There are spoilers ahead for this week’s review of The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead’s latest antagonist, Toby Carlson, is in the running as one of the show’s most despicable villains. With an insatiable bloodlust against enemies of the Commonwealth and a touch of melodrama, Jason Butler Harner’s performance is the key highlight from this week’s episode. “Warlords” holds a lot of promise from the beginning, and it delivers on all counts. We have shock twists, gruesome deaths, and at its core, a twisted psychopath for a villain to rival The Governor and Negan in his heyday. For the sake of context, this review will start at the beginning. At the Hilltop, love is in the air for Elijah and Lydia, daughter to leader of the Whisperers, Alpha. Even in the apocalypse, cupid finds a way to put people together.
With Lydia departing for the Commonwealth, Elijah makes his move before she leaves. He offers to escort her to the Commonwealth checkpoint before a man on a horse, badly injured, rides up to the Hilltop gates. This is Jesse, a Commonwealth resident, as we learn later. He hands them a map and dies from his injuries. Lydia persuades Maggie to join them as they head for the location on the map. This is a considerably risky move for the Hilltop. The settlement is vulnerable despite support from the Commonwealth.
Needless to say, Maggie joins Lydia and Elijah on a road trip to the location Jesse provided. On the drive, Lydia asks Maggie why she refused the Commonwealth’s offer to join them, in which Maggie recounts a story from her past. The Greene family had declined the resources and generosity of developers on Hershel’s farm many years earlier. In doing so, the developers would realise the family could not depend without them. Her reasoning is confusing. Maggie is content with raising her son at the Hilltop, the scene of a devastating Whisperer invasion one season earlier. The Commonwealth, on the other hand, is a walled, highly fortified settlement with a massive military presence. Ignoring the politics and class divides within the community, the Commonwealth is an ideal place to raise her son and provide him with a stable, happy life.
Lydia disagrees with Maggie and affirms that she would be happier at the Commonwealth, wishing for normality. She simply wants to wake up each day safe from what lies beyond their walls. This is not something she can find with the Hilltop. She further tells Maggie that it was not her choice to decide for the Hilltop and feels it should be their choice to join the Commonwealth These fraught moments are interrupted by the discovery of three turned Commonwealth soldiers right before Aaron runs toward them, waving, and exhausted.
Then we cut to one week earlier. Yes, it’s that type of episode. Aaron and Gabriel join a Commonwealth convoy to meet with a religious group to offer them membership with the Commonwealth, or so they believe. We meet Toby Carlson and Jesse (the injured man on the horse from Hilltop), a plucky sweet-hearted kid you should not root for. It’s always the plucky sweet-hearted ones that bite the dust too early.
Outside the survivor’s complex, we meet Toby Carlson for the first time. He’s highly excitable and a tad crazy. He instructs Aaron and Gabriel to join him and Jesse as they approach the complex without any armed backup. It’s highly reckless, and both Aaron and Gabriel voice their concerns. Carlson tells them there is no other way. After surrendering their weapons, they enter the complex and meet the leader of the cult Ian, a hot-headed leader with striking similarities to Pope, the former Reaper leader.
Despite Michael Biehn’s demented performance, Ian will not be sticking about for long. Echoing the Highwaymen from Season 9 and Maggie’s Meridian entourage in Season 11’s third episode, the cult is destined to die. Their deaths are a means to demonstrate how despicable the antagonist can be. In this case, Toby. In the meeting, Aaron gives Ian the pitch for the Commonwealth.
He presents him with images of the Commonwealth taken on an iPhone 5 (they still work decades later into the apocalypse). He explains that while there is a rigorous vetting process, they could have a future with the community. Ian suspects Aaron and his group are cannibals attempting to lure them into a trap, and negotiations fall flat. Aaron successfully recovers the situation right before Toby goes berserk. The ex-CIA man guns down Ian and other cult members in the room, leaving Aaron and Gabriel shocked.
In a flashback, Toby meets with Lance. This scene drip-feeds us information into Toby’s past. He was a top recruiter for the Commonwealth with ties to the CIA. He played an integral role in the beginning, responsible for rooting out those disloyal to the community. However, those days are long behind him, and Toby Carlson lives peacefully within the Commonwealth. He has zen and peace, and he needs no more. This is until the snivelling Lance Hornsby threatens to take it all away, and Carlson changes his mind rather too quickly.
His task is to retrieve a cache of weapons stolen after a Commonwealth convoy to a survivor complex in Virginia was ambushed. Scouts were subsequently sent out to discover the complex, home to a large religious group of survivors. All caught up. Lance requires a surgical solution to the problem, and Pamela would notice if an army stormed the complex. In the present day, Toby kills Ian and bizarrely begins to kick him for no logical reason, further demonstrating how truly unhinged Toby has become.
Gabriel intervenes, and Toby has him restrained. Outside, Jesse flees on a horse and is shot by a Commonwealth soldier. Aaron kills the soldier and prepares to fight Toby before more soldiers arrive, and Aaron flees. This brings him back to Maggie. However, it remains unclear as to who provided Jesse with the map. It’s revealed that Negan gave Jesse the map and instructed him to reach Maggie at the Hilltop for help.
The former Savior leader abandoned Maggie in “No Other Way” and has since joined the cult. In the episode’s darkest moment, Toby mercilessly pushes cult members from the roof as he demands the weapons back. Negan and his partner Annie, Gabriel, and other members of the cult, are trapped in the complex. Their fight is far from over after Annie rouses them with an empowering speech to defend their community. At the same time, Maggie, Elijah, Lydia, and Aaron infiltrate the complex, evading Toby’s militia to find Gabriel and save the cult.
To conclude this review, “Warlords” fully realises the dark side of the Commonwealth with devastating results, courtesy of Jason Butler Harner’s sadistic performance as Toby Carlson. Michael Biehn’s tempered performance as cult leader Ian felt strangely like a throwback to Pope, the former Reaper leader. Maggie’s motivations to remain at the Hilltop felt slightly contradictory to her character. Lydia and Elijah’s romance subplot was surprising, but Negan’s return was not.
For more The Walking Dead content, check out last week’s review for “The Lucky Ones”. What do you think of the eleventh season of The Walking Dead at this stage? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!