Tara and Heath on a solo venture wasn't an episode of The Walking Dead that many fans were crying out for, but 'Swear' is an episode borne almost entirely out of necessity – dictated by real-world logistics, not in-series narrative.
First, it has to compensate for Tara's absence from the closing episodes of season six – actress Alanna Masterson had actually fallen pregnant – and second, it has to write out Heath – with Corey Hawkins having since been hired as Kiefer Sutherland's 24 replacement.
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It's sort of remarkable, given all the boxes it has to tick, that the episode holds together as well as it does. But taken on its own merits, 'Swear' isn't entirely satisfying – it has its moments, but ends up frustratingly inconsistent.
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In a deviation from the Walking Dead comic books, the episode introduces us to another new group of survivors – armed to the teeth and all female (nothing to do with gender politics: all of their men were executed, in a typically brutal piece of intimidation by the Saviours).
Taken in by Natania (Deborah May) and her flock, Tara is exposed to an outsider's perspective – and though it's not the first time we've heard such criticism, it's always satisfying to see Rick's group called on their hypocrisy, even if they're not on-screen to hear it.
All right, so Negan might enjoy killing a little too much, but is he really so different from Rick – a man happy to slaughter dozens of Saviours in their sleep? "You didn't have to do that," survivor Cyndie tells Tara. "You just did."
It's a rare treat when The Walking Dead dares to debate who's the real villain: for a show that claims to deal in moral ambiguities, it repeatedly presented Rick as some kind of supreme survivor who's never wrong about anything, his opponents paying the ultimate price for even daring to disagree.
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'Swear' isn't shy when it comes to questioning Rick's tactics, but it also surprises by ultimately landing somewhere optimistic, almost feel-good, with its two leads both displaying acts of pure heroism and kindness.
Early on, Heath seemed defeated by circumstances – adopting a dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed attitude. It even looks as though he'll leave Tara to die... but the denouement reveals he doesn't, and that he may very well have escaped with his life.
What's more, Tara herself refuses to betray Netanya, Cyndie and the rest by exposing their camp and weapons stash – even if it would mean striking a revenge blow against Negan.
All of this is proof that The Walking Dead doesn't have to be visceral and violent all the time, that it does have the potential to be provocative in different ways. But it still needs to do better, because while 'Swear' is sometimes thoughtful and quietly stimulating, at other times it's just plain dull.
This inconsistency isn't a problem that's unique to 'Swear' – it's been The Walking Dead's biggest issue for years now. It's a show that excels at big moments but struggles with long-form storytelling.
Negan's arrival seems only to have exacerbated the problem. He's such an extreme character – bad shit is almost certain to go down any time he's on screen and that's thrilling, but it also means his appearances have to be sporadic. Otherwise, they'd lose their impact and the show would just devolve into an endless stream of violence.
Quiet episodes like this have become a necessity and, when it's at its best – asking big questions about morality and surprising us with the answers – 'Swear' gives us hope that these outings don't have to be big dull duds.
But at its worst – during another monotonous chase sequence, or elongated scenes in which Tara and Heath very slowly hunt for supplies, in silence – this episode appears to confirm our big fear: that the The Walking Dead just doesn't have that much nuance to fall back on when it's not bashing people's heads in.
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