[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
There are a few fundamental truths about the world of The Walking Dead that have been well established from the first episode. For one, it’s incredibly difficult; the amount of struggle involved to merely survive is off the charts. Secondly, it’s a pretty depressing place. With the amount of death occurring, even within the confines of a well-oiled machine like the one Rick and his crew have become, it’s a given that most people’s serotonin levels are going to be a tad lower than the average functioning human. Third, strangers are never who they say they are, and they are almost always dangerous. These are aspects of the world everyone knows quite well. So, for an episode to ostensibly burn an hour delving into these elements, just to reach the point where a new, mysterious character can be introduced, feels suspiciously like the series falling back into some bad habits.
Usually, it is the survivors’ discovery of a temporary sanctuary that leaves the show feeling as though it is without the necessary sense of forward momentum. So, in that sense, ‘Them’ does break some new ground, by making the grueling journey to Washington as exhausting to watch, as it likely would be for the characters to undertake. Perhaps that was the point: to make the journey’s difficulties translate from the screen in the form of experience. While it would be impossible to convey the hunger, the pain, and the stifling heat to the audience, the feeling of fatigue is certainly palpable. And with so many characters like Maggie, Sasha, and Daryl understandably caught in a web of grief, the demonstrable nature of it all seems to increase exponentially.
It’s not that what ‘Them’ has to present is uncharacteristic of the series, or doesn’t stand the chance of carrying some dramatic value. It’s that the episode isn’t necessarily present anything The Walking Dead hasn’t given its devoted fan base time and time again: depictions of pain, suffering, and grief. These elements are a part of a series like this, that’s a given. It’s just that, as they’re presented here, the question of “What is the goal?” overwhelms the entire conversation.
And that is despite some dramatically heavy and effective character moments, like Daryl’s solitary smoke that ends in him having a good cry. Norman Reedus is the kind of actor who excels at the kind of stoicism that makes Daryl so appealing in the first place. And even though there have been moments when the emotions have welled up inside him and come bursting out onto the surface, the usual fortitude he displays makes the tears shed for Beth (and Tyreese, and possibly the group’s entire predicament) feel meaningful.
The same goes for the post-tornado conversation Daryl has with Maggie about Beth. In fact, a few words spoken in fond remembrance about the dead carry more weight than the episode’s efforts of blending images of Rick & Co. shambling down a highway with a pack of walkers behind them. The message is clear long before Rick makes it overt: the survivors are the walking dead. The characters might try and say, “We’re not them,” but it’s true.
The problem is: it’s been true for a long time. And for the show to spend an entire hour demonstrating ways in which it is evident, feels more like beating the viewers over the head with a reality they wholeheartedly accepted long ago, than presenting them with some new wrinkle worth this kind of misallocation of time.
Then there’s the tornado saving everyone from a horde of walkers, which will likely get varying mileage depending on how you like your apparent acts of God. The devastation Maggie and Sasha walk through the morning after is impressive, and there’s a sense that the group and the storyline are experiencing the proverbial calm after the storm, but there are still questions about the effectiveness of how well the storm was executed and how well it delivered the episode’s message that “some people don’t give up.”
As an episode, ‘Them’ is clearly a bridge to another storyline that may yield positive results (like the beginning of season 5), or it may devolve into yet another attempt to prove the show’s “every man for himself” ethos. Hopefully, it will prove to be the former, but the arrival of Aaron makes the threat of another all-too-familiar storyline loom far more ominously than the CGI clouds that sent the survivors running for a barn.
There are plenty of questions; like how does Aaron know Rick’s name, where’d they get the water, and why are they so interested in making friends? This is enough to drive interest into the next episode, but like all the characters, that interest will arrive running on fumes. It’s time for The Walking Dead to fuel up and pick up the pace, so it can get back to the entertaining form it had at the beginning of the season.
The Walking Dead will continue next Sunday with ‘The Distance’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC