UK TV review: The Walking Dead: Season 11, Episode 1 (Acheron: Part 1)
Neil Brazier | On 29, Aug 2021
Read on below for spoilery notes – and read our other Season 11 reviews here.
The final ever The Walking Dead season opening is here and the beginning of the end for the series has begun. For the writers, knowing your show is ending and having a clear deadline is often a benefit (see Lost); it even strengthened The Walking Dead when Andrew Lincoln announced his departure, forcing the crew to bring his story to a satisfying conclusion with the few episodes they had left with him. It focuses the story and gives more purpose to every scene. The comic on which the show is based ended in 2019, leaving all the source material on the table to pick at, meaning the series’ home straight should be well thought-out and direct to the point.
Acheron looks to place all the markers for the season to follow in an extremely tense way. Princess (Paola Lázaro), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton) face interrogation at the gates of the Commonwealth, the new big community that Eugene’s radio friend, Stephanie, has led them to. They appear to have large numbers and plenty of resources that allows them to have a HR department conducting strict examinations of new recruits, taking copious notes on wedges of paper as well as an army dressed like Stormtroopers. Despite the rapport built with Stephanie, the Commonwealth’s outward appearance does not seem friendly but, as is pointed out, their hospitality is more welcoming than Alexandria has offered in a long time. If they don’t fit the mould, the survivors could face months of “reprocessing”, the extent of which is yet to be determined. The survivors are faced with the decision to stay or try to escape, not knowing on either hand what the Commonwealth may be able to offer them; it might be more than they realise.
Elsewhere it is back to business as usual. Alexandria, on the verge of collapse after the Whisperers’ attack, is starving and vulnerable. The returning Maggie (Lauren Cohan) offers an option, her previous camp had bountiful supplies that could help, but it was ravaged by a highly dangerous gang that we were introduced to in the addendum episodes of last season, The Reapers. It is this journey that offers us one of the two intense scenes that feature the survivors delicately tiptoeing through hundreds of dead bodies, which perfectly epitomises the episodes title. In Greek mythology, Acheron was one of the rivers in Hades which the souls of the dead are ferried over by Charon, the symbol of Death. In the subway, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) calls out Maggie after she and the others ignore his logic pointing out the obvious dangers that face them. He makes the accusation that the only reason he is here is so she can let him die. Negan’s growth into a more humble survivor is suddenly halted when he accentuates his statement by referencing Glenn’s death, causing sharp intakes of breath. Maggie answers Negan in front of everyone, claiming he is there for his unique skills, but all the while there is a glint in her eye, the shadow of Charon, perhaps, looking for one more soul.
We have written about the relationship between Maggie and Negan before and how it seemed closed when she came to kill him and couldn’t before she left the series. It does feel like we are treading the same footsteps again but we need to accept that nobody would be able to forgive and forget the human who crushed your husband’s skull in front of you leaving your unborn child fatherless in a cruel world. And, honestly, getting to see the suppressed anger bubble within Negan is delightful. However, having spent such a long time growing and developing his character, we would hate to see that quashed and for him to switch to his old nasty self. Negan needs to continue to show he’s changed, even when he is pushed. He was given the option to leave and start out for himself, but he chose this community, so he needs to win them over again.
Acheron is a continuation of the good form the series has shown in the past couple of seasons. It features some subtle callbacks to episodes prior that those viewers who have invested their time in the series may pick up on but won’t alienate newcomers. The premise of the survivors struggling with more evil villain groups does look like it will repeat itself again, but, with a clear direction and finish line in sight, hopefully, the series will be bold in its decision-making and storytelling and offer us some fresh brains to feast upon this time.
The Walking Dead: Season 1 to 11 is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.
Innards and entrails (spoilers)
Opening with the female survivors dropping in from the roof into an army base, the season wastes no time in piling on the tension. The floor is littered with sleeping zombies – who knew they slept? The last time we encountered the lurker version of a walker was way back at the prison. The assault on the base seems thoroughly thought through and the survivors execute it like a well-oiled machine, getting the supplies they need when suddenly a rope snaps. Daryl (Norman Reedus) is quick to catch it, but a cut on his arm leads to a drop of blood falling, very Mission Impossible bead-of-sweat-style, onto a lurkers face below. This wakes the swathe of undead and the survivors work incredibly hard to escape. Being an army barracks, they are fortunate to stumble upon some assault rifles and from the rooftops, arrows are slung and marksman Daryl manages to take out some with throwing knifes. It’s a very chaotic but exciting way to open the episode.
