Review: The Walking Dead 8×12, “The Key”

Aaron Neuwirth reviews The Walking Dead season eight, episode twelve, "The Key," where Negan finds himself in a sticky situation.

I used to wonder now and again if The Walking Dead was going to really go for it on a given week, and provide a completely random death of a substantial character to spice things up. It used to happen a lot, early in the show’s run. These days we rarely see it, which is strange, since we are watching a war play out in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. When we do see it, it’s a prolonged affair that doesn’t tend to work all that well. “The Key” was not necessarily an episode in need of a significant death, and while I didn’t think Rick was really about to kill off Negan, I did wonder if Simon was suddenly going to get capped.

Apparently, there is an arc being established as far as the fall of the Saviors, because, let’s face it, Rick has to win this war eventually. But where could things go from there? The Walking Dead can only go so long with new big bads to deal with, and it seems like we are moving towards a Negan/Simon showdown to help balance the eventual Rick and the Gang vs. The Saviors final battle. Since Negan is beloved by (far too) many people and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is having a ball with the inconsistent brute, I don’t quite expect him to go away quietly.

Meanwhile, despite being a favorite, Steven Ogg’s Simon is chaos without the justification. He gets a chance to expand upon himself to Dwight this week, but it seems more like groundwork being laid to show why this guy is the more disastrous person to have to watch out for. Establishing this dynamic mean the show can find a way to build to some satisfying closure if it means getting to keep Negan for a little while longer, at the very least. Of course, saying all this once again threw me through a loop this week, as I was also wondering if all of Simon’s speechifying was going to abruptly end with the sudden return of Negan to his Saviors.

Negan’s fight for survival was surprisingly the main story we followed this week. Rick was not able to contain his anger, so instead of following his plan to scout with the other Hilltoppers and friends, he engages Negan in a car chase. While we were denied seeing that chase in full, it did lead to the two alpha males shacked up in a dark building, yelling at each other during a game of cat and mouse. Rick’s goal, of course, is to kill Negan and make him feel bad in the process. Negan’s goal, of course, is to find Lucille and keep her safe.

For all the issues I have with Negan and the Saviors, I will say Morgan has done his best as of late with what’s been offered to him as far as how to play Negan. There’s a consistency to latch onto as far as how Negan’s bravado carries him and matches the intensity he is supposed to bring. Perhaps it’s seeing him deal with a loss of control of his ranks as well as the stress of Rick getting to him, but it has paved the way for a better lead villain. Still, I also wouldn’t have minded Rick bashing Negan’s skull in with a flaming Lucille and then spending the rest of the season worried about Simon. Now that would be a twist, but things are as they are.

So Negan manages to escape Rick’s wrath this week, only to wind up in the clutches of a most-likely very pissed off Jadis. I’m not sure where that’s going exactly, but we still have Simon reassuring everyone that they are all Negan. It comes after a few chunks of this episode spent watching him and Dwight discuss the nature of Negan’s rule. What works here is seeing Simon recognize the level of doubt in someone he doesn’t know is a traitor already. It’s light dramatic irony, but a neat position for both characters. Plus, the potential for Dwight’s relationship with the current leader of the Saviors will undoubtedly have some great benefit for Rick and the Gang, if he ever has a chance to go back out “scouting.”

And, of course, this was not enough plot for “The Key,” as we still have the key in question to discuss. For this, the episode made sure to keep us involved with the women of The Walking Dead. An anonymous message leads to Maggie, Michonne, Rosita and Enid heading out to some coordinates and meeting a new group of ladies. They offer knowledge in exchange for some records, which is the weirdest damn deal this show could have presented. That said, even if I rolled my eyes at the show’s ensemble cast becoming even more massive at this stage of the season, it had its benefits.

The main one was seeing Michonne have something useful to do, beyond being a badass warrior. Not settling to be talked down by silly Enid, she stood her ground and made a point of explaining the necessity of thinking and considering true exchanges, as opposed to keeping up a hostile opposition at all times. This turned out to be the right decision, as the new ladies led by Georgie chose to give some of their food to the Hilltop. The knowledge passed along in return was a book containing all sorts of information of how to rebuild society in the absence of advanced technology to help. I don’t know if Georgie, Hilda, and Midge are coming back anytime soon, but hey, fun diversion.

I could almost say “The Key” does a decent job of feeling like another standalone episode of sorts. It is obviously dealing with the Negan/Rick drama head on, but there’s something about their isolation that provides the episode a good backbone with a beginning, middle, and end that’s entertaining enough to watch on its own. Meanwhile, we get good Simon material to watch and a solid subplot with new characters that were not too painful to deal with. That counts as a win in The Walking Dead book, as the show decided to dial back the stylized (and overreaching) aspects to tell a decent story this week. That can go a long way when it comes to finding the key to a good episode.

Dead Bits:

  • Zombie Kill of the Week: Negan got some good killstreaks going with flaming Lucille to earn top honors this week.
  • This is one of those episodes that starts off in a way to alert you how bad of a choice it would be to eat during this episode.
  • Daryl apologizes for being an asshole from a few episodes back. Good for Daryl.
  • Saviors surprisingly don’t have any trust issues.
  • You think Negan would have honored his deal for Rick?
  • No more fancy car for Negan.
  • Simon’s plan includes Expunging, Redacting, and Erasing the Hilltop.
  • Thanks for reading and feel free to hear what me and a few other fans of the show have to say about the series on The Walking Dead TV Podcast.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks,, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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