The Walking Dead “Warlords” was written by the team of Jim Barnes and Erik Mountain and was directed by Loren Yaconelli, whose other credits include The Walking Dead: World Beyond, Animal Kingdom and Shameless. This was one of the best episodes in a long time. Part of this was the unique time structure which jumped us around and really upped the tension. Part of it was also that this was the first time in a while when I really felt like a character was actually in peril – to be clear, peril is fine, but I really, really don’t want anymore of our core characters actually killed off! The episode also features the return of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and really sets him up to act the hero here. Finally, the episode features some nice stunt casting with a relatively brief appearance from Michael Biehn as Ian. Jason Butler Harner also guest stars as Toby Carlson and he’s terrific as his character moves from annoyingly incompetent to ex-CIA nutjob.
As the episode opens we get a demonstration of Elijah’s (Okea Eme-Akwari) awesome archery skills. We see that he’s also struck up a friendship with Marco (Gustavo Gomez) with whom he has a friendly rivalry going over who’s killed more walkers. The two are interrupted by Lydia (Cassady McClincy) who is leaving – at least temporarily for the Commonwealth. We also see that Elijah has a bit of a crush on her! Marco encourages him to take “his shot,” so Elijah offers to walk with her. I loved that Lydia is utterly oblivious – but then when would anything like this have ever happened to her before – not under her mother’s thumb and not while everyone thought her a pariah – but Elijah has none of that baggage.
They are interrupted by the emergence of a rider. It’s Jesse (Connor Hammond), and he manages to give Lydia a bloody pamphlet, telling her they’re slaughtering and she has to go – before he dies of his gunshot wound. Of course, we don’t know this IS Jesse or what he’s talking about until much later in the episode.
They take the map to Maggie – it’s soaked in blood. Maggie says they aren’t going because they will leave Hilltop exposed, but Lydia, Elijah, and Marco all point out it could be someone they know who is in trouble – after all, they sent Jesse there. Maggie worries that it’s a trap. Elijah points out being out numbered has never stopped Maggie before, and she replies maybe in should have. Has she learned to be cautious? Lydia says these people are weak and in trouble – exactly the type of people her mother would have targeted and she’s not going to let it happen again. Maggie asks if that means she’s not leaving. Lydia says she’s just doing this first. And it looks like Elijah and Marco are going to.
Maggie joins them as they finish packing up the truck. Presumably they’ve gotten gas from the Commonwealth. It’s a nice moment when she holds out her hands for the keys, but tells Elijah he can take over driving at the halfway mark. Presumably, not much opportunity for teenagers to get to drive in the apocalypse, right? But it also shows that she’s a leader and a mother to these kids. Hershel (Kien Michael Spiller) runs up to say goodbye and asks how long. She tells him the usual – as long as it takes. Maggie tells Marco to watch the perimeter.
As they drive, Lydia asks why Maggie doesn’t want the Commonwealth’s help. Maggie insists that they don’t need it – which is clearly not true. Lydia wants to know why they have to just get by. Maggie insists that easier isn’t always better, and tells them the story of corporate farm developers trying to buy the family farm. We seem to be supposed to forget that Hershel was also a veterinarian and not just a farmer. When a drought hit, the corporate guys offered three times what the farm was worth because they knew the drought would end, and the farm would become profitable again. The corporate guys dropped feed off for the livestock and Hershel let it rot on the porch. None of the livestock went hungry, and Hershel sent a message to the corporate guys. They held out, the drought ended, and they got out of debt. The developers never bothered them again. It’s clear Maggie doesn’t want to owe the Commonwealth anything – she wants to be free and clear in every sense of the word.
Lydia points out that just getting by is supposed to make you stronger and wiser, but in her experience it doesn’t. It hurts. Maggie asks her what she would have done. Lydia says give people a choice instead of deciding for them. Maggie honestly doesn’t seem to see that that is what she is doing! Maggie asks if Lydia thinks the Commonwealth knows better. She does. Maggie points out that the Commonwealth hasn’t been tested for 10 years and asks if Lydia wants to be there when they are. Lydia tells her that she just wants things to be the same every day. Maggie asks Elijah if he agrees, and he says with most of it.
Maggie looks away for a second – and suddenly there are three trooper walkers in the middle of the road. I can’t imagine they just suddenly appeared though. They kill them and examine the corpses – they’ve been killed around the armor. They are interrupted by a bloody Aaron (Ross Marquand) running up the road toward them.
We now jump back one week. Aaron is visiting the Commonwealth and goes to hear Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) preach. The sign outside the church says “God has already prepared the way. He’s just preparing you.” It’s just SO Gabriel… Aaron is late and we only get the end of the service. Gabriel is talking about someone who had lost their faith and regained it. We then learn that he’d told the congregation to sit beside someone they didn’t know. He makes them laugh by saying he sees a lot of straight backs and clenched butt-cheeks! He talks about those who were “out there in the wasteland” being forced to find the humanity in each other, to find people they could rely on. Strangers became more than friends, they became family. He asks why it’s like that out there and not in there. He also points out that everyone has sinned. He tells them that you have to see beyond where you live, what you have – he’s clearly preaching against the class system of the Commonwealth. Aaron is clearly moved when Gabriel says that they can’t be the way they were before the fall if they want to move forward. They have to remember the thread that makes us, us.
Aaron and Gabriel sit alone in the church after the service. Aaron says he looks happy. Gabriel tells him that at the beginning he was just going through the motions, but at some point, he could hear Him again. Aaron says that the hell they went through doesn’t even feel real now. Gabriel asks about Alexandria. Things are going well, and they’ve asked Aaron to help with their new immigration policy. Gabriel points out that they didn’t seem too keen on immigrants when they arrived – understatement…
Aaron says they found out he used to work for an NGO, so they asked him to review their intake policies and now they are reaching out to bring in those in need of help. Gabriel calls it the Lord’s work. Aaron tells him that’s why he’s there. There’s a religious group of about 40 holed up in an apartment building and they want Gabriel’s help in making first contact. Gabriel immediately asks about hostiles. Aarons says there are troops, and we get the first hint that his boss, Carlson is a bit off. The two are interrupted by Jesse, who just seems like a keen kid.
The first shot we have of Carlson confirms it. He is in closeup, looking through binoculars, commenting on the “rush.” It looks like he’s just really, really into his job – but you also get a kind of Hannibal Lector/Apocalypse Now vibe off him immediately. Harner is just delightful in this episode! Aaron and Gabriel don’t look at all impressed as Carlson thoroughly enjoys the rush of adrenaline. He explains it as the rush of saving people. They know a danger to themselves and others when they see it – and Carlson is it…
Aaron points out that it doesn’t look like these are friendly settlers as they’d been told. Carlson says so what? It just means that they’re afraid. He tells them that’s why they’re there and he can’t wait to see them do their thing. I loved Gabriel’s “Is he going in with us?” Gabriel knows that this guy is a disaster waiting to happen. Aaron says he usually does, but they’ll have the troops as back up. Except they are setting up camp and not coming because Carlson doesn’t want to spook the settlers. Carlson assures them he’s got the walkie and they’re just a “squawk” away.
Gabriel says, “Nope. I’m not doing this.” He says the place screams do not disturb. Gilliam is fantastic in this scene! Aaron agrees and tells Carlson it will be better to leave these people alone. Carlson puts it down to “pre-game jitters.” Gabriel tells him flat out, “No. It’s because your plan is shit and I don’t want to die.”
Gabriel asks Carlson what the largest group is that he’s ever brought in. Carlson tells him 4! Gabriel points out that with 40, it only takes one guy with an itchy trigger finger. Aaron backs him up, but Carlson insists that it’s happening and they have to trust that he knows what he’s doing. Gabriel says fine and takes off his collar. Carlson tells him that he needs to wear it because it’s part of his “costume!” Gabriel just smile at him and says “this is how this is going to go…” as he sticks the collar in his pocket.
Aaron, Gabriel, Carlson, and Jesse approach the building. Aaron does the talking, introducing themselves and the Commonwealth, extending their friendship. They’ve already left MRIs for them, and he’s taking it as a sign that they took them. He offers more and asks to speak with someone face to face. A metal door with three large metal bolts on the inside thumps open and Hart (Jenique Hendrix) comes out carrying a huge scythe. She tells them she wants their weapons. They pass them to her, and she pauses to look at Aaron’s mace. He explains that it’s a bitch to take off – she allows it. She asks if they are alone, and Gabriel tells her that there are peacekeepers nearby waiting for them to check in.
The four walk in and the door closes. They are frisked, and then Hart tells them last door to the right. The interior looks more like a basement than an old apartment. Aaron has his knapsack taken before they are shown in to Ian’s office. He has his back to them and tells them “seats.” When he turns around, Aaron begins telling him about the Commonwealth. He interrupts the list of amenities to add soldiers and churches. He knows Gabriel is a Father. Gabriel says he took the collar off because he wanted him to see WHO he was before he saw WHAT he was. It’s an excellent answer!
