From one standpoint, “Swear” is the sort of episode of The Walking Dead that I used to want more of. Given the show’s ensemble cast, it is useful to splinter off the characters into groups and develop them with some story arcs that last for an episode or two. Of course, there’s also a sense of wanting the show to hurry up the momentum it has set up for itself. Basing the sixth episode of the seventh season around Tara is a bit frustrating, as interest in her character only extends so far and this series currently has bigger fish to fry. Still, as far as getting an episode based around Tara and the goings on of a community that only eats fish, it may be a filler episode, but it’s not bad.
Somewhat humorous is how the “previously on” portion that opens this episode was actually quite useful. I could say I remembered where Tara and Heath were, but specifically recalling their final scenes from last season would have been difficult. Given the information that these two went out on a two week scavenger hunt worked out, even if the show decided to play around with the timeline. So as it stands, this week gives us a scenario where Tara awakens in a foreign area and stumbles upon a community inhabited by women (and maybe some very young boys). It is soon made clear as to why.
Why the multiple flash-forwards and flashbacks were necessary, I’m not quite sure. Having the cold open and maybe holding out with Tara’s bridge fall may have worked, but the structural conceit of having lengthy narrative interruptions felt largely unnecessary. Especially in a season where it seems to be battling how to properly handle good tension, allowing us to know Tara survives a bunch of sandy walkers due to previously seen flash forwards takes away from a possible surprise death on the bridge she and Heath make their way to.
Moving past that, however, the episode gets into more of a groove once Tara is out on her own. Never mind the false setup for a cowardly move by Heath, which would have been out of character, it’s just an elaborate way for us to watch Tara use her comedic relief to help win over the people of Oceanside. There are some interesting ideas to discuss, but the big challenge is whether or not one enjoys seeing this much of Alanna Masterson’s character as a focal point of an episode. I’ve had my issues with Tara in the past, but Masterson has certainly grown into the role and the character has had some better writing to go along with her (in the few minutes she’s had last season).
Getting through “Swear”, I can’t say that all of this time with Tara was completely worthwhile, but that also has to do with the people of Oceanside. As a concept, finding a new community with their own rules (and forged culture) can be interesting. This show seems a bit stuffed with new communities this season, but the fact that the Saviors (and Negan’s horrible actions) serve as a connection between them all is a neat dimension that helps to provide some shape to all that we are seeing this season. At seven seasons in, it only makes sense for the writers to be fleshing out some new ideas that can be constructed from established continuity.
So yes, Oceanside is a neat idea, but it’s a shame the place is so dour. Sure, this is The Walking Dead, a show that constantly battles some very nihilistic themes, with occasional flourishes of hope, but Oceanside was full of a lot of very dour ladies. Cyndie and Natania were the ones that stuck out, but it’s due to their interactions with Tara. Cyndie fights the good fight of supporting reason and faith, while Natania is much more cynical about things, with an unrealistic goal of staying isolated. It does enough to give these characters an identity, but it’s hard to say they leave much of an impact beyond being the latest weirdos in this world of zombies.
And will they be heard from again? By the end of the episode, Tara walks back into Alexandria and you have to wonder how much of a difference there would have been if Tara and Heath left and came back, without having to see what transpired in their time off. Clearly the show wants you to feel for these characters enough to devote an episode to them, but is that helpful in a time where we are also supposed to feel urgency for this whole Negan situation?
Again, a trip to Oceanside was not without its merit. Writer David Leslie Johnson actually did well to provide some smart moments such as the conversation between Tara and Natania. Mixing Tara’s humor (fishing boat confusion) with some double-sided talk about whether she would stay (and live) or go (and die) was clever, as was Tara’s realization that she was being walked to her death. The “walking home” montage was a bit much and, with the music, felt like something out of Friday Night Lights, but there was the semblance of feeling like we watched a journey take place.
With an extended runtime, “Swear” certainly did seem like another challenge for the audience to accept. Given a poorer than usual reception to last week’s episode (which I thought had some terrific moments thanks to Xander Berkeley), this week may have had the bad luck to double down on being slower-paced and not all that essential to the main plot of the series. Still, while Oceanside is not the community I found much joy in, it built on some ideas that this season has set up, based on the threat of Negan and the saviors. Tara may not be the go to character for me to be excited about when it comes to practically solo-character-based Walking Dead episodes, but she held her own for the most part. Now we just have to see what’s next for everyone else, which hopefully also means checking in on Ezekiel and his tiger.