‘The Walking Dead’ Season 11: Cliffhangers and Claustrophobia Mark Unexplored Territory

It looks like it will be a long, drawn-out demise as “The Walking Dead” takes its last steps. Season 11 will be a bit longer than the regular seasons, which have already been pushing envelopes, allowing the cast to bleed out with excruciating detail. There are worse ways to go. Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan) details a particularly horrible scenario she witnessed while alone with her son Hershel (Kien Michael Spiller) in the zombie wilderness. She says she feels nothing in telling the story, that something inside died upon surviving. But her steely gaze betrays her as every word is reflected in it. 

The landscape has changed drastically over the time “The Walking Dead” has been stumbling along. There was a time when some people thought it was Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) world and everyone else was just looking for shoes. That has now shifted to Maggie, who is leading a splinter group on a suicide mission. This isn’t to say Negan has gone soft. He still asserts himself as the alpha male who Beta’d Alpha. But he’s not his old self.

It’s amazing how much Negan has grown, as a character and as a comrade-in-arms, with arms. He’s both passive and passive-aggressive, which admittedly is a little annoying most of the time. He likes to both play the victim and remind the others of his past contributions. But that’s to compensate for the toll he’s taken. He is fully passive in his most highlighted battle. He doesn’t lift a finger. There’s a big difference between killing someone and standing by idly while someone else is getting killed. That comes up a few times in the episode, so it’s not all on Negan.

The season opens in the middle of the action, surviving a food mission. The group looks like they’ve taken lessons from heist films, as they set up their winches, hooks and reels, occasionally getting caught, diabolically running fraught while walkers wake up all around them. But when they get back to Alexandria, they realize they haven’t brought back nearly enough. Maggie proposes returning to her old settlement, retaking it from the Reapers, the group which slaughtered her people in the dark, and bringing provisions back to Alexandria.

Carole (Melissa McBride) pegs the trek a bad idea and sits it out, putting more space between herself and Daryl (Norman Reedus). He’s got Dog to worry about, and it’s funny how he shares more conversational moments with his four-legged buddy than almost anyone with a warm nose. If anything happens to that dog, someone is going to pay, and it won’t have to come from Daryl’s hand. It will be from fans of the dog, whose emotional arc has been tugged as well as any minor character. 

Alden (Callan McAuliffe) is always a reassuring presence. He’s not always effective, and really too short to box with god, much less Negan. But he’s got the most heart of the straphanger crew. He hasn’t lost his humanity, and when he stands up to Maggie, he is not only justified, he speaks for every choice ever made by all the communities, and fights it out as well as he could, completely ineffectively. Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), the former priest now stabbing temples for salvation, is somehow less soulful now. He always was a pragmatist, but now it’s his true calling. Cole (James Devoti) and Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari), the samurai swordsmith who came along with Maggie and still won’t take off his mask, are also taking the third rail local.

“Acheron: Part 1” and “Acheron: Part 2” were directed by Kevin Dowling, and written by writer-producer Jim Barnes and showrunner Angela Kang. The title refers to the “river of woe,” one of five rivers coursing through the underworld in Greek mythology. In these episodes, the underworld is the Washington, DC, subway system, and the river is the terrible drainage system of the city. As Negan, the group’s reluctant tour guide explains, the visible water lines in the tunnels mean there is a flooding problem. And the group came here to get out of the rain. 

These sequences are, by necessity, extremely claustrophobic, and the darkened settings add so much ambiguity to the action. Whether clearing zombies out of abandoned buildings or battling breathing combatants, you never know who is getting clipped or bit. “The Walking Dead” has been consistent in presenting false dangers masquerading as fronts for true suspense. 

Meanwhile, just outside the Commonwealth, things are open and airy. They even have toilet paper, which is extremely exciting considering Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) and Princess (Paola Lazaro) are being held in cages, awaiting processing. Eugene gets in the best line of either of the two opening episodes, asking if they are being processed bureaucratically, or as deli meat.

The Commonwealth is full of unexpected surprises. One in particular involving Yumiko, comes completely out of left field. She may have been a lawyer in the past, cold and analytical, but Princess is the one with powers of observation usually reserved for card counters at casinos. She pegs two guards as slipping away for sex, while her companions can’t tell one Storm Trooper uniform from another. Ezekiel loses points for misreading the orange-suited Mercer as a beat cop, but Princess leads the pack into a belief-stretching sequence, which is an almost unforgivable sin on a show which takes their short cuts seriously.

We get nothing between Princess’s observation and the quartet sneaking out as prisoners being escorted through the hallways by faceless guards. No explanation, no exposition, not a clue as to how the gambit is pulled. It just happens, like this is an episode of “Scooby Doo,” when the writers don’t have time to go through the steps. There is even an exchange, which goes far too easily. For this alone, it is better they return to face questioning from the obsessively compulsive pen pushing panel determining their worthiness. You’ll note, Eugene’s roughly carved self-defense shiv resembles a sharpened pencil. He’s a rebel with a clue, and a knack for the traditional. 

“The ending cliffhanger of “Acheron: Part 1,” is one of the most effective, perilous and suspenseful “The Walking Dead” has pulled off in a while, and the show is known for them. But don’t worry, of course, it turns out in the worst possible way. The most horrid suspicion you have of one of the characters is confirmed. The surprise ending of “Acheron: Part 2,” ups the ante, but not the suspense. The final season promises to be a treacherous tiptoe through rotting lips and gnashing teeth. Oh, and the zombies in the next car.

The Walking Dead” season 11 premieres Aug. 19 on AMC+ and Aug. 22 on AMC with new episodes airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC and AMC+.