With another season of The Walking Dead comes yet another safe haven that may or may not be exactly what it seems. The only difference is this community, born from the muck of a viral zombie apocalypse, has flourished into a medieval society with a truly bonkers leader at the helm. After the severe bloodshed of the spectacle that was the premiere episode, Carol’s response to encountering such an eccentric is the most appropriate: “You’re sh-tting me, right?”
Anyone hoping to see how Rick and the others bounce back (or don’t) from their first Negan encounter will have to wait another week, because “The Well” is all about Carol and Morgan. Those two men on horseback from last season — who we learn are named Nathaniel and Bolton — are leading them to help, with Morgan wheeling an injured Carol on the closest thing to a stretcher this world can afford.
As Carol dips in and out of consciousness, she stirs to find herself on the ground as walkers descend upon the group. She keeps hallucinating the dead as real people, struck down by Morgan’s staff and the spears of her rescuers. In a panic, she leaves the scene and stumbles over to a cracked white fence surrounding a small house. An old woman standing in the window motions for Carol to come inside, but that, too, is another hallucination masking the frenzied walker trying to break out.
More dead encircle Carol, but reinforcements arrive in the form of men and women decked out in bulletproof gear on horseback. Some have spears, some carry swords, others sport bows, and together they clear out the threats.
Morgan, who’s been carving arrows into trees in case they need to find their way back to Alexandria, makes another mark on the house’s mailbox and puts up a red flag before leaving with the armed detail.
When Carol wakes up, she’s lying in a hospital bed with a lucky rabbit’s tail hanging on the bedside lamp, a DIY wind chime dangling outside the window, and Morgan sitting in a chair. Now that she’s up, it’s time to meet their host.
As he pushes her in a wheelchair through their newfound haven, Morgan explains it’s called The Kingdom, led by a man who calls himself King Ezekiel. Oh, and he has a tiger. Carol has been out for a couple days, but she sees gardens, young kids sitting in a classroom-type setting on an open porch, vacant school buses parked in the background, and guards stationed with spears — there are no guns around. Morgan mentions they should probably stay for a few weeks to give Carol enough time to recuperate, but that doesn’t jive with her plan.
It’s William Shakespeare who wrote “All the world’s a stage,” and Ezekiel took those famous words to heart. Morgan presents Carol to the King, sitting on his throne in the middle of a school building’s auditorium. At his side is an enormous tiger, Shiva — who snarls at the Alexandria refugees — at his back, a bodyguard (his “steward”) named Jerry, who may be The Walking Dead’s version of Jerry/Garry Gergich from Parks and Recreation.
NEXT: Seeing is believing
We’re Carol in this situation. She’s baffled by what she’s seeing, not so much by the tiger — this woman knows how to handle the sadistic, imposing villains of the world — but by Ezekiel’s eccentricities. On top of calling himself King, his voice and mannerisms drip with the flamboyance of a Shakespearian acting troupe; he speaks like a Don Quixote, someone whose brain has been warped by enough medieval fairy tales that he believes those fictional worlds are real.
Ezekiel refers to his guests as friends “of the realm” and is pleased to see an alert Carol. But even as he offers her fruit, she puts on a show herself and politely refuses to eat the pomegranate — or buy into this bizarre reality. All she does is smile and return such lines as “brings tears to the eye” with “I don’t know what’s going on, in the best possible way.” Neither do we.
She’s quick to tell Morgan about her ambivalence once they take leave of the King, though not in such kind words. Carol thinks Ezekiel and The Kingdom are all just “make-believe” and “playtime,” and says she’s going to leave as soon as she gets the chance. Morgan has one foot planted in this fantasy and promises to come after her should she slip away.
We then see Morgan contributing to this newly discovered society. He said earlier he’s been helping The Kingdom because its citizens helped Carol, so he’s assisting Ezekiel and some of the guards by herding pigs into a room with a strung-up walker strung up, on which the hogs start feeding. This is the community’s secret to fattening up the pigs, by filling their bellies with “rot” instead of its food supply.
When some walkers set their sights on the group, a young boy named Ben is called to take care of them with a machete, “just like he practiced.” Instead, he gets the blade lodged in a walker’s shoulder, forcing Jerry to step in before the dead bites into Ben. Their presence soon attracts more walkers, which the main guard, Richard, says is because they’re closer to the city. Ben is saved again, this time by Morgan, and Ezekiel takes notice.
After the car carrying Ezekiel and Morgan heads back to The Kingdom (with the other car going “somewhere else”), the King commends Morgan’s fighting style and asks if he would train Ben. The boy hasn’t been able to master other weapons, but Ezekiel says “I need the boy to — I need him to live.” Apparently, Ben will become an important member of Ezekiel’s “court.”
This adds a King Arthur element to The Kingdom’s story, with an Arthur type (Ben) being taught a new way of fighting and philosophy by a wise Merlin figure (Morgan). Carol, meanwhile, is being Carol: As the rest of the community enjoys a peaceful existence to the sounds of a local a cappella group, she’s rolling around town to steal a knife and a pile of fresh clothes.
Ben and Morgan continue to build a rapport, with the boy asking his instructor to borrow a book. He says he’s read every book in town, including the air-conditioning manuals. This further suggests Ezekiel may be grooming Ben to succeed him on the throne. The King soon calls upon them both for a special task, and Richard tells Morgan to bring his gun.
NEXT: They’re baaaack!