Ian quickly reveals himself to be unstable – and possibly a religious zealot. He says if they have churches, they must also have hookers and gambling and a ‘wrong side of town.’ Carlson seems non-plussed. Gabriel says he hasn’t seen any of that. Aaron asks for his bag back so that he can show Ian something. Poor Jesse sitting in the back is clearly terrified. Aaron has an old phone with photos of the Commonwealth on it. Ian asks if it’s just that easy to get in. Aaron admits there is a screening process. Ian wants to know where it is. Carlson says they can’t tell him. Ian says because you say so, and Carlson says yes. Ian wants to know why he’s talking to Aaron if Carlson is in charge. He then shows them the wall of skulls. They belonged to people who sat in the chairs they are sitting in. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing who meant his people harm.
Things escalate quickly. Ian becomes furious and tells Carlson to get on his knees. Carlson seems terrified as Ian holds a gun on him pointed at his forehead. He asks how dumb he’d have to be not to know where the Commonwealth is when they know where he lives. He tells Carlson he reminds him of another skull who came a few years ago promising great wealth and prosperity, but he only wanted to get them all out into the open so his raiders could kill all of them. Carlson seems to be begging for his life as he says he doesn’t want to be on the shelf and he doesn’t think Ian is stupid. He wants to know where the raiding party is or his going to start by killing Jesse. Aaron asks if they look like raiders. He says they look like wolves in sheep’s clothing. He says none of them understand his responsibility to his people. They have entrusted him with their very souls. He asks what they want.
Gabriel says, “Exactly! What do you have that we would want?” Ian says the meat – and Aaron points out that they brought MREs – how could they be cannibals? He points out that they aren’t starving right now because they’ve given them food and water. Gabriel points out that the soldiers are also real. They promise to go and never come back – or the soldiers will come in and kill them all. Ian is clearly about to let them go, when Carlson suddenly grabs the gun and shoots Ian and his guards!!!!! Gabriel and Aaron are stunned! Carlson tells him that he was just doing his job! He tells them to stay there – and leaves with the gun!
We jump back again to one week (and one hour) ago. Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) is in his office, drinking and not looking great. Carlson shows up, calls him “Bud” and declines a drink, stating ‘four years sober next week.’ We learn a lot about Carlson very quickly… He’s part of the Hornsby crowd and he had a drinking problem. Hornsby tells him that he had a convoy for “that other thing” (because that’s not ominous at all) hijacked. So Ian’s group are the hijackers – and not a group they were just trying to save. Carlson is the first one to say “Another Warlord” – like there have been many others…
Apparently, the convoy was carrying guns. Carlson doesn’t see a problem – just kill them all. Hornsby can’t operate under the radar if he calls in enough troops to take down the building. I loved his little impersonation of Milton! He tells Carlson he needs a “surgical” solution. The penny drops, and Carlson tells him he doesn’t do that anymore – he’s retired. Hornsby tells him he needs the former CIA-guy – who apparently, Hornsby used as an assassin in his previous life! Carlson tells him he likes saving people – it’s “zen.” Hornsby tells him it can be taken from him – he’s playing hardball. Carlson then gets right hp in his face, swirls his finger in his drink and sucks on his finger – after asking Hornsby if he’s tired of living. I loved the shot of the two of them staring eye to eye in close up profile. Hornsby tells him most of the dead troops were kids in their 20s – does he legitimately feel guilty about this? Hornsby doesn’t drop his gaze but turns away and when Carlson says ok, he looks relieved – and I think it’s as much because he is afraid of Carlson as he got his way.
It’s Hornsby who suggests taking Aaron and Gabriel. Aaron has been working with Carlson who gives him a glowing review – instantly connects with people, makes my job easier. The plan is to use Gabriel to get their guards down – they definitely do not know Gabriel! Carlson then wants to know what happens when things get real. Hornsby tells him that they’ll fall in line. Yep. Totally underestimating them. But I’m betting he was hoping to eliminate at least the problem of Aaron, and I’m betting he’s not a fan of the equality that Gabriel is preaching.
Back in the present, Aaron and Gabriel look on appalled as Carlson interrogates Ian about the guns. Ian tells him he doesn’t know anything about it. Carlson says 3 sets of tracks lead from the caravan to the apartment complex. Ian tells him they found it like that. Gabriel sneaks around and when Carlson pistol whips Ian for a second time, Gabriel punches Carlson! Aaron tells the trooper not to shoot Gabriel! Carlson has Gabriel cuffed. Ian starts explaining that if he knew about the caravan, wouldn’t he say… and Carlson shoots him in the head! Aaron is shocked. Carlson then totally loses it and starts kicking Ian.
He tells Aaron not to look at him “like that” – ie with shock and disgust. Aaron points out that they are supposed to be helping people. Carlson declares Ian an animal and that they are helping people, but this is the other side of it – snuffing out threats to make the world safe. It’s Jesse who freaks out and takes off, and Carlson has him shot as he rides off. Aaron maces the trooper in the face before they can take another shot. Carlson is about to shoot Aaron when his gun is empty. Aaron starts walking toward Carlson, but when troopers show up, he runs off. Carlson is called back into the building and finds the trooper who was guarding Gabriel dead. He’s furious – and clearly becoming more unhinged. He calls for his armor.
We finally circle back to Aaron with Maggie. He tells them that Carlson was a wolf – just like Ian said. Maggie wonders if Ian was lying – and what Hornsby wants with all the guns. Maggie shows Aaron the map and asks if it’s the best way in. Aaron says yes – but how did she get it. She tells him that she got it off the guy (Jesse) that he sent to Hilltop. But we know Aaron didn’t.
We flash back to 12 hours ago, during the attack. Jesse is grabbing a horse – and really, why grab the one without a saddle??? There’s one fully tacked up right there! And NEGAN IS SUDDENLY THERE! With his trusty crowbar. He’s also joined by Annie (Medina Senghore). Jesse tells them the troopers have machine guns. Annie tells Negan that the guy in charge is arguing with two others – a Priest and a guy with a spike ball for an arm – sounds unlikely doesn’t it! I loved this little outside perspective on the characters we know so well. Jesse tells them they didn’t know either – it isn’t what he signed up for. It was Negan who sent Jesse to Maggie, with specific instructions to say Aaron and Gabriel were in trouble.
Negan and Annie go in the back way, and we see how the second trooper died when Annie slashed her throat and Negan cuts Gabriel lose. I loved how surprised he was to see Negan. Gabriel wants to stay for Aaron, but Negan points out if they stay, they all die. They disappear into the building.
We finally get to “NOW.” Carlson is still pretending not to drink by pouring whiskey on his finger and then sucking it off. He’s in trooper armor and has a megaphone. He’s on the roof and announces to the residents of the complex that they are enemies of the Commonwealth because they’ve stolen from them. We see the residents, including Gabriel, Negan, and Annie in a room with others. He tells them their Warlord is dead, and if they give them the weapons, they’ll leave. Sure…
Gabriel urges Annie to find out who has the weapons and give them up. Annie says they don’t have them, but Gabriel doesn’t believe her – until Negan tells him to believe her. Gabriel tells them that he’s praying they have them because without them, Carlson won’t let any of them leave alive. Really, Gabe? With or without the guns, Carlson never planned to let any of them out alive.
Back on the roof, he’s got two prisoners kneeling at the edge. I loved the shot of the tarmac below which looks almost like a picture of the universe. It’s not hard to anticipate what’s coming. Carlson believes him when the prisoner says he doesn’t know and pushed both of them off anyway. He keeps doing it until all the prisoners on the roof have been pushed off. He tells the troopers to hit each room and kill anyone who won’t talk.
Annie tells the others that they have to stick together. They can forget about giving up or surrendering. Ian’s dead, but he wasn’t their first leader. They’ve stayed together by working together as a family. Their family might be scattered all over the building, but they know the place better than the assholes scattered all over their home right now. She promises them that they’re coming out of it on top.
She turns from them and talks quietly with Negan. He tells her that was good, but Carlson took out their best. She says she knows, but the others needed to hear it. He clearly admires her. The last shot we see in the episode is Maggie, Elijah, Lydia, and Aaron dragging the dead body of a trooper out of the way, taking his walkie, and entering through the basement.
This was a fabulous episode! Great performances from Gilliam, Harner, Hamilton, Marquand, and Cohen. We are finally starting to see that that trooper armor is really sheep’s clothing. What is Hornsby really up to? Who did take the guns? When we finally get to that scene between Maggie and Daryl, will Annie’s people now be at Hilltop? This would definitely be the infusion of people she needs, but what about Negan? We all know that eventually the two of them are heading to New York together – will the new show’s cast also include Senghore? I loved the structure and cinematography in this episode – what about you? Let me know your thoughts and theories in the comments below!