God almighty. How many animals has this show had ripped to pieces and eaten alive by the undead? There was Sheriff Rick’s horse upon entering Atlanta, Farmer Rick’s piglets, and now, saddest of all, Ezekiel’s pet kitty, Shiva. Not since Bambi’s mother bit it have as many tears been shed at the death of an animated creature. Bright side: At least we’ll be spared another embarrassing deus ex machina in which Shiva pounces on a bad guy in the nick of time to save the day. She did it last night and she did it in last season’s finale when Negan was about to kill Carl. The writers have cast away their favorite plot crutch and must learn to walk again.

Even so, last night’s episode was easily the best of the season. Sure, it had the requisite dopey fan service in which Rick jumps Indiana-Jones-style from one moving vehicle to another and Carol behaves like a cross between Rambo and a ninja. Ezekiel had to carry the hour, though, and was equal to the task. The show is never better than when it’s tracking how an ordinary person tries to rise to meet the challenges of the zombie apocalypse. That’s always been a major flaw with favorites like Rick and Daryl. They’re cowboy alpha males; the question with them is never whether they’ll meet the challenge, it’s whether they’ll go overboard and become as ruthless as their enemies. The tedium of that plot arc being run and rerun over the past several seasons has driven millions away from the show. But when the writers pick up the thread of a lesser hero or antihero and put him to the test, that’s when things turn interesting. Last season’s best episode unquestionably was Eugene adjusting to life as one of Negan’s VIPs in the Sanctuary after having been treated as comic relief by the Grimes gang for years. Carol’s own story began with her as an abused woman who breaks free, finds her inner mettle, and goes on to become the most formidable warrior on the show.

Now we’re getting the Ezekiel version of that arc. And intriguingly, unlike Eugene and Carol, it might not end well for him. Last season his regal bombast seemed ridiculous and a bit deranged but this year the writers have put meat on the bones of his motivation. He’s a man who’s trying to literally talk himself into becoming the leader his followers need him to be. The wonder in Ezekiel’s face last week when the Kingdom’s troops dispatched the Saviors with no losses, just as he predicted, was one of the sweetest moments the show’s ever had. He’s just an ex-zookeeper with a pet tiger, but survivors need order and inspiration and he’s taken it upon himself to try to provide. Thus are civilizations made. The opening scene last night, in which everything went to hell and Ezekiel was left to outrun the zombie remains of his subjects, was a brilliant turnabout — the dream of civilization become nightmare. It was also a rare moment when the zombies felt truly menacing, one of two in the hour (the other instance being Shiva’s demise, of course). Imagine how intense the suspense would have been if the show hadn’t decided long ago that major characters must die in grandiose ways, never ignominiously under a pile of zombies taking advantage of their ankle injury. We knew Ezekiel would survive but the thought of being on that field, crippled, with zombies in hot pursuit was terrifying.

Everything comes with a price, though. I shiver at the thought of how likely this is:

The bigger question then is: What has the show given up with this latest development? And what does it gain in return?

The answer to the former is simple: Before this week, viewers could tune in and hope that amid all the despair, we still might get to hang out for a few minutes with an awesome, benevolent leader and his badass pet. That’s gone now. Are we going to get anything out of Ezekiel’s upcoming long wallow that we haven’t already gotten from, oh, Rick, Carl, Michonne, Carol, Daryl, Morgan … and every other Walking Dead character who’s been smacked hard in the face and then cowered in a corner for half a season or more?

This is not a show that does wallowing well — or efficiently. Its most infamous problem is talkiness and its characters are never more talky than when they’re wallowing. We may be looking at a full season of Ezekiel wrestling with The Feelz, only to have him inevitably rise to the occasion and fight bravely once again by the season finale. Please, for cripes sake, let’s speed it up. He’s sad, his confidence is shaken. He’s a major character so he’ll bounce back. We don’t need 15 episodes to tease it out. The only thing that gives me hope of avoiding it is that the show has gotten a bit better lately about following the first commandment of good drama, “Show, Don’t Tell.” Sasha’s emotional journey during the last season finale was mostly unspoken; so was Aaron’s pain in watching his boyfriend wander away to join the zombie hordes. Maybe they’ll manage that with Ezekiel too. Although having him mumble stupidly about being a nobody while Shiva was being turned into tigerburgers by the zombies is an inauspicious beginning.

Oh, and before you ask, yes, of course there was a moment last night when someone lost an easy opportunity to kill an enemy because they wouldn’t just shut the fark up and pull the trigger already. Last week it was Morales, who was ambushed by Daryl while pointing a gun at Rick and chattering at him for what felt like, oh, a good half-hour or so. Last night it was an instant replay — the Savior who was holding Ezekiel hostage had the chance to behead him but naturally needed to pause first and discourse on how Negan would have preferred taking him alive. Conveniently, that gave Ezekiel’s right-hand man just enough time to leap in and cleave the bad guy neatly in two with his battle axe. (Which was awesome, let us all acknowledge.) People die on this show all the time because they can’t stop talking. It’s as if the writers are goofing on their own bad habit of producing insufferably loquacious characters.

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