Give Thanks for The Walking Dead's Resurrection

Dissecting "Crossed," the seventh episode of the fifth season

Gene Page/AMC

David Sims and Lenika Cruz discuss the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Sims: Holy cow, Lenika. I remain amazed at how well this season’s slow-burn approach is paying off for The Walking Dead. After hopping between stories for a few weeks, this episode knitted everything together, uniting most of the survivors in a quest to rescue Carol and Beth from Slabtown while also cutting back to the church and Abraham’s stranded crew in a way that made sense. After seeing the group locked up like cattle and almost slaughtered, I think I’m beginning to grasp a grand unified theory to this season—everyone is reclaiming a sense of purpose in a world that can very easily rob you of that.

From Abraham picking up that bottle of water to Rick realizing that maybe shooting a captive in cold blood isn’t the best call, even down to Sasha being trusting enough to (foolishly) let her guard down, there’s a lot of personal progression going on among the action here. The best evidence of all perhaps comes with Beth, never the most compelling character, who has won me over with her stealthy heroics in the hospital. When Dawn told her she had proved that she was strong, I couldn’t help but agree, even if the dynamics of that scene were intentionally very creepy.

So we had four big story threads: Rick and company sneaking their way to the hospital, Beth working to rescue Carol from inside, Father Gabriel freaking out and fleeing the church, and Abraham and Eugene waking up from their respective dazes as their compatriots find water and supplies and...friendship? Season Four saw so many of these characters broken apart, and it was so exciting to see them reunited. But while their unity runs deep, this whole season has been about them rebuilding those bonds. It’s magic to see Rick and Daryl working in tandem, and having Daryl being the one to tell Rick to slow his roll. It was great seeing Tara, Rosita and Glenn filtering water together. Even Carl didn’t completely get on my nerves! Okay, he only had one scene and Father Gabriel was barely paying attention to him, but still.

But we’ve known for a long time that The Walking Dead can do tense action well. Here, it’s doing it in service of a ton of really gripping story and character development and that’s what’s made season five so magical and different here. This is a top-five drama of the year to me, at this point, unless they really screw something up next week. And I don’t think they will. Of course, I’m making it sound like “Crossed” was some delightful celebration of friendship and frolicking. It was actually a fantastically tense hour with a well-telegraphed, but still perfectly executed ending that saw Sasha knocked out and havoc about to break loose in Slabtown.

Cruz: Now that we’ve both had a chance to get over our initial, gleefully expletive-filled reactions to the episode, David, it’s time to take a quick moment to celebrate/lament the upcoming mid-season finale. Wednesday—the day AMC sends us the new episode in advance—has become my favorite television day, so I’m genuinely sad that I’ll have a zombie-shaped void in my week until February. We can’t even parse much from the title “Coda,” which just means the concluding part of a work (it’s one step removed from Breaking Bad titling its last-ever episode Felina, an anagram for Finale). But one possibility to consider: The show seems to promise an end to some storyline, not a narrative midpoint or a lazy, obligatory cruising-to-a-stop.

This penultimate episode exceeded its task of setting up a taut prelude to winter’s curtain closing, and it did so with elegance and heart. I always find myself most impressed with episodes that cover a lot of ground action-wise while reserving space for cinematic touches. I’m thinking particularly of that cold open, which ended with the Father Gabriel’s impotent whimper-screams, beads of sweat on his face and visions of hell in his eyes as he attempted to scrub the blood from the church floorboards.

“Crossed” effortlessly united its trio of storylines, fortunately skipping a lot of painful and unnecessary exposition (yep, Noah’s part of the church group now, we’re told via a quick shot of him limping around outside, wide-eyed). As for your grand unified theory, David, I’m inclined to agree: I had become so used to seeing the characters in terms of groups (“the church group,” “the D.C. group,” “the Woodbury group,” “the prison group”) with a collective purpose, that I’d often forget to care about them as individuals. If you had told me a year ago that one day I’d happily watch Rosita, Glen, and Tara filtering dirty river water, I’d have grabbed a walker skull by the bloody eye-sockets and cold cocked you with it.

