[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 6, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Watching the opening sequence to 'Now,' it's difficult not to see Rick and his merry band of survivors as equal parts savior and violently destructive force – at least from the perspective of the Alexandrians. They're not quite the ants that ruined the picnic – that would describe the zombies now milling around outside the town's walls – but as The Walking Dead presents the scenario, with Rick running back to the community's front gate, a herd of hungry walkers shuffling behind him, it looks remarkably like inviting Rick to the picnic was a bad idea.
Rick's potential status as the would-be destroyer of everything that he touches doesn't stop the series from doing whatever it can to remind everyone what a hero Rick is. After he literally brought the moaning horrors of the outside world to Alexandria's doorstep, others speak up in his defense. Aaron falls on his sword in a way, taking blame for the Wolves crashing the party, and then does his level best to convince everyone things could be far, far worse. That's the advantage of living in the sort of post-apocalyptic landscape the show depicts week after week: no matter how bad things get, someone can say, "It could be worse," and most of the time that person would be right.
The thing is, as Deanna says, Rick probably is exactly what Alexandria needs in order to survive in the long term – provided they can survive him, of course. The rotting herd of used-to-be people surrounding their walls probably would have arrived on its own, and in far greater numbers had Rick not organized the First Annual Walker Marathon. Nevertheless, the sight of so many zombies is, for many of Alexandria's residents, confirmation that the world really had come to an end. And in The Walking Dead's typically bleak worldview, opening people's eyes to the harsh realities of the "real world" is what earns one humanitarian status.
Although it is a slight and somewhat disappointing episode – especially following in the footsteps of last week's terrific 'Here's Not Here' – what makes 'Now' stand on its own is the way it illustrates how the series has learned to temper its grim depiction of survival at any cost by offering its characters a reason to want to survive. And for the show to do that against the backdrop of a community that has largely been isolated from the worst of the apocalypse is another indication it is, under the guidance of Scott Gimple, shedding the worst of its bad habits.
While it can sometimes be necessary, an episode like 'Now' isn't really the strong suit of The Walking Dead – which explains why the hour feels mostly like it's just waiting to be over. That's because it is mainly comprised of dialogue-heavy moments like Deanna telling Rick Alexandria needs him as their leader, Spencer (Austin Nichols) drunkenly berating his mother after raiding the community pantry, or Jessie telling everyone they have to fight. The purpose of these scenes is clear: to inform the audience just how ill prepared the people of Alexandria are for the what's coming, but they don't necessarily add anything to that idea other than what the audience already knows. What's worse, these moments do nothing to make the audience care about this enclave of survivors, which is going to be a problem when things inevitably go bad for them.
Thankfully, the deliberateness of the dialogue in these moments and the unpleasantness of people like Spencer wind up being undercut by actors like Ross Marquand and the great Merritt Wever, who at least manage to make their scenes feel a little livelier. Both actors are front and center in a handful of key scenes that don't drive the plot necessarily, but do try and color the world as something other than completely hopeless. Wever makes the most out of her character's interactions with Tara, which turn romantic after her patient makes a turn for the better. Admittedly, Aaron's segment is aided by the presence of Maggie and her efforts to find Glenn, which continues to be the show casting doubt on his demise. But mostly, Aaron serves as the conduit through which news of Maggie's pregnancy is delivered to the audience, which is as another indicator Glenn isn't wandering the digestive tracts of several walkers, but miraculously wandering the surrounding area outside Alexandria.
Each passing week, the delay of confirmation regarding Glenn's status only serves to demonstrate how the season's use of the character is something of a no-win for the series. Having Maggie announce her pregnancy could afford The Walking Dead the chance to have it both ways – to kill Glenn off but still keep him on the show in a series of flashbacks. That is something the show could conceivably pull off more convincingly than having him live through the ordeal he was last seen in, and it might help them legitimize a death that seemed unbefitting a character such as Glenn. Still, the timing of Maggie's pregnancy and the rapidly approaching mid-season finale makes the writing on the wall clearer than what she and Aaron were scrubbing off as the episode came to a close.
By and large, though, the hour is mostly concerned with establishing where the characters are, after several episodes of successfully overlapping narratives and flashbacks. While this is arguably necessary to push the story forward, it also means The Walking Dead delivers its first episode of the season that failed to be on par with its predecessors. Every season is going to have episodes that don't work on the same level as the rest, and 'Now' certainly seems to be that for season 6.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Always Accountable' @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC