Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Lenika Cruz: When last week’s episode, “Not Tomorrow Yet,” ended with an anonymous voice coming over a walkie talkie announcing the capture of Maggie and Carol, two things instantly came to mind. One: Crap, how are the Saviors going to use the women to manipulate Rick and the Alexandrians? Two: Oh, hey, it’s a woman’s voice on the other end! Both thoughts proved relevant to this week’s episode, “The Same Boat” but for reasons I didn’t expect. Contrary to the robust body of storytelling constructed over centuries around the damsel in distress, the two kidnapped women in this episode weren’t just instruments or pawns in some larger plot machine. And there wasn’t one woman on the other end of the walkie talkie, but three.
No surprise, then, that “The Same Boat” was The Walking Dead’s most overtly feminist episode thus far. The vast majority of screen time went to women, who over the course of the episode discussed issues of particular concern—childbirth, domestic violence, the sexism of the old and new world. There were fun lines like, “You should be lucky she doesn’t have a sack of gonads to trip over,” and, “Guys can’t handle pain,” but for all the awesomeness of seeing a truly female-dominated story, it came with an important caveat: In another lifetime, these tough, smart women might have been friends. But in this lifetime, they were all destined, in one way or another, to kill each other.
Backing up: “The Same Boat” began by showing how a small band of Saviors (three women, one man) ambushed Carol and Maggie, and just how little bargaining power they had to negotiate the trade for their captured ally. The Saviors’ solution? Bluff it out, and pretend to be stronger than they actually were. Meanwhile, Carol’s plan—as it long has been—was to feign the opposite: pretend to be weaker than she actually was. What followed was somehow much more interesting than a straightforward rescue mission, with the Saviors, led by a woman named Paula, taking Carol and Maggie to an abandoned slaughterhouse and debating what to do. And though Rick and the rest clearly had no intention of waiting patiently for the Saviors to agree to a deal, the fact is that no one saved Maggie and Carol—except, of course, for Maggie and Carol.
This was an elegantly written and executed bottle episode, designed largely to subvert the trope of the helpless woman. Consider how Maggie, a pregnant woman, and Carol, an older woman, began “The Same Boat” as hostages, outnumbered two to four. Then consider how they ended it as their own “saviors,” not only taking out Paula and the others, but also killing their entire back-up, thanks to Chekhov’s gasoline canisters. What I appreciated even more was that all this, while very badass, wasn’t exactly presented as a badass series of events. When, at the very end, Daryl asked Carol in his usual laconic way, “You good?” she responded, simply and sadly, “No.” It was an answer full of exhaustion and desperation and honesty.
The zombie apocalypse is hard for everyone, but it was fascinating to see the show grapple momentarily with it through a feminist lens. In many ways, the crisis has proven a kind of equalizer, allowing previously powerless people to rise to positions of strength and authority (the Governor, Paula, Carol, Glenn). I was intrigued by Maggie’s defense of her own pregnancy—essentially, having kids has always been hard for women, and sometimes it’s not a choice, but this time it was. I also liked how the dynamic between Carol and Maggie and the Savior women never boiled to: Oh, cool, we’re all ladies, so obviously we can set aside our differences, and work this out! The bloodbath that capped the episode may have felt inevitable from the start, but that only made the outcome even more tragic.
What else did you make of the gender politics of “The Same Boat,” David? And obviously, there’s a lot more to talk about: What’s the deal with the “We’re all Negan” nonsense? Will Melissa McBride be nominated for an Emmy for her performance? What hell will there be for Rick and the gang to pay after all this destruction?
David Sims: “The Same Boat” was certainly a fascinating episode, and a nicely grim companion piece to “No Tomorrow Yet,” once more holding up a mirror to the gang’s supposed heroism. Rick and company invaded Negan’s base and murdered people in their sleep, an ambush prompted mostly by second-hand information and executed with total ruthlessness. That isn’t to say they’re going around killing innocent people—certainly, all this episode did was cement the cold-blooded reputation of Negan’s Saviors—but it certainly prompts the question: Are Rick’s people much better?
The problem is, that question’s been asked before. It’s a question The Walking Dead asks over and over again. It’s the question asked in basically any piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. In a world without laws, can morality survive in any form? After years of fighting battles with zombies, with invading forces, and with each other, we’re constantly reckoning with the implication of all the violence the cast has committed. It’s what makes The Walking Dead so unrelentingly grim, but at least “The Same Boat” was presented with artistry and intent. Just last week, we saw Carol tallying up the murders she’s committed, and this week she had to add more to that ledger.
Carol’s moral quandary has been playing out since last season, when she coldly took out the invading Wolves and butted heads with Morgan over his pacifist strategy. Since then, she’s seemed torn between the gentle personality she presents in public and her inner ruthlessness, with the former perhaps becoming less of an act (think of her making those cookies and passing them around town). When faced with Paula (Alicia Witt), the hard-edged Savior lieutenant who took her and Maggie captive this week, she met the inverse scenario: someone who presents as hard-hearted, but might still be holding on to a modicum of humanity.
I agree with you, Lenika, that it was very deliberate to have almost every cast member in this episode be a woman—in fact the only major male character, that Savior bleating about his arm wound, was quickly knocked unconscious and never heard from again. As with any episode of The Walking Dead, my guard was immediately raised by the idea of Carol and Maggie in captivity, since I’m so used to this show’s shocking approach to cast departures. Carol’s recent introspection has marked her as a potential candidate for death, reminding me of Tyreese last year (who bit the dust just as he started to assess his place in life). Maggie’s recent pregnancy makes the idea of losing her particularly heart-wrenching, but we know this show can be cruel.
I was glad, then, that “The Same Boat” played out as a much more philosophical episode, though it was certainly a tense hour. But the scariest moment wasn’t any point at which Carol or Maggie’s lives seemed to hang in the balance, when they were tied up with guns pointed at their heads. It was after the tables had turned, when Carol was pointing a gun at Paula, but unable to pull the trigger. Was she afraid of murdering someone who so reminded her of herself? Or simply of adding another name to her voluminous kill list? Melissa McBride has long been the acting MVP of The Walking Dead, and this week was a terrific showcase. Carol’s faux-breakdown in captivity, which she used to get a hold of a crucifix and eventually break free of her restraints, was so tough to watch that it almost felt like she wasn’t faking it. That’s a tricky balance to strike, and McBride did it beautifully.
I’ve long been a fan of Alicia Witt—she’s an undervalued actress who’s done fine work in shows ranging from Cybill to Justified—and she was a fantastic choice to play Paula, the kind of character I’d love to see join the ensemble and butt heads with flawed leaders like Rick. Paula, a top enforcer to the still-unseen Negan designed to represent his bullying philosophy, was appealing in her amorality—not unlike a slightly nastier version of Carol or Daryl. In a lesser actress’s hands, Paula might have come across as an obstacle to be brushed aside, but Witt fleshed her out enough that you understood Carol’s unwillingness to kill her, and felt the waste of her death.
From a larger plot perspective, the line, “We’re all Negan” was the critical takeaway from “The Same Boat.” Though we still haven’t met this looming nemesis, we’ve gotten more than a glimpse at his merciless approach to leadership and coercive use of violence. There are three episodes left in this season—how much longer can The Walking Dead drag his reveal out for? I’ve enjoyed this half-season while dreading the misery that’s obviously around the corner. “The Same Boat” was the biggest preview yet for how grim things are obviously going to get.