So in light of Thanksgiving this week, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude for what this season has given us so far: a mastery of rhythm, character, pacing, artistry, suspense, and action. The scene could have come off as on the nose were it not for Seth Gilliam’s sympathetic portrayal of the guilt-addled priest. Also a delight: the subtle match cut earlier in the episode, moving from the four-standing, one-kneeling formation in the DC group to the same arrangement with Rick’s rescue team. Because I’m not grinding my teeth about the show’s bigger issues, it’s easier for me to literally sit back and appreciate the smaller beauties of any given episode.

Honestly, just replaying this last episode in my head is making me giddy.

Sims: The water-filtering moment felt weirdly huge. The world of The Walking Dead is so endlessly hostile and cruel—so much so that our heroes acknowledge grunting zombies with an exasperated sigh and can’t trust a single person they come across. Coming across a source of dirty, undrinkable water felt about right, so having the group filter it out, however simple, struck a very triumphant note. Whether it’s rescuing Carol and Beth from the hospital or just filling up some water bottles, there’s real purpose to everything that’s happening now, even though the central concept of getting to Washington D.C. has fallen by the wayside.

That’s what has me nervous about next week’s episode. Because something bad has to happen, right? It’s The Walking Dead—it can’t wrap a season, or even a half-season, without some chilling cliffhanger. And obviously there’s plenty to worry about—Carol in the hospital bed, Sasha knocked out, Father Gabriel wandering the woods alone. I’m going to watch next Sunday with my hands over my eyes, and not because I’m afraid of zombie gore. In fact, I love the zombie gore—how about those gross asphalt zombies this week? The AMC makeup artists keep finding new ways to surprise me.

But I’m still chalking it up as a massive achievement that The Walking Dead will have me putting my hands over my face next week. I’d never really cared about these characters until this season. Rick could have gotten munched on by surprise and I wouldn’t have blinked—outside of a couple of standouts it’s taken a long time for this show to really earn my trust as one that really works on three-dimensional characterization. But it’s finally succeeded this year. I punched the air when Daryl knocked out his assailant with a zombie skull; I was biting my nails at Beth carried out her hospital drug heist. I wanted Rick to pull the trigger on his captive a little bit, even though I knew it was the wrong call. I’m invested. I’m invested in this show! Which is unbelievable considering how many times over the years I’ve declared I was giving up on it for good.

Cruz: Okay, if Rick were bitten by a walker, I definitely would have screamed. But I'd never expect that to happen, just like I'd never really expect Rick, Carl, Michonne, Judith, Carol, Daryl, Noah, Beth, et. al to die suddenly and brutally à la Game of Thrones; with that assuredness comes a loss of valuable tension that an action-filled show like The Walking Dead needs. In earlier seasons, I felt less certain about whether different characters would survive, and with that low-boiling dread came a degree of investment. So the show's challenge has been figuring out how to breed legitimate suspense and emotional interest outside the Who-Will-Live-Who-Will-Die framework—something that's eluded it until now.

We've seen fewer empty-threat scares, and the ones the show does deliver do more than elicit short-lived anxiety (that sneak attack on Daryl that ended with a GIF-worthy, zombie-skull walloping). We get instead a meticulous balance of psychic turmoil (Father Gabriel), emotional recovery (Sasha), intrigue (Beth), levity (Glen, Rosita, Tara), unusual one-on-ones (Abraham and Maggie), and calculated bursts of white-knuckle action (Sasha).

Of course, the one time every season where I mostly abandon my confidence that all the fan favorites will live is for the mid-season finale and end-of-season finale. Given the show's impossibly strong run this season so far, I'm expecting nothing less than awe next Sunday. David, I'll see you on the other side.