Production on season ten of The Walking Dead halted last year due to the impact of the Covid lockdown. With socially-distanced filming permitted once more in the US state of Georgia a few months ago, the remaining episodes of what’s confirmed as the show’s penultimate series are now airing in the UK on the Fox network.
The Walking Dead has always mixed big budget spectacle with smaller and more intimate drama. The need to keep things Covid-safe on set is reflected in the storytelling beats of the lightly-populated “Home Sweet Home”. But the show delivered a huge, audience-pleasing finale to the ‘war with the Whisperers’ storyline in the last pre-hiatus episode “A Certain Doom”.
That means that the switch to a tighter and more introspective focus here makes sense. It’s something that allows writers Kevin Deiboldt and Corey Reed to start seeding the new threats and challenges that will begin to shape the series’ endgame.
Any concern about a loss of scale is more than compensated for by the long-trailed return of the feisty and fabulous Maggie Greene. Lauren Cohan returns to a role that’s enjoyed a remarkable (and emotionally harrowing) character arc since her introduction back in the second series. The script reveals much about Maggie’s fraught experiences since she left the Hilltop community (all of which appeared off-screen).
She’s an even more battle-hardened warrior than before she left, but it’s clear that some of the emotional warmth that the pressures of command suppressed have resurfaced in her nature.
Settlements in the series have long benefited from the presence of emotionally tuned-in decision-makers: be they Rick Grimes, ‘King’ Ezekiel or Carol Peletier (on a good day). In sharp contrast, Daryl Dixon, Carol Peletier (on a bad day) and even a penitent Negan embody strength and ruthless conviction. But those battling to survive amidst the zombie hordes and murderous other humans need figures with heart like Maggie amongst them (as well as raw courage, and a powerful chopping arm).
There’s never any relaxation in high-risk stakes in The Walking Dead, and Maggie’s journey back to Hilltop has been interrupted by an attack on her group that’s left her compatriots scattered. She then finds the Hilltop in ruins, and the group looking after her young son Hershel Rhee are being hunted by unknown assailants in the woods.
With Maggie reunited with Daryl, the pair head to find them, joined by the few survivors from the Tennessee journey she’s able to round up.
Sense of belonging
There’s tension aplenty, as the group make their way through endless empty woodland – expecting to be attacked at any moment. A zombie clear-out at an infested storage facility is impressively realised by director David Boyd, despite its modest scale. A sleepover amidst the containers is the cue for a beautifully performed heart-to-heart between Maggie and Daryl.
It’s one of several character moments in the episode in which members of the group wrestle with the consequences of separation and loss. In different ways, all of the survivors are seeking ‘home’, be that a place or a sense of belonging through connection with others that they love.
It’s the kind of reflective concern with the human predicament that ensures that, even ten series in, The Walking Dead remains more than a simple zombie stab-fest. That said, the body count of “Home Sweet Home” remains high, even as the roles of hunter and hunted are eventually reversed in some well-staged (and bloody) combat in the forest.
There’s some good set-up work for upcoming storylines too. What’s sure to be an explosive future confrontation between Negan and a revenge-seeking Maggie is hinted at here through some intense glaring, and some low-key self-justification from the ‘reformed’ murderer. The spectre of a new threat posed by the ferocious and fearless Reapers is also made abundantly clear. Both of these plot strands look promising.
So while it’s not a spectacular episode, “Home Sweet Home” announces the welcome return of The Walking Dead in reassuringly confident style. The fast-moving foot patrols through the woods have a freshness about them, evoking a sense of jeopardy that, while familiar, feels anything but jaded. The reappearance of Maggie is a clear fillip to the show’s already strong ensemble, and the story ends with a feeling of genuine anticipation about what might be yet to come.
The Walking Dead, series 10, episode 17, “Home, Sweet Home” is available now on the Fox network.