It is a small world after all, as we learn The Kingdom is yet another community forced to make deals with Negan and The Saviors. The special task is their weekly delivery, which happens to be the now-slaughtered pigs. The two groups meet in an abandoned parking lot, and the leader of this group of Saviors shows his respect for Ezekiel, noting how he’s never under-delivered for them and is always on time.
As they start moving the pigs to trucks, Richard gets in a physical fight with one of Negan’s arrogant lapdogs. He’s clearly no match for Richard, but Ezekiel commands his officer to stop fighting so everyone can walk away from this, giving the Wolf a few free punches before he, too, is called off. The Saviors make their leave, but warn that next week is “produce week,” and if Ezekiel doesn’t deliver in full, Negan will have to make a kill.
Morgan is initially frustrated with Ezekiel for asking him to come along — he thinks it’s because the King knows Morgan has dealt with The Saviors and, if forced, he could kill again. “Quite the opposite, in fact,” Ezekiel replies.
After returning to The Kingdom, Morgan sits in a cafeteria with Ben, who tells his younger brother to finish eating his vegetables before he goes off to movie night. Ben never imagined he’d have to raise a child, but his dad, who was very close with Ezekiel, died on a mission for his King. He was “one of the best fighters in The Kingdom,” but he became overwhelmed by walkers when he led a group out of a nearby building. (It’s interesting to note Ben refers to the walkers as “wasted,” a word used by Brandon and the other boys Chris meets in Fear the Walking Dead.)
Ben continues to explain that Ezekiel keeps secret the community’s deal with The Saviors — his subjects will probably want to fight to protect The Kingdom, a fight Ezekiel isn’t sure they’d win. Morgan never gives Ben answers, but questions to prompt the boy to come up with his own answers. Even when he asks about an inscription in the aikido book about not killing, Morgan emphasizes that nobody can show you the way: They may be able to point you in the right direction, but he’ll have to find his own path.
Morgan leaves to deliver a tray of food to Carol, but finds her hospital room empty.
NEXT: Going and not going
When night falls, Carol’s on her feet and slipping into Ezekiel’s garden to snatch some apples for her trip out of The Kingdom. Unbeknownst to her, the King is already there. He lights a few fires and asks Jerry to give them a private moment. (“Deuces,” is his response, one of those moments that makes you sigh, “Jerry…”)
Ezekiel recites the “don’t bullsh-t a bullsh-tter” line and is quick to call out Carol for her phony sweet-and-innocent act. She calls him a joke in return, saying, “That’s what you do with jokes — you laugh.” But it’s as he said — he, too, is a bullsh-tter.
By the time he sits down next to Carol on a bench, he’s dropped his kingly persona. He’s not the Don Quixote he appears to be, merely an actor playing a role that offers his people the fairy-tale illusion they want to believe in. His story is very similar to the character’s comic-book origins: Ezekiel’s name is legit, but he was a zookeeper who treated Shiva when she injured herself in her cage, sparking a bond between man and beast.
In the beginning of the outbreak, Shiva was one of the only animals left alive in the zoo. He freed her and she’s protected him ever since. When people saw a man with a ferocious tiger at his side, they began to weave tales of his greatness and by the time Ezekiel founded The Kingdom, he had embraced the sonnets as a King. The fact he played kingly roles like Arthur, Macbeth, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. in community theater helped to further muddle the truth.
Carol is still cold to his story, but Ezekiel tries to break through her numb facade. “Where there’s life, there’s hope, heroism, grace, love,” he says. He admits he sounds crazy, but it’s this outlook that’s allowed him to create his own world even though he, too, has lost much. When Carol asks why he cares so much about her, he says, “Because it makes me feel good.”
He then offers her a compromise: Go, but don’t go. She can leave The Kingdom, but try to take up residence in the house just beyond their walls, where she and Morgan were attacked by walkers. The next morning, Morgan escorts her on horseback to the house. Before riding away, he flips down the mailbox flag, a sign he’s found a new home for himself in The Kingdom.
Carol goes inside to kill the walker at the window and tidy up. She buries the dead in the yard and lights up the fireplace, at which point there’s a knock on her door. Shiva’s growl heralds Ezekiel’s arrival, who’s standing on her doorstep with a pomegranate (the fruit she hates) and says in his normal voice, “You really gotta try one of these.” Like before — but perhaps with far less cynicism — all Carol does is smile.
Ezekiel is an interesting character, to be sure. He may as well be the head of a lost House of Westeros with a dire tiger marking his banners. But, like Carol’s laugh upon first meeting him and hearing what he’s all about, ours is also tinged with a healthy dose of WTF.
His is a tale as old as time in The Walking Dead universe, and that includes Fear: Group wanders the wilderness, group finds a sanctuary, group is charmed by a charismatic leader, group reveals their new sanctum isn’t what it appears to be, group is forced to leave to find another safe haven, and the cycle comes full circle. Ezekiel, too, bears hints of Deanna and Hershel, two leaders of safe zones with hopeful messages that turned into delusions of grandeur in the most horrific ways possible.
Forgive me if I’m not quick to embrace this new dogma (painted on various walls throughout The Kingdom in the form of Ezekiel’s quotes), but it’s not a particularly nuanced idea. (And “spoiler”: If you read the comics, you know Ezekiel meets a fate similar to that of those other optimistic leaders.) Carol accepts it because she’s reached her breaking point, and now here’s someone wanting to put her back together.