When last we left the dirty, sweaty members of The Walking Dead, a contingent of them–led by Daryl (Norman Reedus) and a vengeful Carol (Melissa McBride)–was hellbent on tracking down Alpha (Samantha Morton), wherever she might lead them. And, if you remember from that midseason finale, it looked very much like she was going to lead them into a trap. Surprise! In the midseason premiere, “Squeeze”, that’s exactly where our increasingly not-so-smart survivors find themselves, trapped in a cave under the sunken fields and cozying up with a horde of Walkers.
On one hand, The Walking Dead would be all outta tension if our heroes didn’t make poor choices, if they followed their training and intel rather than their blind hatred or instincts, if they just acted with a bit of hurry when, say, a cave roof was collapsing on top of your head rather than sexily sauntering back into the shadows while your comrade did his best Atlas impression. On the other hand, it’s been really tough to keep The Walking Dead fresh these 10 long years. So when new cast members and fan-favorite villains from the comics don’t really re-engage the audience, the show has to fall back on old bad habits.
“Squeeze” mostly centers on Carol, Daryl, Aaron, Kelly, Yumiko, Jerry, Connie, and Magna’s ill-conceived plan to get out of the cave system that Alpha led them directly into. Not only are they stuck underground in the dark for who knows how long, they also have a horde of hungry Walkers literally nipping at their heels as they try to climb their way free. There are quite a few claustrophobic moments here, or at least their should be, but the camerawork still makes the closed space feel more open than it should, owing to the practicalities of the shoot itself. McBride does her best to deliver a sweaty, hyperventilating, increasingly guilt-ridden Carol while everyone else seems to just be going along with the motions and biding their time until they get back above-ground. The only real bit of tension comes as big ol’ Jerry gets stuck during the climb out, but he’s fine, partially because he’s got some beefy construction-grade boots on and partially because TWD doesn’t really kill its darlings the way it used to. A second dramatic moment–the cave collapse and resulting explosion of old, discarded dynamite–would have had more weight to it had Magna not left Jerry shouldering the burden of holding up the entire collapsing tunnel so that she could “model walk” back into the dark to take down a few more Walkers; it was one of the silliest things I’ve seen on this show in a while.
Elsewhere, however, this episode centers on Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as he continues to ingratiate himself to Alpha and the Whisperers. Negan’s doing his best silver-tongued devil routine as he sows paranoia and endears himself to the group’s leader. There’s a particularly surprising and weirdly intimate moment between the two, and it comes out of nowhere. If claustrophobia isn’t your bag but kinky flesh-mask wearing is, then “Squeeze” is eerily and specifically made for you. No shame in the game.
Unfortunately, that pseudo-sexy rendezvous out in the woods between Negan and Alpha was the most interesting thing that the midseason premiere gave us. (And yeah, I could have done without Carol going back to the self-blaming cry-pile that she was way back in seasons past.) We’re still waiting to see what the others are up to, and we’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out just who survived that cave-in and what they’ll do now. But for this longtime viewer of TWD, it’s all just a big, sweaty shrug.
Rating: ★★ Fair