“Bonds” opens with Carol getting ready for her day. Any episode promising to be Carol-heavy from the cold open is one I can’t help but be a little excited for. The episode did not disappoint and Carol proves herself to be main character worthy, but there’s so much to celebrate than just lots of Carol screen time. The secondary plots may not be about the most interesting characters, but they’re incredibly well done. The sixth episode of the season was reminiscent of the graphic novels in a way that puts this episode head and shoulders above the rest.
Before I gush more about this episode, I want to quickly get through what didn’t go well:
- Eugene continues to lack any compelling characteristics. Listening to him talk has me flashing back to Gilmore Girls, but it’s not 2003 anymore and talking quickly with an off-kilter lexicon isn’t charming.
- The stories themselves aren’t especially unique. The beats are predictable and nothing in “Bonds” felt fresh or shocking.
- Siddiq is draining and while the characters at Alexandria are forgiving of his constant outbursts, it’s getting harder and harder to forgive as a viewer.
That’s all true. That’s all in there. That’s all worthy of discussion. Normally I’d spend the next few paragraphs on a passive-aggressive diatribe about lazy writer rooms and easy nostalgia hits.
Instead, “Bonds” is by far my favorite episode of the season. The slow-mo kill shots and the army of secondary characters are gone. We get walkers that are actually intimidating, pinches with immediate consequences, and some genuinely funny moments. The humor of the episode isn’t all irony. The Walking Dead felt like The Walking Dead tonight. It’s been a really long time since the show leaned into its source material for tone and it paid off. Somewhere between the campy dick-measuring scenes and the long shots on Eugene’s mouth, the episode has a clear theme and followed through.
Content-wise, the episode isn’t lacking despite utilizing a more limited cast. There are two B plots and a C plot trailing after Daryl and Carol’s foray across the border. If you’ve been following my reviews so far this season, you know I’m working really hard right now to not spend the next thousand words gushing over those two. Instead, let’s tackle what worked and what didn’t in these storylines.
Essentially, Alexandria is sick. Everyone’s got flu-like symptoms. We know that’s because The Whisperers are dumping Walker corpses in the stream and dead bodies in your water tend to result in massive casualties. I really do enjoy the irony of how The Whisperers have decided to take down the survivors; the title card’s imagery is carrying through the season. The silent hand of nature and its tendency to spiral toward entropy will be what strangles Alexandria. It isn’t the horde of monsters they can see that kills them – it’s their own, fundamental weakness.
Siddiq is increasingly one of those characters that I dread seeing on screen. His storyline is boring and now that he’s having hallucinations/visions of the future, I’m even more annoyed by his presence. The writers have settled on Alexandria’s plots being a metaphor for the downfalls of organized society. The collaborative effort of humans to compensate for one another’s shortcomings is what makes society worthwhile. However, collaboration does not erase our weaknesses. Siddiq’s mental illness combined with his role as a physician makes for a nice metaphor – the doctor unable to treat himself – and it would be a lot more compelling if he wasn’t such a whiny character. His every interaction in every episode can be summed up as “Siddiq lashes out at someone trying to help. That person helps anyway. Siddiq apologizes and brushes off the concern others have for his condition”. Ok. Cool. Why are we still wasting time on this? More importantly, why is he seeing the future?
Eugene’s C plot follows the same metaphor as Siddiq’s. Isolated up in his tower, the thesaurus-armed Quasimodo has amplified the radio. After getting some attention from the sick-at-home Rosita, Eugene mopes when she doesn’t call him back later. While Siddiq is the doctor who can’t heal himself, Eugene is the engineer without a solution. His internal insecurities lead to further isolation and this stranger on the radio he comes across seems like an obvious spy. If it isn’t by Alpha’s doing, I fully expect some third party to show up and take advantage of things in Alexandria. It’s too perfectly setup. The lonely idiot-savant lets the enemy through, blinded by the basic human desire to connect. If they don’t go that way and he has a long-distance girlfriend, cool. A lot less interesting, but Eugene hasn’t been interesting in so long I’m not surprised.
The last subplot is Negan’s joining up with the Whisperers. Morgan absolutely kills every second he’s on screen as Negan. Beta and Negan’s infighting, the scampy music playing while Negan skins walkers, and even the “no food for you” moment are perfect! The whole plot felt like it lept straight out from the comic panels. The rules of reality there are already suspended simply because it’s drawn or animated. Live-action doesn’t get that luxury. The editing, the actors’ performances, and the way this plot is slotted into the episode overall have to recreate that vibe. “Bonds” manages to successfully bring some of that suspended disbelief back into the show. It’s been stifling to ignore some of the absolute insanity of this world.
What do the Whisperers do? How do The Whisperers live? What’s going on in their society? We finally get some answers and it’s thanks almost entirely to that returning goofiness. While Negan and Beta are having skin measuring contests with a Benny Hill homage overlay, we get a glimpse at life behind the scenes. The Whisperers aren’t inherently anarchistic. They cooperate and have a clear sense of community. Beta repeats several times his dedication to their people. If nothing else, “Bonds” shows us the possibility that The Whisperers are truly revolutionaries. Whether or not what they’re trying to bring about is good is certainly worthy of contemplation, but they aren’t mindlessly trying to destroy Alexandria. They are engaged in ideological warfare.
On that note, I am increasingly convinced I overlooked the USSR satellite/cold war metaphor from the season’s opening episode.
Alpha’s philosophy, and by extension, the Whisperers’, is one of the most extreme “bootstrap” mentalities out there. Negan calls The Whisperers “a survivalist’s dream” and so they are – the way they hunt, live, and carry on is brutish, but at peace with nature. Their structures lack permanence and the tools they use can be easily recreated. It’s labor-intensive and requires a lot of cooperation, but is robust and enduring. The Whisperers do not worship death mindlessly as a source of chaos or entropy, but instead, recognize it as the inevitable product of nature. Our survivors pursue life and creation; our villains respect death and survival.
I am incredibly excited for Negan vs Beta and wonder how Alpha and Beta’s relationship will mend itself after Negan inevitably betrays them. There’s a possibility he kills Beta instead and takes his place before his treachery. I won’t pretend there’s no chance that he actually buys into The Whisperers’ shit, but that seems least likely of all. Maybe I just like Negan.
The characters I definitely like are Carol and Daryl, this episode’s central focus. Carol’s cold open is perfect: a fluid scene of shot after shot of daily life as she gets ready in the morning. Warm, thick socks, screaming tea kettles, and a mid-century design aesthetic feel familiar. The jarring stop on a decorated pistol set us up for something dark amid the slice-of-life piece. Carol’s ongoing conflict with the darkness inside herself remains the series’ most compelling narrative. It’s impossible to not root for Carol’s vigilantism, even when we know she’s risking everyone else. She’s like a kill-happy Batman and Daryl is somewhere between southern Alfred and better marksman Robin. Here again, The Walking Dead remembers where it comes from and when its narrative benefits.
The long and short of their plot comes down to Carol convincing Daryl to help her sneak across the border and track down the Whisperer’s horde. Daryl is suspicious and right to be. Carol appears to have staged it all in order to catch a Whisperer. Their hostage in hand, the pair cross back over the border and we have an incredible setup for the next episode. The preview has me heartbroken, but let’s stay hopeful!
If nothing else, “Bonds” was a necessary reminder that embracing the silliness of The Walking Dead means allowing it to exist next to the gore, horror, and brutality. It shouldn’t be a contrast. They’re partners in this series. We got more from four, tight stories told with varying tones, personalities, and narrative function than from episodes buzzing with characters, twists, and action. Every scene, even the ones I thought boring or unimpressive, did something in THAT episode. Instead of setting up for something that would never actually matter before the episode’s end, “Bonds” answered old questions, gave some neat story beats, and left us with enough questions to make next week’s episode genuinely worth waiting for.
9/10 – This is my favorite episode in recent memory. It is everything an episode of well-written TV should be with all the extras that make it The Walking Dead. In a season of half-this and half-that, “Bonds” finally gets the campiness and the shocking gore working together again. If the rest of the season manages to keep this going, the 10th season might truly outshine any in recent memory.