My iPhone is a 21st-century tamagotchi—new emails, appointments, news alerts, podcasts, etc.—constantly buzzing and chirping for my attention. It’s my news feed and daytime background noise, but increasingly I just want to stay up to date on the latest crazypants Trump Tweet and be among the first to know if and when we declare war on New Zealand.
I watched an advance screener of Sunday’s The Walking Dead one morning last week under a steady stream of notifications like “President Trump’s Twitter habit is frustrating his weary allies” and “Comey Testimony Humiliates Trump.” When I watched the finished episode Sunday night, I saw alerts like “How Conservatism Failed on Health Care” and “Trump’s Budget Director Blames Everyone But the President.”
There has been a lot of spillover from politics into TV already this year—the creeping authoritarianism of HBO’s The Young Pope, the Ruskie hijinks on FX’s The Americans, the immigration tragedy of ABC’s American Crime, the long-conning on Amazon’s Sneaky Pete—but nothing has crystallized the current state of affairs quite like AMC’s The Walking Dead. The show’s existential dread and shocking turns have been there all along, but Season 7’s focus on the difficulties of self-governance has at times taken on a too-close-for-comfort quality.
Sunday night’s “Something They Need,” the set-up episode for this week’s season finale, was a series of case studies in how the leaders of four of the show’s five communities (no King Ezekiel or the Kingdom this week) to lead and govern that distill well into an internet-friendly list of four leadership lessons of The Walking Dead:
1. PREPARE FOR THE LONG HAUL
The last scene of the previous episode was the garden at the Kingdom, and the first scene of “Something They Need” is in the Hilltop’s garden. “I saw a wild blueberry bush growing outside,” Maggie (Lauren Cohan) tells one of the farmers. “If it’s young enough, I’m gonna pull it up and replant it here. A good one will produce for over 40 years. We’ve gotta start acting like we’ll be around that long.”
Contrast that with Hilltop leader Gregory (Xander Berkeley), who has not trained the community to protect themselves from the walkers, to arm themselves for a clash with Negan that everyone but him sees coming or to plant blueberry bushes. Maggie is doing all of that as a newcomer, a pregnant woman and a grieving wife. (Later in the episode, Maggie actually has to kill a couple of walkers for him. C’mon, Gregory. You’re embarrassing yourself.) If there is still a Hilltop when the coming war with Negan is over, it will have a future because of Maggie.
2. HAVE PRINCIPLES AND STICK TO THEM
At the end of the previous episode, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) charged kamikaze-style into the Sanctuary to find and kill Negan. Rather than the blaze-of-glory death scene that viewers may have expected this week (especially given that Martin-Green is filming Star Trek: Discovery for CBS All Access as The Walking Dead goes into pre-production on Season 8), Sasha ends up in a concrete cell.
When the guard attempts to take a few liberties with her, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) arrives and doesn’t like what he sees. “This is some unacceptable behavior,” Negan tells him. “Rape is against the rules here.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call Negan a benevolent dictator, but his rules follow an internal logic that provide safety and order at the Sanctuary. And he’s telling the truth when he tells people they can have a decent life if they follow the rules. Rape is a strict no-no, which the guard clearly knows, and Negan stabs him through the neck.
Negan is brutal and revels in his brutality, but he sees the world as the dangerous place where martial law—enforced order based on a recognition that there’s too much chaos outside to permit any chaos inside—is the only chance for survival. His business model of colonizing and pillaging nearby communities is deeply flawed and will soon lead to war, but principled leadership has gotten him quite far in the post-apocalypse.
3. DON’T BRING A KNIFE TO A GUNFIGHT
Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has guns, but he has counted heads and knows he still lacks the firepower to take on Negan and the Saviors. He makes a calculated gamble in this episode to use some of his dynamite—though not all of it, as the finale preview below makes clear—to steal Oceanside’s guns rather than use it as part of an offensive against Negan and the Saviors.
That moral relativism—stealing a sovereign community’s guns vs. taking a more diplomatic approach—will be icky and unfortunate if the show’s writers don’t exact any moral repercussions against Rick down the road, but the broader military point is well taken. It’s basically Colin Powell’s doctrine: Identify a clear objective, exhaust all peaceful options and engage the enemy with overwhelming force. That’s how Rick takes Oceanside in this episode and why he will be well-staffed, well-armed and well-positioned to take on Negan.
4. DEAL WITH THE REALITY YOU’RE DEALT
When Rick & Co. get to Oceanside, the all-female community whose men were killed by Negan and the Saviors, Tara (Alana Masterson) pleads with leader Natania (Deborah May) to join the group to take on Negan. “They’ll win, Tara,” she says. “I’ve seen it.” Maybe, but Rick is here to take your guns. “I can give the signal to stop this, but you have to tell me right now,” Tara says. Natania fights reality, and reality wins.
“We’re not fighting with you, so take your damn guns and go,” a chastened Natania says at the end of the episode, but Rick has already taken her guns and won over many of the women from Oceanside who would rather fight than hide. They don’t come with Rick now, but I suspect we’ll see them again. Natania, meanwhile, is stubborn to the end—clinging to the old reality instead of embracing the new one.
Read more of Scott Porch’s commentary on The Walking Dead here.