Walking Dead: World Beyond finally gets good, just in time for the season finale

Annet Mahendru and Aliyah Royale on The Walking Dead: World Beyond

Annet Mahendru and Aliyah Royale on The Walking Dead: World Beyond
Photo: Antony Platt/AMC

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A bunch of exciting stuff happened on The Walking Dead: World Beyond this week. Knife fights! Double-crosses! Fire! Hallucinations! Learning how to drive a stick shift automobile! Unfortunately, almost all of it happened in the final episode of the season, meaning it took nine full installments of this spinoff of The Walking Dead to finally start doing something interesting enough to feel compelling. But given the show was granted a two-season order before it even started filming, there’s hopefully sufficient time for a lesson to be learned here by the creative team moving into the next season of the series: Make it fun. Because the alternative wasn’t working.

I finally realized what the problem with World Beyond was, but it took the show delivering an episode as daffily entertaining as season-ender “In The Life” to illuminate it. This whole time, the show has taken itself deeply seriously. It wants to be just as dark and moody and meditative as its predecessor, and it wants to do so while having teenagers learn Very Special Lessons about life and how to live it. From Iris’ sit-downs with her dying therapist in the pilot on through to Elton ripping his mom’s book apart in “The Deepest Cut,” everything has always been geared toward a tone of somber, heady bleakness. It was the look and feel of a show that fancied itself a cut above the average television programming—“elevated horror,” to use the tiresome current terminology.

Only, it’s not. At all. World Beyond is a series that should’ve been leaning into its pulpier and more lurid elements since day one. For god’s sake, this is a show about a quartet of kids making their way across a zombie-strewn wasteland in search of a top-secret military outpost run by a homicidal monster who embedded her own daughter with the enemy in order to spirit away a super-genius teenager and thereby save the human race from extinction. (Or some such. I’m still not sold on a few of these plot points, as we’ll get into below.) Surely, there’s room for some smiles that don’t have to be of the “we’re rolling a bowling ball and laughing to symbolize hope for the future” variety. I’m not saying it shouldn’t take itself seriously—far from it. The finale took itself uber-seriously, but it did so while delivering an act-long knife fight, transforming Hope into a badass super-soldier and not-so-secret computer genius, and reveling in action tropes that walked right up to the line of campy without tipping over into it. It felt fresh, and invigorating, and all the ridiculous goings-on helped to compensate for what is, frankly, still some pretty weak dialogue. (People getting beaten up and pointing guns at their own heads goes a long way toward making the endless speechifying tolerable.) By getting bananas, World Beyond showed it had potential. Just not the kind it thought it had all this time.

Illustration for article titled iWalking Dead: World Beyond/i finally gets good, just in time for the season finale

Photo: Antony Platt/AMC

“The Deepest Cut” was definitely the weaker of the two episodes, largely because it was essentially setup for the finale, moving everyone into position to unleash chaos. Much of that time is spent watching Huck clumsily try to manipulate everyone into position, which now in hindsight only feels acceptable because it was apparently supposed to highlight just how crappy Huck is at subterfuge. (Though she did spend god knows how long back at the campus colony inserting herself into everyone’s life with nary a red flag, so maybe we just chalk this up the show’s usual uneven writing.) After intentionally bricking the truck to force them back on their feet for travel, Huck leads everyone to an abandoned retirement home, where the ankle injury she surreptitiously gave Felix during their skirmish with the undead gets infected. This gives her an opening to try and peel off Hope from the others—or rather, it would, had Huck not been incredibly bad at manipulation. From her attempt to play on Iris’ insecurities to sweet-talking Hope and Felix, all she does is convince Iris that something is up.

Of course, it ultimately doesn’t matter, because once Hope decodes the messages from the CRM and learns that everyone but her is expendable, she’s the one who proposes ditching Felix and Iris in the night, all so she can get Huck alone and pull a gun on her. It’s a great twist ending, and while the knowledge that Huck is a secret agent lent an underlying frisson to all these scenes, they were still comprised of the usual heavy-handed interpersonal exchanges on which the show has never really gotten a handle. Much more compelling were the scenes with Elton and Vision-Percy, as the youngest member of the team hallucinates a chat with the injured guy he’s trying to save and realizes that his mother wasn’t quite the pragmatic pessimist he’s assumed she was. Really, this just made me wish Elton was already back together with the others—more and more, he feels like the glue holding this group together. (Witness what instantly happens after he leaves!) But his personal moment of enlightenment was stirring, as the diminutive explorer through down his bag and took out four empties by himself, using a combination of wits and aggression that perfectly suit his demeanor. Three cheers for Elton the badass.

Illustration for article titled iWalking Dead: World Beyond/i finally gets good, just in time for the season finale

Photo: Antony Platt/AMC

The flashbacks, on the other hand, didn’t quite ring true. And it’s not Nico Tortorella’s fault; he had as much chemistry with Jelani Alladin, with plays Will, as he did with anyone all season. The problem is that this show has never really gotten a handle on who Felix is as a person. The clunky reiteration, over and over, that Felix is some control freak who never trusts anyone else to do things the right way came a bit out of left field, especially given how much we’ve seen his willingness to entrust Iris, and especially Huck, with plenty of responsibility. There’s a difference between over-protectiveness and whatever overbearing tendencies they tried to assign Felix this late in the game, and the two don’t overlap. But also, he’s just the default fall guy for prioritizing plot over character—he either sucks at fighting or is good at it, bad at talking to people or good at it, depending on the story of the week. What I had initially seen as a poor performance, it’s become clear, is just an actor ill-served by his part. Fingers crossed that season two will locate the real person in Felix’s gruff, wobbly exterior.

But then, that finale came, and fun was finally had. First, there’s the reveal that the Civic Republic doctor we’ve seen in those post-credits sequences has begun a relationship with Iris and Hope’s father, Leo, and that she’s been keeping massive secrets from him—including what happened to the other doctor(/s?) and that Hope will soon be arriving thanks to Lt.Col. Kublick’s machinations. Next, there’s the reunion between Silas and Elton (Percy, from his injury wagon: “For the record, I’m doing great”), and Silas sacrificing himself to help the other two get away. And let’s not forget Huck and Hope suddenly turning into a zombie-fighting duo capable of taking down well over a dozen empties, far more than numbers the entire group used to flee from. All the while, Iris and Felix realize Huck’s duplicity and get back on the road to confront her. None of this is remotely subtle; the entire thing with Chekhov’s upstairs room at the retirement home was downright silly. But it moved so fast, and with so little time to mope around like they usually do, that the momentum carried through even the usual stand-around-and-argue scenes. (These were still plentiful, just accelerated and forced to cut off so more exciting and interesting things could happen.)

And oh, that fight. After consistently devaluing and under-utilizing the character of Felix all season, this finally felt like a demonstration of why he rose through the ranks to become head of security at the campus colony. He goes toe-to-toe with ex-Marine Huck, and their knock-down, drag-out fight is easily the most viscerally thrilling sequence the show has ever done, far more effective than any of the mostly rote zombie encounters over the course of the season. Put simply, it kicked ass, smartly staged and brutally executed. And while it does feel a bit weird that Felix went from hobbling around on a thrown-out ankle to full-on action star, let’s just chalk it up to adrenaline in the moment.

Look, there are inconsistencies aplenty, should you want to go looking for them. But while most of them are of the minor, that-doesn’t-track variety (After their fight with the group of empties, Huck tells Hope, “Pistol’s gone. We should keep walking.” What? Where the hell did it go?), the one that need addressing is Hope’s role in all of this. Unless the show is really playing an elaborate long con, the Civic Republic really does consider Hope an asset because of her brain. That’s more than a little belief-beggaring, and the finale works overtime to try and reassure us that, no, she’s really some sort of genius, we just forgot to tell you before this! Because it’s one thing to have her be a sharp-minded kid with above-average intelligence, capable of making alcohol and fixing broken motors. It’s quite another to suggest that she’s such a one-in-a-million mind, the dominant military authority in this post-apocalyptic reality is willing to destroy an entire colony and spend untold resources just to bring her in and…work alongside her dad on immunology research, a field of knowledge for which she’s shown no facility as of yet. Frankly, I hope that all the characters are either dancing around the real reason for her status as a treasured asset or that they are unaware of the truth (much as Huck apparently didn’t know her mom destroyed the campus colony, or that she CRM was going to try and kill Felix and Iris regardless), because the whole “turns out I’m smarter than I thought” was badly set up, and even more clumsily delivered.

But after an entire season that struggled to find a proper tone, pacing, or even consistent characterizations for some of its central characters, it was such a pleasure to see the show indulge in the most fundamental thrills of a series that should be delivering them regularly. It’s a shame things are ending just as they got good, but at least this sets up the potential for an improved season two. Iris and Hope have a simple but wildly ambitious plan—take down the Civic Republic—and from such grand ideas are breezily enjoyable stories born. If Walking Dead: World Beyond can stop pretending it’s some great and high-minded drama, and instead start getting dirty and having some pulpy fun, it could find new life going forward. Take a page from Elton, World Beyond (before he rips them all out, anyway), and find the strength to get your hands dirty. It’s a lot more fun than keeping all the unsavory genre theatrics at an undead arm’s distance.

Stray observations

  • I laughed hard at Huck walking up to Felix after the fight to tell him how great he is, and how much she cares about him. YOU WERE JUST ABOUT TO STAB HIM IN THE HEAD.
  • I very much appreciated both times that Huck tried to keep the charade going, and both Hope and Felix pulled a gun on her and forced her to drop the pretense. After a season of so much dithering and extended monologuing, maybe more characters should be forced to shut up by having guns drawn on them.
  • I similarly enjoyed the show hanging a lampshade on its own crappy dialogue, when Felix was teaching Iris how to drive stick shift. “You’re gonna be one with the car.” “You did NOT just say ‘you’re gonna be one with the car.’”
  • Seriously, there were some bad lines tonight, like Iris’ shoehorned in “I wish I had a map to figure you out.” Surely there was a better way to get Hope to decode those messages? But check out this exchange between Hope and Huck, which sounds less like people and more like two robots who have just achieved sentience and are learning how to convey thoughts:

Hope: “I am stronger than I’ve ever been before. It’s because of you.”Huck: “I am glad you feel this way.”

  • Silas was extremely relieved to learn he didn’t murder Tony and Percy.
  • Another unintentionally giggle-inducing moment: Felix trying to power through his injury and jump up onto the barricade, only to fall over backwards.
  • Knowing Huck was a CRM spy really did improve all the scenes where she’s saying hacky things. Imagine how much more engaging previous episodes could’ve been, had we known sooner.
  • That’s a wrap on season one, everybody. Thanks for watching and reading along, no matter how frustrating this series got at times. I really do hope season two is better, and not just because I don’t want to feel like I wasted my time. Well, okay, that’s part of it. But I still remain fascinated by the ideas behind this series, and want it to succeed.

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