SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for tonight’s episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” “Swear.”
While “Swear” is far from being a bad episode of “The Walking Dead,” it should feel like a bigger deal than it actually is. That’s because, for the first time in the show’s history (or at least I think so), it reveals something before the comic does. Although the community of Oceanside has been mentioned in the Image series and we’ve met a few of its citizens in passing, we’ve never actually gotten to see the place. Beyond it being close to the ocean, connected to the other communities via waterways, and Michonne having spent some time there, readers don’t know that much about it.
In tonight’s episode though, we get to see how the community operates through Tara, who discovers Oceanside while still on her supply run with Heath. It turns out that one can only access it by a bridge that’s barricaded by huge piles of sand. When the two Alexandrians sift through the grains, they unearth a horde of sun-dried walkers. The sequence of them being swarmed recalls some of the best parts of Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2” — the zombies rendered all the more frightening after being worn down by sand and heat, then marching across a bridge.
But once Tara gets captured by the Oceansiders after getting separated from Heath (whose fate remains unknown), the episode starts to lose steam. Part of this has to do with Tara not being a compelling enough character to carry an entire episode by herself. That’s not a knock against Alanna Masterson, who’s perfected the art of solid understatement; it’s just that her backstory, combat skills, and general arc don’t hold a candle to folks like Carol, Morgan, and Michonne. Straightforward, less complicated characters are essential to the narrative, but it doesn’t mean a whole hour centered around them is going to be especially exciting.
Also, the central moral dilemma relates to one of the characters we’ve just met, and it’s the to-kill-or-not-to-kill question we’ve seen too much before. This time, it’s experienced by Cindie (Sydney Park), one of the Oceansiders who befriends Tara. There’s a rule in the community that no outsiders are allowed, which means Tara has to assimilate to their way of life if she wants to survive. Otherwise, she gets murdered, as in their eyes, her leaving becomes a liability. Cindie naturally has a hard time with this, given that she and Tara have bonded so closely. Although it’s a logical dilemma, it’s not exactly unconventional in the world of “The Walking Dead”. When she ends up saving Tara from the others while making her promise not to tell anyone about Oceanside, it feels like more of a delayed yet expected reaction rather than a surprise.
Then there’s the problem of Oceanside itself. The overly primitive lifestyle comes off as goofy at times — the forest-dwelling a little too reminiscent of Ewoks or the Swiss Family Robinson. As interesting as the community’s background is (all females who have escaped from The Saviors), it gets old watching these brand-new characters traipse among the trees and squabble among themselves for the bulk of the episode.
Unsurprisingly, the most interesting arc comes from the character we already know: Tara, who still manages to fulfill her promise of keeping their group a secret, even after she’s been hunted by them and — upon returning to Alexandria — discovered that Denise — and probably Glenn and Abraham as well — is dead. It’s a tiny moral victory that, along with the bookending bridge sequences, proves that it’s what happens outside of Oceanside — not necessarily in Oceanside — that makes “Swear” work. If the community’s slated to come back in future episodes, it might need to break its rule and become more integrated with the rest of the outside world if it’s ever going to truly fit into “The Walking Dead” universe.