This review contains spoilers.
One of the most efficient things The Walking Dead season 10 episode three Ghosts accomplishes is the way it establishes a baseline of exhaustion. Prior to automation, most of what humanity accomplished was achieved via back-breaking, exhausting labour. From growing food to killing enemies, life used to be a lot more work, and in the post-industrial scarcity of The Walking Dead, things are back to being unpleasant and time-consuming. It starts with a couple of kids flirting and killing walkers with sticks, and it ends with a full-fledged war between humans and the natural world around them as personified by the force of nature, the walker.
Even in the best of times in this world, everyone’s tired. Even Negan, whose only responsibilities are picking crops and burying bodies, looks tired. Everyone has a physically demanding job in this world, and those who have mentally demanding positions are even more exhausted because they have to think, worry, and work right alongside everyone else, because in this world every leader has to lead by example. All of the leaders that have been shown this season, Alpha, Negan, Michonne, Aaron, have all had to work hard alongside everyone else, then think about ways to make life easier for everyone else in their time off.
Not that, according to this episode, Michonne ever gets a chance to take some time off. She goes from motherhood to leadership to diplomat to combat infantry and back again in the span of 48 hours, all without sleep. Everyone’s nerves are fraying, everyone’s exhausted, and as anyone can tell you, when sleep eludes, patience and tact are the first things to disappear with it, and sanity can follow quickly behind.
Exhaustion and questionable choices serve as a through-line in Jim Barnes’ script for Ghosts. everyone is on short tempers, and everyone is getting on everyone’s nerves, making irrational choices and saying things that otherwise they’d never say directly to one another.
This gives the actors involved a lot of chances to have fun with their characters, inhabiting the exhausted people with an impressive physicality across the board, particularly Ross Marquand’s Aaron. Aaron is an otherwise easygoing guy, but after two days of bashing zombies with his stump-mace, he’s in no mood to deal with a comparatively fresh, talkative Negan; Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a good job selling Negan’s relish of freedom versus his desire to stay out of the way of armed, tired, grudge-holding Alexandrians.
As rough as Negan and Aaron’s scenes are, the other scenes are equally fraught. It’s tough to watch Carol be doubted by her best friends in the world, who don’t believe that she’s seeing what she’s seeing. It’s tough to watch her doubt herself, depending on pills and an egg timer to keep her wits about her even after falling into a dangerous situation. It’s tougher still to watch Daryl and Michonne doubt Carol’s grasp on sanity, and Norman Reedus does a good job selling Daryl’s relative inability to express emotions versus his intense desire to look after his friend. And Eugene and Rosita’s situation is equally heartbreaking, because everyone in the audience has been on one side or both sides of their particular interpersonal confusion.
Aaron and Negan’s confrontation generates a lot of tension, building expertly in the hands of director Michael Cudlitz. Cudlitz, an actor by trade, does great with getting performances out of his actors, but he shows a surprising adept hand with the tension throughout the episode. Negan and Aaron’s brief foray into an abandoned house is tense. Carol’s sitting watch in the abandoned school is tense, both during her fantasies and during her reality. The showdown between Michonne’s group and Alpha is even more tense, as Carol has already been established as a loose cannon willing to do anything to stop Alpha (and unable to see the risks behind stopping Alpha without a plan for what comes after).
Even the scenes of walker combat, which are normally something nobody worries about in this world anymore, become troublesome because everyone is too tired to raise a spear or swing a machete by the time all of this is said and done. The walkers aren’t a threat as small groups, but a string of small groups that just doesn’t seem to stop? That’s a war by attrition, and undoubtedly Alpha is part of the reason why this is happening, even if she doesn’t admit to it and even if Lydia says that this isn’t her mother’s MO.
The only people in the episode who aren’t struggling with some sort of past horror are the two characters trying to live down their past in Lydia and Negan. Everyone else, from pill-popping Carol to Siddiq, is lost in a sea of post-traumatic stress disorder and exhaustion pushing them beyond their limits of tolerance. Carol’s delusions shift between fantasies (a happy home life with Daryl and Henry) to nightmares (all the dead children killed by Alpha staring back at her from a discarded home economics text book). The sight of blood causes Siddiq to flash back to his torments watching Alpha and company slay all his friends. Even the few remaining Highwaymen are driven by a thirst for revenge thanks to the demise of their friends at Alpha’s hand.
Ghosts serves as a solid entry in The Walking Dead season 10, following along after two other very good-to-great episodes. It pushes the main plot of the season, the conflict with the Whisperers, forward without neglecting the natural tension and conflict that exists between the survivors. It’s book-ended by sweet scenes of Michonne and her children; Judith asks her mother if it’s safe enough to go to sleep. One time, it’s not, and Michonne is interrupted by the needs of her community. The next time, while it’s not completely safe, it seems like it’s as safe as this world can be.
Similarly, the episode isn’t perfect, but it seems like it’s as good as a show set in this world can be at this time in the show’s run. Judith and RJ feel safe and comfortable in Michonne’s hands; The Walking Dead is safe and comfortable in the hands of Angela Kang and company. Strong writing, strong performances, and strong direction combine for solid, strong episodes. Much like the eponymous walking dead, the show that bears its name has returned for an impressive second life.
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