[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
After weeks of splintering off and focusing entire episodes on one group or another, most of them away from Rick (the series' ostensible protagonist), the test of 'Crossed' was whether or not The Walking Dead could deliver yet another strong episode, even when divided amongst so many different plot threads. The answer: it certainly can.
It's something of an odd feeling watching as a show like The Walking Dead finds its groove – in its fifth season of all things – and delivers a run of episodes that have arguably been better than anything the show's put together before. The level of quality isn't necessarily the most striking about this first half of season 5; the show has delivered strong episodes before.
Instead, what's remarkable is how consistent the show has been, how it has maintained a level of quality over seven episodes that began with a brilliantly fast-paced season premiere, and has moved on to a handful of solid stories, each one raising the bar in terms of competent, compelling, and complete storytelling. 'Slabtown' was the only semi-dud in the bunch, and even it was better than a lot of what's come before.
So far this season, there have been several examples of how the show benefits from simple, straightforward storytelling that underlines the relentless urgency of living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, without constantly underlining the inherent misery of the situation. And in episodes like 'Crossed', the series shows that things can be bad without wallowing in despair, and seemingly desperate situations can improve in the unlikeliest of ways. After all, who would have thought Glenn, Tara, and Rosita's excursion for water would turn into a fishing trip with an unexpected surprise?
The shifting focus of the episode works primarily to get the various pieces in place before next week's midseason finale. And while the narrative is centered on building toward the inevitable standoff between Rick's group and Dawn's increasingly fragile organization at the hospital, the story is given space to unfold organically, so what little exposition there actually is doesn't feel quite as stifling. The episode doesn't waste time with characters telling the audience and each other what they already know. Instead, the story begins with the group in the midst of preparing its assault. It's as though an editor cut out the first 10 pages of the script, excising the moment Daryl emerges from the woods and explains the situation to the survivors at the church, and the episode is 10 times stronger because of it.
'Crossed' trusts the audience to follow along, and the benefit isn't just an episode that's free from unnecessary handholding; it allows more time for significant actions to actually take place. Whether it's Beth paying off an impromptu distraction with a handful of strawberries, or Abraham's glowering, self-administered roadside punishment, both are free from the disadvantages that stem from a gratuitous setup.
The absence of redundant dialogue is never more evident, nor more appreciated, than during the sequences focused on Rick and his crew. It's been several weeks since Rick, Tyreese, and Sasha have even been onscreen, and the show just carries on like it's no big thing. There's a nice moment when Rick details his bloody plan to storm the hospital, answering how someone will get past a sentry by unequivocally stating: "He slits his throat." His words echo the gruesome end met by the Terminans during the climactic moment of 'Four Walls and a Roof', but they also demonstrate the man Rick has become, without anyone having to tell him as such.
Instead, the sentiment is more effectively underlined when Daryl – after making like a member of the PBA in a street fight – talks Rick down from killing one of the three cops the group plans to use as leverage to get Beth and Carol back.
But as ruthless as Rick can be, there's still an innate sense of humanity and understanding within him. That would explain why Tyreese and Daryl's change of plan didn't devolve into a shoving match, and why speaks with Sgt. Bob Lamson (played by the terrific Maximiliano Hernández, a.k.a. the late Chris Amador from The Americans) the way he does. That dribble of kindness and compassion not only gives Rick some much-needed depth, but the entire episode as well, presenting itself in Dawn's treatment of Beth, and again when Bob escapes. Sure, he manages to manipulate Sasha into a situation where he can attack her, but he doesn't stick around to try and kill her. That may be because his hands were tied behind his back, but deep down, you want to believe he's just responding logically to what he perceives as a major threat.
The rational progression of events helps legitimize the events in an episode that is more or less completely dependent on what comes next. From the fate of Father Gabriel to what Tara found in the backpack to how Rick's slightly less violent plan is going to unfold, there's a lot riding on how the midseason finale plays out. The episode may continue The Walking Dead's winning streak, or it might crash and burn, as things go horribly awry. But hopefully that won't detract from how good this early part of the season has been. However the midseason draws to a close, it will at least leave us with this solid string of episodes that have made the series the best it has ever been.
'Coda', the midseason finale of The Walking Dead, airs next Sunday at 9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC