[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 14. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is an interesting contrast going on in 'Spend' that, even though the episode feels too scattered at times, justifies what The Walking Dead has been doing with the Alexandria setting, and makes it feel far more noteworthy than any other time Rick and his crew have managed to find a place to stop and catch their breath. It aims to explore the difference between the relatively peaceful haven that is the community of Alexandria and rest of the world, while at the same time, developing a contrast between the Alexandrians and the members of Rick's group.
And for the most part, the episode makes a point of demonstrating that contrast by cutting back and forth between the relative banality of Rick investigating a smashed owl sculpture in Jessie's garage, and the much higher stakes of Glenn leading a group to find some parts necessary for keeping Alexandria's power grid running. Of course, as the episode goes on, it soon becomes clear that both situations are far worse than anyone could have imagined, and that getting through them will come at a high cost.
The cost, of course, has to do with the two zombie-filled set pieces, both of which end in the prolonged, agonizing deaths of Aidan and Noah. It probably isn't, but it feels like it has been a while since the series has let the camera linger on the body of a still-living character while he is being ripped apart by a group of walkers, and the reasons for it here didn't necessarily feel arbitrary. Instead, it's almost as if the show is seeking to balance out the relative safety of Alexandria by making the consequences of venturing outside the community's well-engineered walls that much more dire.
But since the series has killed off so many characters before, it couldn't simply cut away when Aidan was swarmed or when Noah was pulled from the revolving door. Death is already a staple on the series that has a tendency to fall flat, even when it focuses on the loss of a likeable character. So, in order to make the cost of the new environment resonate, 'Spend' made the choice to linger on their demises, to force the audience to watch, as it would force Glenn to watch Noah's final moments.
It feels like there's something significant that The Walking Dead wants to get out of these moments that tie into what Father Gabriel tells to Deanna at the end of the episode. It's as though there is some sort of equilibrium that needs to be reset with regard to what Rick, Carol, and Daryl have tentatively discussed and what they've been offered in terms of sanctuary.
And for the most part, 'Spend' manages to sell the idea fairly well. It might have been able to sell it even better, had the episode not bounced around between so many different characters. But that's a problem with a show that has a cast this size. When it brings in characters who haven't had any sort of impact on the narrative for weeks, characters like, the aforementioned Father Gabriel, Eugene, and Abraham, their character moments tend to offer up something of a mixed bag.
Thankfully, the audience is well acquainted with Abraham and Eugene. Both men have been the focus of their own episodes, and they have something resembling an arc that makes it a little easier to slip them into a story line and have it click. Eugene's thread, for example, was practically announced. That conversation with Tara about being a coward was about as subtle as Noah's discussion with Deanna's husband about sticking around for the long haul. As it became painfully obvious that Noah would be leaving the show, it was equally apparent that Eugene would be forced to overcome his cowardice.
Abraham and Gabriel's threads were a little less defined, for good and for bad. After last week's admission to Michonne that not having any fight left to fight can difficult to transition out of, seeing the character find his place among the construction crew felt like a good fit, and the fact that it filled Deanna with a kind of dread that Rick's people were gaining too much authority too quickly helped to justify its addition.
Gabriel, however – given that the character had all but disappeared for several weeks – came off as little more than an excitable lunatic. It's clear that that is where the show is taking the character, but the abruptness of his entry into Deanna's home and the bluntness of his speech, robbed the moment of nearly all its suspense. It turned what would have been a surprise betrayal into a plot point that could have been delivered by anyone. Perhaps if the show had given us more of how Gabriel fit into the community (aside from him tearing out pages from the bible), the reversal might have resonated more.
But all of this is leading to conflict within the walls of Alexandria. And that conflict looks like it's going to happen from the personal level on up. Between Carol being reminded of her past experience with abuse, by recognizing its signs in Pete's relationship with Jessie and Sam, and what will undoubtedly be the trouble arising from Deanna's loss of Aidan, there's a storm brewing in the sanctuary.
That puts The Walking Dead in a unique, somewhat confounding position. The show has struggled with keeping its narrative moving in the past, and it's clear that sweeping through the Alexandria storyline will prevent it from becoming stagnant, but moving too fast might jeopardize some of the solid work that is currently being done. Let's hope the series finds a way to push forward without leaving all of the good stuff behind.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Try' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC