[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 11. There will be SPOILERS.]

There was a tremendous sense of familiarity clinging to the arrival of Aaron at the end of last week’s episode. Sure, he’s a new character that no one has seen before, but his clean look and seemingly benign demeanor did little more than set off all of The Walking Dead “stranger danger” alarms. And so it was no surprise that after Maggie and Sasha came waltzing back into the miracle barn after spending all of the previous week wondering whether or not there any point in continuing their trek to Washington, D.C., Rick greeted the newcomer with his well-earned sense of paranoia.

But even though Aaron brought with him echoes of the Governor and Gareth, the second he walked into the barn (and was subsequently punched in face by Rick), the second half of the season suddenly began to feel like it had some energy again. It didn’t match the energy of the episodes from before the hiatus, but it was most definitely a marked improvement over the first two episodes of this year.

Aaron offers an intriguing combination of things the show needs in order to be something more than a one-note series: hope and conflict. The trouble is the show also needs to constantly shuffle those elements in increasingly original ways in order to sustain itself. And to its credit, ‘The Distance’ succeeds in exploring how those elements can impact the group differently. This time out, what Aaron is offering sets into motion an interesting dynamic between Rick and Michonne, where Rick’s paranoia and willfulness butts heads with Michonne’s understanding of what’s at stake for the group – and how badly the other survivors need the faintest glimmer of hope that there can be a sanctuary out there not run by a despotic psychopath (or a group of fine young cannibals).

Alexandria, then (or the promise of Alexandria), becomes the main source of conflict for the episode, and that conflict generates all the heat that was sorely lacking from the last two weeks – especially in ‘Them‘. While it’s understandable that the survivors would be stricken with depression and world-weariness from time to time, that doesn’t necessarily mean such a broad, across-the-board depiction of such emotional lows make for compelling television. And it certainly doesn’t make for enticing viewing in the hands of The Walking Dead when there’s nothing on tap to help balance it out. So, rather than spend another hour wandering around, wondering why they keep on keeping on, the notion of confirming Aaron’s story (and possibly learning to trust him) produces some interesting discussions – and opens the door for a few exciting set pieces, like Glenn putting the “car” in zombie carnage.

Michael Cudlitz in The Walking Dead Season 5 Episode 11 The Walking Dead: The Audition Process


But in terms of non-walker-related intrigue, ‘The Distance’ successfully uses Michonne’s hopefulness as a potent counter to Rick’s willful suspicion. At the same time, it turns Aaron into an actual character with some depth, by introducing his boyfriend Eric, and allowing for the two to have some level of meaningful personal interaction that doesn’t directly involve any of the other survivors.

So far, season 5 has shown a willingness to explore the virtues and obstacles that come from the new and improved Reasonable Rick. Whereas previous seasons might have milked his unwillingness to venture forth and explore a place like Alexandria for several episodes, ‘The Distance’ manages showcase the character’s anxiety and (well earned) tendency to view every newcomer as a threat, without letting it derail the narrative’s progression. While Michonne and the others verify Aaron’s claims, Rick gets to know the new guest, and learns about his distaste for applesauce. It’s a relatively small moment and even smaller character detail, but the interplay between the two rounds Aaron out a little bit; at the same time, it underlines the depths of Rick’s suspicions, allowing his acquiescence to the groups’ wants to carry more weight.

There is even a nice moment between Rick and Michonne about when it’s time to let the fight go, while Glenn and Abraham fix the RV. There’s an interesting balance of survival horror conventions going on, as the group had just made its way through a harrowing night filled with a highway full of walkers, to be treated to the sight of Washington, D.C., only to have the RV’s battery crap out. The swiftness with which Glenn remedies the situation undercuts some of the superficial tension, while putting the spotlight on what Michonne is saying. Her explanation that the line of hopelessness and paranoia needs to be drawn somewhere, even in a deeply paranoid and seemingly hopeless world, is far more potent than last week’s monotonous focus on the dismal state of things.

While the state of things seems to be improving, there is cause for concern in terms of the storyline. The Walking Dead has historically come up short when the group is in a fixed location for any stretch of time. If Alexandria does promise the kind of peaceful sanctuary they’ve been looking for, then the show may be in for a trying time, a time that will have to avoid the pitfalls of Hershel’s farm and the prison. Then again, it will also be tested when their time at the sanctuary inevitably comes to an end.

It’s all part of the cyclical nature of the series, but hopefully the improvements that have been on display early on in season 5 will produce some compelling stories that prove the series can explore other, maybe even familiar avenues, in more gripping fashion.

The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with ‘Remember’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:

Photos: Gene Page/AMC