead
created some of the most iconic women on television in its twelve-year run, but too often it used those characters to prop up the storylines of their male counterparts and to center the male experience via their suffering, their successes, and their mistakes. Dead City
, two episodes in, appears to be falling into the same trap.