The Walking Dead: ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 8, Episode 4: And Yet, I Smile

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Khary Payton, right, as Ezekiel in “The Walking Dead.” Credit Gene Page/AMC

Season 8, Episode 4: ‘Some Guy’

The ambiguous conclusion of last week’s episode left the fan favorite Ezekiel in dire straits, as his loyal subjects dove to protect him from a hail of gunfire. I wrote, in my recap, of my concerns about the show’s habit of playing it fast and loose with “gotcha” non-deaths, as well as about the hazards of eliminating a valuable force for positivity on such a bleak program. From this sticky narrative wicket, this week’s episode nimbly spins a cohesive and affecting story that places a standout supporting player in a well-earned spotlight. Ezekiel’s flame of hope does, indeed, get extinguished. But first, the episode earns that withering defeat.

Narrowing the focus to a single character seems to grant the writers a clarity of purpose. From his earliest introduction, Ezekiel has projected a refreshingly unbothered confidence, as epitomized last week and repeated here with his “and yet, I smile” speech. This episode quietly observes Ezekiel in flashback as he ritualistically prepares to greet his subjects, carefully going through the routine of washing himself, trimming his haggard beard and individually hand-rolling each dreadlock. He’s the model of composure, and this hour embarks on a search for the man behind the reassuring grin and the hearty laugh.

A strong match cut, which goes from an image of Ezekiel at the center of a group huddle among his trusting militia to an image of him buried under their corpses introduces the survivor’s guilt that will plague the King through this episode and ultimately break him. The episode continues to crosscut between the Kingdom’s preparations for their offensive and Ezekiel’s desperate scramble to stay alive after it goes belly-up, creating a contrast between the faith they put in him and his self-loathing over having betrayed it. He believes that a ruler and his subjects are bound by a sacred pact, in which he exchanges his protection for the masses’ support. In this sense, he’s failed them, and his memories of the heartfelt goodbyes between the soldiers and their stiff-lipped wives confront Ezekiel with the emotional ramifications of his shortcomings.

Nursing a broken ankle and running out of options to evade the approaching zombie horde, Ezekiel appears to done for. But he’s saved by his loyal knight Jerry, in more ways than one. Although Jerry ferries him to safety, even as the King demands to be cut loose and left for dead, Jerry’s most meaningful service to his liege is to reshape the way he thinks of his own role. Simply by stating, “We needed you,” Jerry communicates that Ezekiel’s value has always been more symbolic than anything else. Ezekiel provided a beacon around which an otherwise disorganized rebel force could rally. Nobody in the Kingdom really believes that Ezekiel comes from a royal lineage, but because charismatic leaders have a way of strengthening the people in their immediate proximity, the lie proves productive for all parties involved.

Ezekiel sees himself as the fraud that his Savior captor makes him out to be: He’s a former zookeeper with delusions of grandeur and one obedient tiger. It’s true that he has consciously assumed a role divorced from his deepest self; listen to how his throaty tone of voice and ornate manner of speaking fade away in the final minutes as he stammers, “I ain’t … I ain’t nobody.”

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