The showrunners of The Walking Dead have a pretty impressive track record when it comes to building barn-storming mid-season finales. Writers, directors and producers have long tuned in to the importance of merging ‘intense peril’, big set-pieces, unexpected twists and an edge-of-the-abyss cliffhanger. Series Eleven’s first endpoint For Blood delivers on all of these requirements, in what’s far and away the best episode of the show’s swansong season to date.
The key confrontations that unfold in For Blood are ones that have their roots in the season’s two-part opener Acheron. With Alexandria on the verge of collapse, due to its insecure perimeter and lack of supplies, Maggie had proposed a high-stakes mission that would travel to the settlement of Meridian to evict the Reapers who had overrun the community and who are hoarding its vital supplies. Everything up to this point has flowed from that fateful decision: including the disintegration of Maggie’s group and the death of so many of its members; Daryl's capture by Pope’s Reapers and his reunion with Leah; and Maggie’s adoption of the Whisperers' methods in an attempt to amass an army and rebalance unfavourable odds.
What makes this episode all the more disturbing is that Aaron’s concerns about the vulnerability of Alexandria are proved to be prescient. A massive storm lashes the settlement and tears apart sections of the wall, allowing walkers to swarm in. Carol, Aaron and the others head out to make essential repairs, leaving Virgil, Rosita, Judith and the kids to take responsibility for the defence of the main building as countless undead close in.
As the action switches between the two settings, there’s little let-up in the action or the tension. The assault on the Reapers’ compound, and Pope’s response to the threat generates some of the episode's most thrilling sequences. That’s in part because of the sense of genuine danger that those adopting Whisperer-style deception face as the explosions begin. The action at Alexandria is almost as exciting, as the dead attempt to breach the inner sanctum of the community while the group’s best fighters are committed to the repair and defence of the perimeter. Time and again, the series has shown its willingness to kill off long-standing and much-loved characters - a commitment that gives the combat sequences a sense that terrible outcomes are more than possible.
The well-planned assault on the Reaper compound shows how far Maggie’s skills as a battlefield commander have developed in the years since Glen’s demise back in Season Seven. Now left with few combatants at her disposal, her plan makes the most of subterfuge, misdirection and secret incursions. With Daryl able to discern at least some of Maggie’s intentions, he’s able to assist their efforts whilst hiding his true loyalties from his fellow Reapers for as long as he dares.
The attack on Meridian exposes the full extent of Pope’s twisted, callous and contemptuous mindset. His willingness to sacrifice anything and anyone in the attempt to destroy those he considers his enemies finally alienates even those closest to him. When Daryl decides that it’s time to reveal his intentions, the outcome is not the one he expects. What’s so good about the way that the mayhem at Meridian plays out is that the narrative shocks that it delivers feel anything but arbitrary. From Maggie’s unswerving conviction, through Pope’s implacability to Leah’s distorted and damaged sense of self, the episode delivers a series of character pay-offs that feel as though they have been properly prepared for and threaded into the fabric of the season.
The zombie siege at Alexandria is not quite as unexpected in nature as the carnage at Meridian, but it is equally heart-pounding stuff. Stitched into the story of shattering windows and buckling door frames are some great character beats. Virgil and Judith share an important moment of connection, while Rosita demonstrates a level of bravery and selflessness that feels cathartic and transformative.
There’s been attention paid in earlier episodes to Judith’s growing abilities as a mentor and organiser amongst her peers, a youngster determined to make her absent surrogate mother proud. That effort makes Judith’s actions to protect the terrified children at Alexandria seem much more plausible, as the episode ratchets up the horror to end with twin edge-of-the-seat finales in both locations. Scriptwriter Erik Mountain gives those critically important character beats sufficient space amidst the intensity of the action; while director Sharat Raju helms the one-on-one fight sequences and the pitched battles scenes with evident relish.
The first third of The Walking Dead’s final season has been consistently entertaining and intriguing, with a quality on a par with the show’s strongest eras. This closing episode does not advance the deepening mysteries of the Commonwealth (although that’s something certain to come to the fore when the series returns in 2022). But accepting that one caveat, For Blood exudes a confidence, an inventiveness and a commitment to delivering pay-offs of substance and impact that most showrunners faced with the task of crafting an eleventh season story arc would envy.
New episodes of THE WALKING DEAD - SEASON 11 premiere Mondays in the UK on DISNEY+/STAR
Read our previous reviews of THE WALKING DEAD below: