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.
Cruz: The latest installment of the Atlantic video series “If Our Bodies Could Talk” focused on how allowing oneself to truly experience boredom—rather than mindlessly looking at a phone more than 100 times a day—can actually be a good thing and encourage creativity. If this is true, then I can perhaps forgive “Them,” Sunday’s dreary episode of The Walking Dead for being one of the dullest episodes in the entire history of the series—a gross misstep made even more salient by the fact that season five had thus far been arguably the best-written and most compelling.
With “Them,” the show once again exposed the audience to the immense banality of life in the zombie apocalypse. Certainly, dehydration can make even the hardiest of survivors sluggish, and the group can’t possibly spend every conscious moment literally sprinting from walkers or battling other crazy bands of living folks. But sometimes The Walking Dead’s fans scold others who criticize the show’s slower moments, for basically only wanting to see gore and gunfire and for being too impatient to endure the quieter, in-between moments of actual living. But it’s disingenuous to suggest that these quiet, in-between moments need to be all whispery, stale dialogue, and lengthy camera shots attempting to convey the dead-inside-ness of those who've lost loved ones.
The show has been around for years now; the audience understands how grief typically works on The Walking Dead. Grief is complex and sometimes deadly, but “Them” went about showing the group’s mourning in the most tedious ways possible: sadness-stricken Sasha charging at the horde of walkers and ruining the group’s plan to simply toss them over the bridge; Daryl stabbing himself with the smoldering end of a cigarette to make himself “feel” the loss of Beth (come on, he deserved better than this); and Maggie … grumbling at Father Gabriel.
So, this entire episode could have been cut down to maybe 10 minutes tops and summed up as follows: Everyone’s sad and thirsty and hungry. There are some feral dogs. It rains, meaning (yay!) water, but then there’s a storm that forces the group to take shelter. Rick finally says the words, “We are the walking dead,” but why on earth did the show save that line for this week of all weeks? And then, maybe the single interesting moment of the entire hour: A new, suspiciously well-groomed and cheery character named Aaron introduces himself to Maggie and Sasha at the end, calling himself a “friend” and asking to see their “leader” Rick Grimes. “I have good news,” he says to them, as they train their guns on him in the last few seconds of the episode. Maybe he does, but I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Good news: This episode is over!”
How about you, David? Would you have tried to drink that mysterious water left behind like Eugene did? How many times did you yawn wearily during this episode, or did you lose count like I did?
Sims: Yeah, let Eugene drink the damn water! Since he has no real other use, might as well use him as a taste-tester, right? Just kidding (love you, Eugene). But Abraham slapping that bottle out of Eugene’s hands felt like a perfect metaphor for this frustrating episode: Oh, you think something interesting is about to happen? Think again! Unfortunately, I agree with you—"Them" reminded me of The Walking Dead at its worst during the doldrums of its second and third seasons. The point of the episode was clear early on. Rather than fast-forward our characters to their next destination, viewers were going to get a look at the psychological toll of their long march and the lingering wounds of their recent traumas. I get the idea—nothing should be easy on The Walking Dead, and the show doesn’t want us assuming the gang can just drive a van down the highway without running out of gas or running into zombies. But even so, it didn't have to be so unexciting.
It doesn’t help that "Them" felt very similar to last week, except there we at least had the gripping twist of Tyreese’s bite wound and his fate hanging in the balance. But here, again, there were endless scenes of the group sitting silently and pondering the limited worth of their lives, mumbling dialogue weighted with subtext at each other. The haunted protagonists this week were Maggie (still mourning Beth) and Sasha (newly mourning Tyreese), although Daryl got his own moment to cry by a tree, too. Lots of crying alone by a tree this week. This is a trap the show can fall into far too easily—it’s not that I don’t care about the characters, but their internal melancholy is so easy to assume (it is, after all, the apocalypse around them) that it feels dully repetitive to concentrate so hard on it.