Back at Alexandria and it is revealed that the supplies found won’t last more than a week, they need more but the walls are weak and won’t hold if too many walkers decide to pay a visit. Maggie offers her plan, a trip to Meridian for supplies but only Daryl and Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) agree to go along. Negan is later found as a member of the search party to due to his knowledge of the city. These survivors have just ended a war against the Whisperer’s and their horde of zombies, they’re tired and starving so it’s understandable that they might not want to embark on Maggie’s mission, especially knowing the Reapers may be lurking. (They are the very dangerous military-esq group who incinerate everything in their way and where one would rather blow himself up than face capture.)
On the journey the group encounter torrents of rain, impeding their vision. Negan suggests they find somewhere to wait until it stops, but Maggie refuses and they end up going into the subway at the aptly named Shady Grove station. And there is something shady about this place. The walls are covered with graffiti of images of death and hardship and a strange noise echoes through the tunnel. Alden (Callan McAuliffe) suggests it’s just wind in the pipes, but Negan points out, again, logically, that there are water marks on the walls, meaning the tunnel floods when it rains – and it is raining, heavily.
The group refuse to stop, even when they come to body bags littering their way. The bags are filled with silent zombies – they’ve had their throats cut but not their brains stabbed. One of the group is then attacked by a huge zombie, which looks reminiscent of the well-walker from Season 2 (it probably took on a lot of water in that tunnel). Negan makes the difficult save but gets no thanks for it, which leads him to complain again and outright refuse to be part of this death march any more.
Negan exclaims that if Maggie has brought him there to die, she should just kill him. Maggie denies she did this deliberately but says there is still some piece of her inside that is itching to grant his wish. It’s hard to believe that what Maggie claims is a small part of her isn’t really eating away big chunks of her.
Eventually, the group encounter a blocked path and suddenly notice some of their party is missing. Then a group of zombies are spotted walking up behind them. With their path ahead blocked and the dead behind, the group look dead for sure. The whole situation creates a strong sense of fear – the claustrophobia, the dank tunnel, poor lighting and the explosive tension between the group. Throw on top of that a no-way-out scenario and for a moment it feels like The Walking Dead is going to make history by killing off some of its biggest characters in the season opener. But, at the last minute, they find a way out over the train car – although Daryl and Dog (wearing an awesome vest-cum-saddle-pack) find a way to squeeze through the rubble.
Maggie is the last one to scale the train when the walkers are on her; she thrashes her feet wildly to wriggle free but is losing her grip. She calls out to the one above her for help – Negan. After a moment of contemplation, Negan turns his back on Maggie, leaving her to fall to the zombies below as the episode ends…
This is unlikely to result in Maggie’s death. Maggie will likely have a Glenn-esque “dumpster death” fake out, probably being saved by Daryl. Ignoring what may be, the decision made by Negan is a dangerous one. The group he is with are already against him, they won’t believe an accident happened, especially since he and Maggie had such a public display of emotion moments earlier. This decision was a result of the bullying and harassment that Negan has faced on this journey. Being made to feel the outsider may have awakened those feelings in him again that led him to become the leader he was. This group were on their knees before him before and now he’s being treated worse than the dog. His actions almost become understandable, but will leave him in very hot water with the rest of the group.
Over in the Commonwealth, we are introduced to Mercer (Michael James Shaw), who Ezekiel calls out as the man in charge. Outside of the interrogation not a lot happens and not much is learned. But Paola Lázaro steals every scene as Princess. As the group eat together, Princess stares off dreamily at some of the stormtroopers guarding them. When questioned she tells of how two of them are having relations and seems to know a lot of details about their movements. This leads to the group executing their escape, however they are stopped in their tracks when they find a “wall of the lost”. Photos and messages of family and loved ones that, if found, should be immediately processed. Upon looking at these there is a photo and a message for Yumiko! The group, despite almost having made their exit, decide they have to stay.
More details about the Commonwealth will likely be drip-fed to us over the course of the season, at least the opening act, but they seem to be a large community with plenty of authority and supplies. Despite their rather violent abduction at the train yard, the group have been rather well looked after – they’ve at least been fed – and the conversation about how they’ve been treated compared with those that have sought refuge at Alexandria does again ask the question: just who are the good guys?
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC