Programming Note: This week’s screener, according to AMC, made it clear it was not the final version of the episode, noting that scenes might be added or deleted in post. So if Rick suddenly gets Dragon Ball Z powers at the end of the regular airing and it’s not mentioned in this review, that’s why, and we’ll update accordingly.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers for “The Walking Dead” Season 8 Episode 12, “The Key,” follow.]
Whose Episode Is It?
Rick was gone all last week, so he’s back with a vengeance in “The Key,” as he finally gets to square off mano-a-mano with Negan. Naturally that scuffle turns into yet another stalemate, so that story feels like just another stalling tactic before we get to the final conflict between the two groups. There is some intrigue, however, as Simon gently suggests to Dwight that maybe the Saviors should consider getting a new leader, perhaps one whose name rhymes with “climbin’?” And darned if there isn’t yet another group of survivors out in the backroads of Georgia, ready and willing to provide a moral test to the remainder of our heroes. “The Key” is a pretty eventful episode by “Walking Dead” standards, but it’s still primarily about hitting notes the show has hit before.
The War Effort
If you would like to know at what pace “The Walking Dead” is currently operating, last episode the Saviors decided to head to Hilltop to put the fear of God into Rick’s people. In this episode, they start heading there, but get waylaid. The interruption comes courtesy of Rick, whose wrath is still completely prevailing over his mercy at this point. Through some adept spying, Rick sees that Negan is the lone occupant of his vehicle in the Savior murder convoy, so Rick grabs a truck and rams Negan straight into a car chase that leaves all the other Saviors in the dust. After a gnarly car crash (left off-camera because AMC is cheap), and a brief gun battle (ever notice how everyone can headshot a zombie 100 percent of the time but always miss a human being right in front of them?) Negan and Rick find themselves in the dark depths of a building basement, weaponless, and decide to have themselves a little chat.
It’s a pretty irritating sequence, since the two men are in hearing range of each other throughout, yet can’t seem to find one another. Sure it’s dark, but it’s not a maze, c’mon. The worst aspect, though, is that they say almost nothing we haven’t heard before. In fact, they just re-emphasize the stuff they said over the walkie-talkies back in “Honor,” just two episodes ago. Negan still wants to save Rick and thinks Rick’s rebellion will result in unnecessary deaths. Rick thinks Negan’s a hypocrite and he’ll always resist him no matter what. Yeah, we know. The new wrinkle is that Rick reveals that the Dumpsters were all slaughtered, so Simon should watch his back if Negan ever makes it back home.
Things cap off with a thrilling enough action sequence. Rick finds Lucille and lights it on fire, using it to smash open a door containing a bunch of the undead. Rick and Negan have to fight each other and the encroaching zombies, who themselves have started igniting. It’s always nice when the show throws these little variations into its typical zombie action. In the confusion, Negan manages to get away only to get captured by Jadis. It’s great that Negan remains separated from the Saviors so this story doesn’t feel like a total wash, and Jadis is still enough of a wild card that the possibilities of what she might do with Negan are endless.
Man Is The True Monster
In Negan’s absence, Simon takes over, and volunteers himself and Dwight to search for Negan. While they’re looking, he keeps dropping hints to Dwight about how dissatisfied he is with Negan’s leadership. And if they find Negan and he’s seriously hurt, well, would it be the worst think in the world if he didn’t make it back? What Simon doesn’t realize is that he’s picked the best dude in the world to pitch a “murder Negan” plan to, and Dwight’s on board – that is, until he realizes that Simon’s first act as new dictator for life will be to wipe Team Rick off the face of the earth.
The Simon plot has moved relatively quickly (particularly measured against other “Walking Dead” stories), but it’s firmly grounded in established character and is a strong twist as we head into the home stretch. When Simon convinces the Saviors to accept his leadership (by saying none of them Negan because, after all, they’re all Negan), it’s easy to buy that they’d follow him. He certainly ticks all of the same “charismatic psycho” boxes Negan does.
A Shred of Humanity
And then there’s Maggie, who receives a strange message at Hilltop from a new group of survivors. If she provides them crates of food or “phonographic records,” she’ll be given a key to the future. At last, “Walking Dead” has hipsters! But before she’ll meet them Maggie has to do the usual handwringing about whether or not strangers should be trusted or feared. Yes, it’s another iteration of the big theme of the season, and the repetition is starting to get exhausting. Michonne is able to convince Maggie by reminding her that the last time they got an offer like this, it was from Jesus (and before that, from Aaron to join Alexandria), so really they’ve had a great track record on mysterious offers.
The message comes from a middle-aged woman named Georgie, who offers knowledge in exchange for material goods. Maggie notices Georgie and her associates have a bunch of food, so she takes them all prisoner until she decides whether or not to rob them. Enid’s in favor of robbery, but Michonne, who seems to be the only one who’s taken Carl’s dying wishes to heart, reminds Enid that “there’s got to be something after.” I agree, but there’s only so many times I can hear it before I start rolling my eyes. Maggie, just like last episode, ultimately decides to do the right. It turns out Georgie’s knowledge is a book she’s compiled about farming and cultivation – basically a guide to rebuilding a sustainable community. It’s certainly vital info, but were all the libraries destroyed at some point? Georgie looks after this thing like she’s in “Fahrenheit 451.”
After Maggie accepts her terms, Georgie instead opts to take only one crate of records in exchange for her book and a bunch of her food stores, which is so downright angelic of her it’s a miracle she doesn’t sprout wings and fly away to rejoin the heavenly host. This season’s themes of helping others would honestly be a lot richer if some of the recipients of our heroes’ kindness didn’t immediately have something great to offer in return: Siddiq turned out to be the last doctor in Georgia, and now Georgie is here to help alleviate Hilltop’s food crisis. People are more than just what they can give you, show! Sometimes just being a fellow human being in need is enough!
- Daryl finally apologizes to Rick for attacking the Sanctuary, and Rick says that Daryl was right, and Rick should have only been looking out for their people, not the innocent people in Sanctuary. So Rick still has some growing up to do.
- Why does Maggie have to go on the mission to meet Georgie and the others? Rick and Simon had personal reasons for risking their lives on solo missions, but Maggie seems a tad too important to risk sending into the unknown. It’s good that she met with them, but there’s such a thing as caution. It’s just frustrating for a show to posit that murdering strangers is pragmatic, but also insist the most important characters go on every away mission. I guess the show is following a proud tradition created by “Star Trek.”
- Negan does manage to get Lucille back before he escapes, although who knows what kind of shape it’s in after being immolated. Points to Rick for recognizing the only thing Negan truly loves is a stick he treats like a wife.