Every week for the fifth season of AMC's post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show's increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Sims: All is forgiven! Not only was “The Distance” the kind of electrifying, propulsive television The Walking Dead has excelled at recently, it even helped justify last week’s depressing slog, “Them”—a feat I thought unachievable. That episode was about how psychologically and physically ground-down the gang was after a season’s worth of nightmares; “The Distance” was about how strong that makes them as a group, but also how devastatingly untrusting they have to be as a result. What I loved about “The Distance” was that Rick’s leadership style was merely being scrutinized. This wasn’t some moralizing tale of his failures or flaws, nor did it serve to reinforce his importance to the group. Rick wrestled with every distrustful instinct he had this week, rightly so, and it put everyone in grave danger. But at no time did it seem like he was behaving truly outrageously or had lost his mind, and this was a great relief.
We’ve already explored that unhinged side of Rick in the show’s darker days, when he was getting phone calls from ghosts, and we don’t really need to do it again. His flinty approach to diplomacy—punching the helpful-seeming Aaron in the face before he could even finish his pitch to help shelter the group—barely raised an eyebrow. These guys were, after all, herded into a cattle car and nearly slaughtered by cannibals just a little while back. It doesn’t matter if someone rolls up with a friendly smile, some grainy photographs of a walled village, and seemingly no armed support. What possible reason does Rick have to let his guard down at this point?
Of course, by the end of the episode, his guard finally was down—triggered by the vague sounds of children laughing beyond the barricaded steel walls of Alexandria, Aaron’s promised land. We watched the transition in extreme close-up of Rick’s eyes as he dropped that thousand-yard glassy stare and let in the possibility for hope. Who knows what will go wrong in the future—something usually does—but after a tense hour he’s at least going to look on the bright side for the first time in who knows how long. Same with Michonne, who gave a rare smile just before the closing credits.
The whole episode, I had no idea whether to trust Aaron or not—his talk of a promised land along with the blurry photos were pretty vague, but his approach was also non-threatening enough that I could buy into his sincerity. The episode focused more on how well Rick’s group functions as a unit and communicates wordlessly but effectively, supporting their leader until he needs to be pulled back a little bit (a task delegated to Michonne, who executed it with great subtlety). The action of the episode was really gripping—that nighttime drive down zombie lane was about as inventive as this show can be with the undead five years in, and the moment where they found Aaron’s listening device was a wonderful jolt. But the best parts of “The Distance” were the quiet ones, like that moment near the end where Glenn revealed the spare battery to Abraham without any explanation. For once, the group isn't going to get tripped up by circumstance at the last minute.
Cruz: Indeed, this episode offered indisputable proof that The Walking Dead knows how to excel at beautiful, understated moments—ones that typically shine when not weighed down by the kind of heavy-footed exposition that plagued last week’s “Them.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because this is a complete fallacy held deeply by some of the show’s most eager fans): Quiet and slow-paced doesn’t have to be boring. It gives me goosebumps to remember that final-scene shot you mentioned—of Rick’s eyes visibly softening at the sounds of children laughing and playing. Wordlessly, the show conveyed his reluctant but much-needed relief as allowed himself to hope—for the group, for Carl, for Judith.
Compare that to the end of “Them,” which convinced me of the show’s cruelly Pavlovian effect on my reaction to strangers: As soon as I saw Aaron, I started muttering in panic and waving my hands at Maggie and Sasha to run because I believed some armed folks were going to sneak up from behind and snatch them away. The terror was visceral. And so, like you David, I was thrilled the show dialed back its impulse to unleash Crazy Rick (though it did indulge itself in that that knock-out right cross Rick planted on Aaron). Because for all that Rick-tatorship nonsense, the Grimes patriarch has suffered enough losses to justify the deepest and blackest of suspicious minds; as a similarly untrusting viewer, I can’t blame him for wanting to take every precaution after the dystopian nightmares of Woodbury and Terminus.
I hope Alexandria—which I had accidentally learned of in the spoiler-ridden corners of the Internet as “the Alexandria Safe Zone”—turns out to be a relatively safe and sane place, and not just because I want everyone to finally have a moment to chill. The show has been in desperate need of a thematic and narrative shake-up. The show has already done the “perfect on the outside, cannibal on the inside” plot. It’s done the hunker-down thread at Hershel’s farm and at the prison, as well as the “wandering around the woods” plot. Alexandria, on the other hand, holds the promise of new types of conflict thus far unseen on the show. There will be new characters, new relationships, and new pressures. Likely, the gang will need to temper its wild side as it rejoins a broader community. But, as Aaron (and Michonne) pointed out, the group is made up of good people who are occasionally mocked for, and die as a result of, their soft-heartedness. The discovery of the listening device was alarming, but it was also gratifying to realize that someone outside the group got to witness their goodness first-hand. The show has always been about the struggle between survival and maintaining a capacity for empathy. Thus far, the group has succeeded, and Aaron’s right—that makes them valuable in a world trying to rebuild.
Sims: I agree with you on Alexandria—certainly let’s hope it doesn’t have a Governor or group of Terminus cannibals in it. There have been far too many characters on this show who are simply pure evil, and it’ll be a long time before I want to see another one. The gang certainly deserves a chance to relax, but at the same time, I don’t need another episode about the weight of the dystopia on their shoulders. I guess I want something in the middle, which we’ve never had the chance to fully explore on The Walking Dead—the challenges of actually building and running a post-apocalyptic society. The hospital was a mini-version of that, but this could blow it out in a less sinister way, since usually whatever settlement our heroes run into is nursing some dark secret. Let’s avoid that with Alexandria. New characters, disagreements, ethical quandaries, I’m fine with all of that. But no barn full of zombies or basement full of heads.
I could also do with a bit more world-building. It was surprisingly invigorating to see the Washington Monument pop up on the horizon, and also a stark reminder of how long this show has been stuck in Atlanta and the surrounding wilderness. We still barely understand what happened to the entire world when everything went down; it could be fascinating to get an idea of how the capital suffered and what exactly led to the construction of this Alexandria “safe zone.” Because it’s an impressive monument: Unlike the hospital or the prison, it’s no pre-existing structure that has just been adapted to defend against zombies. This was surely built with zombies in mind. Where’d they get all that cold-rolled steel?
This twist also helps explain why the show has shaken up its cast a little over the last few weeks. We’re about to get an influx of new blood, including Aaron and Eric, who might be the first prominent gay characters on the show. Naturally, some turnover was required—the ensemble has already gotten pretty vast—because it’s a lot harder to keep track of characters once they're settled in one place. It makes sense for them to move as a group when they’re on the road, but now one imagines they’ll spread out a little more (if Alexandria is to their liking, that is). With only five episodes to go after this one, there has to be one last big story arc for us to hurtle through.
My guess is that it will revolve around Rick’s leadership style. He’s become such a wartime chief, and his treatment of Aaron made sense given the circumstances, but there was already a feeling this week that everyone was getting a little tired of his constant pessimism. Will that continue once they’re somewhere that actually feels safe? Or will he finally trim the beard, holster the magnum and maybe play a few rounds of Scrabble with his son? The darkness has to recede at some point, right? What do you think is around the corner at Alexandria, Lenika?
Cruz: First of all, I’m glad you mentioned Aaron and Eric. Their unflinching tenderness and (the usually conciliatory) Aaron’s “screw you” to Rick was a great way to punctuate the episode with a bit of character development. Their reunion was the first moment of romantic love we’ve seen on the show in a while. Besides, who can really remember the adorable Maggie-Glen courtship these days?
And second, a thousand prayer-hand emojis for the possibility of world-building. It’s as exhausting as it is necessary for the characters to talk about how things "used" to be. (Side note: I really want someone to compile a list of all the wordy euphemisms the show has come up with for the time before the zombie apocalypse. I can think of “before it all went to hell” and “when the world was the world” off the top of my head.) But, five seasons in, I think it’s time to see what the work of actually building a functional, albeit-flawed, new society looks like. I’ve fully absorbed the mindset of the on-the-run, barely-surviving outcasts, but I haven’t let myself as a viewer think more deeply about the finer aspects of lawmaking in a relatively safe environment, of education for the kids, of agriculture, of trying to find out what’s happened in other parts of the world. And no, Terminus and Woodbury do not count—the group never got around to adjusting to “civilization” again because they were always at risk of being slaughtered. I should also add that Alexandria will be the first time the group has entered a new community (aside from Hershel’s farm) as a complete bunch, with no one missing. Not unless you count Morgan, of course.
It's interesting that their latest resting place is on the outskirts of D.C. As a resident of our nation’s capital, that glimpse of the somehow still-standing obelisk on the horizon was thrilling. That it signaled asylum for the road-weary travelers made the arrival all the more gratifying. But as so much on the show is, the location also feels symbolic. Who knows what horrors have overtaken D.C., but the thought of zombie guts spilled over the Constitution, or of bullet holes riddling the Lincoln Memorial feels chilling in a visceral way that a burned-down anonymous gated community just doesn’t. It seems likely that once the gang has regrouped and rested for a bit, they’ll venture over the Potomac to the District itself. And while I doubt a cure will be waiting for them, it’s comforting to know that should anything go wrong, they’ll likely have a home to return to.