For a moment there — before Carol flicks her last cigarette into the gasoline and sets a band of Saviors alight — I might have described Sunday night's episode of The Walking Dead as "feminist."
The climactic escape of "The Same Boat" works against this label — if memory serves, "Women can be ruthless killers too!" isn't in the Declaration of Sentiments — but the latest installment of The Walking Dead is nonetheless fascinating in its strict focus on the show's women. The only man in sight for much of the hour is a misogynist Savior named Donny, rendered impotent by his limp, uh, arm.
The episode signals its interest in women's points of view from the opening minutes, as Paula, the leader of the group holding Carol and Maggie hostage, peers through her binoculars at Rick Grimes and the gang from the woods beyond the Saviors' compound. In the context of a series that can read, visually speaking, as The Young and the Zombiefied, this revisiting and re-engineering of last week's final sequence — seen here from the other side of the short-wave radio — emphasizes the change of perspective. So does the ingenious montage of Carol and Maggie being transported to the Saviors' slaughterhouse/safe house, each image largely obscured by the coats pulled over their heads.
When the covers come off, Carol and Maggie are bound and gagged in a grim room near "the kill floor." It eventually becomes clear that the former's "hyperventilation" is just the beginning of a brilliant long con designed to get the drop on the Saviors, but even for an episode this blunt in its thematic thrust — "You should be glad she didn't have a sack of gonads to trip over," one of the Saviors chides Donny when he questions Paula's decision-making — it's hard to buy Carol openly spilling the news of Maggie's pregnancy. Why would Carol, as calculating as she is, accept the additional risk to Maggie and her unborn child by bringing attention to it? The swing the youngest of the Saviors takes at Maggie's abdomen later on confirms that the danger of revealing any actual vulnerability is frighteningly real.
Still, this juicy morsel of information sets up the running conversation at the center of "The Same Boat," in which the central issue is womanhood itself. Though the episode cannily refuses to treat women's experiences as universal — when Carol, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, attempts to forge a connection with Paula after Donny's violent outburst, the redheaded Savior cuts her off with a snarl — what the characters share, across the factional divide, is their gender. Maggie refers to joining the generations of women for whom childbirth was a perilous endeavor. It's only later that she discovers that one of her captors suffered her own miscarriage. By the time Paula remembers her life "before" — as a secretary tasked with making her boss "feel good about himself" — "The Same Boat" emerges as an acrid comment on our own state of affairs. "I lost everything, but it made me stronger," Paula confesses, a declaration of sentiments Carol herself might recognize. For them, at least, the end of a world dominated by men required the end of the world, full stop.
But The Walking Dead prefers not to pursue this line of thought to its conclusion. With the final act, the episode shifts back into high action, culminating in Paula's brutal death — impaled on a spike, her face consumed by a walker — and a fiery assault on the Saviors' backup. The only mercy shown to Paula is the knife Maggie plunges into her undead skull.
As if to jam a stopper in this surprising, female-centric bottle episode, Rick and company reappear in the final moments, dispatching their own hostage — a Savior who identifies himself as Negan — with a bullet to the head, while Carol and Maggie, shaken, seem to swear off further adventures abroad. The men remain in charge as total war between the two groups looms.
As The Walking Dead overtly started earlier this season, this is "the next world," not a new one — an evolution, not a revolution, in the society that came before.