By Nick Romano
September 16, 2018 at 10:05 PM EDT
Ryan Green/AMC

Alicia: “I need something to be good.”

Charlie: “Yeah, I do too.”

Make that three of us.

After the great debate about whether helping others is needed or just something that brings more harm, “MM 54” leaves viewers with hope — something that’s been scarce in a show that still looks like it’s been filtered through the “Slumber” setting on Instagram. Whether the episode answers this debate that the show has been framing all season long is another question.

The first piece of good news is that we don’t have to refer to Tonya Pinkins’ character as the “Filthy Woman” anymore, a name credited to her on the AMC press site. The Broadway star deserves better. Now, she has a name that triggers a bro-down bonding session between Batmen and Supermen… Martha!

She was piloting the driver’s seat when her car crashed into a railing and fatally injured her husband. Martha, a former English teacher, tried to keep his spirits up by repeating “someone will help us, someone will come,” which she continued to utter even through her delirium of grief. Cars wouldn’t stop for them, even as she planted herself in the middle of the road. So Martha was forced to watch her husband turn into a walker. She buried him and lost herself amidst the voices clamoring for attention in her mind. By the time someone actually did stop, a woman by the name of Stevie who was part of Polar Bear’s group of truckers, Martha was already mentally gone.

As Stevie tended to the “take what you need box” she placed on the road, Martha remarked, “I don’t help people,” a sign she blamed herself for the death of her husband. She killed Stevie — swiftly, savagely — who became her first walker companion. Martha went down the line of truckers, killing them with the walkers of her past victims’ bodies, in the hopes of tracking down Polar Bear. When she acquired Pervis, she went on his truck’s walkie to see if she could suss out the leader, but instead, she got Morgan’s voice on the other end — which ties back to where we picked up with Morgan after the storm.

This reveal gives more weight to Martha’s confrontation later with Morgan after she unleashes gunfire on the truck. Nobody dies from that attack; Al surmises Martha ran out of the SWAT van’s bullet supply after the first wave. Wendell’s wheelchair is shattered by the blast, but he still attempts to crawl along the side of the truck. Morgan, Luciana, Al, and June are trying to escape, but Al rushes the van to take it back and is caught off guard. She’s knocked to the ground when the door bursts open, June finds herself wrestling with Martha’s latest walker, and Martha herself keeps the rest at bay at gunpoint.

As Morgan tries to talk her down, Martha mentions that he won’t end up like the rest of his friends because he has “so much more potential.” He then tells her she’s “stuck,” which is the same way Morgan was stuck when he lost his wife and son. Both of them have been scarred by the loss of loved ones, only Morgan pulled himself back out of the psychological pit, whereas Martha, still coated in mud, is wallowing in its darkness.

Remember Wendell, though? He’s able to plant a rifle shot straight into Martha’s chest. She still slips away in the end because the truck catches fire and explodes, forcing Sarah and Jim to leap out for safety and prompting walkers to hobble out of the trees.

As Morgan’s crew, all injured from the encounter, are dragging Wendell along the road, Alicia and Charlie find the remains of the truck. The area is littered with the motionless walkers their friends had to deal with. Now they have to guess a direction of where they might be, though, internally, Alicia isn’t so hopeful they’ll be able to secure a reunion.

Farther down the road, more walkers — or “bogies,” as Sarah calls them, tipping off Al to her background as a marine who “didn’t exactly fulfill [her] services” — are joining the herd that’s slowly stalking them. Morgan eyes a sign for a hospital not too far off their path, but Jim is freaking out. He wants to keep running away from the things that plan on eating them, but the rest of the group trust Morgan’s instincts. They even plan to leave Jim behind if he doesn’t want to go, but the terrified beer brewer with seemingly limited survival capabilities tags along.
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Fast forward a bit, they make it to the hospital and June patches everyone up. Except now they’re all stuck in the building with walkers clamoring to get inside. More origins are revealed as Wendell recalls how, when he was 10, he saved another kid from getting hit by a car and that’s what left him in a wheelchair. He wasn’t jaded by the accident, it made him want to keep helping others. Later in life, he planned on enlisting in the Marines, but the recruiter laughed him out of the station, which is also why Sarah quick the marines. She “didn’t agree with their code of conduct,” a touching sign of the love she holds for her brother.

But this all channels energy back to the question that keeps getting asked. Wendell helped people, only to be rejected by those he wanted to help. Martha tried to get help for her husband, but couldn’t. Madison, going even further back, lost her life trying to help her family. It’s a very selfish conversation to be having in a lot of ways. Most of the time, those arguing it’s better not to pay it forward do so because they feel it will impact them negatively.

Alicia, too, seems done helping her friends. She tells Charlie she doesn’t know where they could be, so the only thing she can guarantee is getting Charlie to a beach in Galveston, where the girl always wanted to go with her parents.

The group at the hospital keeps looking to Morgan for leadership, which puts him in a position to fall back into that pit, especially when the walkers break down a wall and flood the bottom floor just as Jim is trying to apologize to him. They plan to move up to the higher floors in search of a way out. They split up — one group barricades the main stairwell and two others go to investigate the west and east stairwells. Everything is blocked and walkers are starting to close in.

June mentions hospitals typically have a generator on the top floors to avoid potential flooding damage, so Sarah and Al go to turn it on so they can use the elevator and get to the roof. They, too, run into trouble and Al volunteers to go to the generator alone. She ends up locking herself in a room, putting her fate into grim territory, which serves as another potential example of Wendell’s mindset: “s— happens when you try to help people.”

The generator turns on just as the walkers have cornered the others by the elevator. The group makes it to the top of the roof, only to learn more depressing news.

Jim and Morgan grappled with a few walkers on their search for a clear stairwell, one of which wrestled with Jim and pushed him back through a glass door. It seemed he was able to finally defend himself, bringing Martha to mind: “When you help people, they never learn to take care of themselves.” June tends to Jim’s wounds on the roof and finds a bite mark on his back. Though you never say die on the Walking Dead until you see it go down, the mythology behind the bites is pretty clear. Jim is doomed.

Of course, now Morgan is feeling guilt weigh down on him. “He asked for my help,” he tells June. “He asked me to save him.” June reminds him that he was the one who got them all to safety, but the same ill that infects Martha is starting to show symptoms in Morgan.

“MM 54,” as we promised, does end on a more hopeful note.

Charlie and Alicia keep walking in search of a car when the girl tells Alicia that they should’ve kept looking for the others, they should’ve kept trying to help them. This is where their exchange about needing something to be good comes in again. That “good” comes when they reach a familiar body of water. Not only is this a beach, of sorts, for Charlie, but they also find something floating nearby: John’s black hat. We don’t see what’s on the other side of the beach, but based on the elated looks on both Alicia and Charlie, we have one guess.