I think I officially gave up when Rick said the “We are the walking dead” line. It’s taken five seasons for someone to say it out loud, but y’know Rick, that metaphor was apparent from the pilot. Maybe it just occurred to him because there was an awful lot of walking this week.
Agreed on the mysterious stranger: Is his good news that he’s from next week’s episode, where things might be interesting again? I know it’s tough to fill 16 episodes a season with plot in such a barren universe, but perhaps this new "friend" has a marginally exciting one to share.
Cruz: As painfully boring as this episode was, a few events did transpire that prompted some unanswered questions. Those wild dogs, it seems, had other victims: Remember that corpse propped up against a tree with its throat torn out? I have a hard time convincing myself that the only purpose of the dogs' short-lived appearance was to feed the hangry travelers. Maybe they’re foreshadowing, just like the graffiti from earlier that read “Wolves not far”?
It’s always hard to know how much symbolism or meta-commentary to read into the show's seemingly small instances. Last week, the show tossed a great, not-so-subtle Easter Egg: Tyreese and the Governor facing off with the blurry "Dead End" sign on the door behind them. But what about Maggie opening the trunk of that car and seeing a walker tied up and gagged? It was certainly horrible—what on earth was happening to that poor woman when she was alive? Was Maggie aghast at that thought too, or simply moved that the walker had been a blonde like her sister Beth?
And that storm at the end, while they were all huddled in the barn. That whole mini battle (I almost mistook it for a dream), with the walkers bum-rushing the doors, painted an obvious juxtaposition: the living on one side, fighting for their lives, the dead on the other, mindlessly pushing on. The show has indicated many times that the instinctual, programmed way the walkers endure mirrors the behavior of the survivors, who travel in packs and also continue to live out of habit, out of simply needing to go on. Hence, they’re “the walking dead.” It’s a profound parallel to draw, but one that has simply been echoed with varying levels of subtlety and artistry for the show’s entire run. Lines like “This isn’t the world,” and “You can’t give up,” and “You’re with friends now” can only hold power for so long before they become as impotent and withered as the walkers crushed beneath those fallen trees.
But one final note about the current status of the group: Everyone but the Grimeses have now lost their entire families, as far as viewers know. Michonne, Maggie, Glenn, Sasha, Daryl, Carol, Tara (whose name, TV gods forgive me, I can literally never remember), Noah, and probably Father Gabriel, Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene. Finally, they’ve become just one big family of (mostly) non-blood-related survivors, bound only by a sense of love and duty.
Sims: Agreed on the stormy battle in the barn—that was the one moment where the metaphor playing out on screen was gripping enough to get me interested. Other moments, like the body in the trunk, felt more muddled, as you noted. Is plot being telegraphed for us, or is this just Maggie being reminded that death awaits her at every turn? I’ll admit I’m more intrigued by these slow-moving episodes when they’re centered around some new location or ongoing mystery, like Daryl and Carol’s exploration of the area around the hospital last year. Here, they were just on an ordinary road in the middle of nowhere, and then in an equally nondescript abandoned barn.
Regarding the family ties of the group, this seems like as good an argument as any to finally kill off Carl. Right!? I can hear your cries of how heartless I am, and I do think it’s a direction the show won’t go in because it’d be too unspeakably grim, but talk about a character who’s adding nothing to the show at this point. When I saw him in that brief montage in the rain, I was surprised to remember he still existed. Why couldn’t he taste the tainted water, or take a zombie bite to the arm rather than Tyreese? But then of course, I’m reminded of the unending cycle The Walking Dead is always finding itself in, the one you were just referencing.
Characters have to die to keep the show fresh and to remind viewers of its stakes. But then fans have to spend plenty of time with the surviving characters racked with guilt and sadness, so that the writing doesn’t seem callous. It’s quite a miserable ride, but the show had done a much better job keeping it exciting as of late. Here’s hoping “Them” is an understandable misstep, a bit of stalling before the show revs up for the conclusion of the season, perhaps revolving around rabid dogs or wolves or the mysterious stranger’s news. Whatever it is, it had better not involve any more solitary crying by a tree.