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: Never have moments as simple as a haircut or an invitation to play video games felt as fraught and disorienting as they did in “Remember.” Bar a couple of stabby walker scenes, the latest episode of The Walking Dead could have passed for regular (read: non-zombie) drama, but only on the surface. The survivors finally pass through the gates of Alexandria and, after meeting Deanna, a former Ohio congresswoman and the town’s de facto leader, each lets his or her guard down with varying degrees of ease.
A couple things become immediately clear: Alexandria, a pricy, sustainable-living community, has been largely sheltered from the grim reality of the outside world, and Rick and co. are expected to contribute their survival skills in exchange for being allowed in. After so much time on the road, it’s a relief to see the gang enjoying previously unthinkable luxuries like toothbrushes (how surreal was it to see a kitchen sink with clean running water?). But "Remember" began the work of scraping away some of the narrative detritus that had built up around these personalities and relationships (in addition to scrubbing some of the literal grime off Rick Grimes).
Once inside the walls, the group initially has a difficult time seeing itself as anything other than an unbreakable unit, or as Deanna put it, as "a family." They take no risks, sleep together in the same room—even though they have two massive houses at their disposal—and hold onto their knives just in case. But slowly the cohesion splinters a bit, and the show refocuses on the characters as individuals. Daryl scoffs at the thought of a shower, taking comfort instead in skinning a dirty possum on an immaculate porch. Carol, in a moment of brilliant paranoia, pretends to be a soft-shelled weakling taken in by the group, and augments her act with a mom-cardigan ensemble for ultimate believability (what better secret weapon to have than your own strength?). An insomniac Michonne grapples with her misgivings, and Carl and Rick find themselves outside the walls, killing zombies for sport to make sure they don't "get weak."
Greg Nicotero's fantastic directing helps viewers reimagine everyone as individuals by punctuating the episode with footage from Deeana's one-on-one interviews with each survivor. But "Remember" circles back round to remind fans that the survivors will under no circumstances be screwed with again. No matter how good the food is, no matter how nice the beds are. "We won't get weak. That's not in us anymore," Rick says to Carol and Daryl. "We'll make it work. But if they can't make it, then we'll just take this place."
David, how did you feel about this last line of badassery from a newly shaved Rick, who, I had forgotten, really knows how to own a cop uniform?
Sims: I was really blown away by this episode, I think for two reasons. The first is that the show managed to find a new angle on the "safe space" the gang discovers. There have been so many versions of sanctuary, all tainted in some way, that they've run into, so it's probably difficult from a writing standpoint to think up types of problems for these places to have. Alexandria is an almost disarmingly pleasant place, as you noted, Lenika. The reason for its existence makes sense, although the story of how it barricaded itself against the world is a little foggy (there's some talk of leader Deanna's husband having some engineering skills, but still, that's a lot of steel walls to build). There's solar power, running water, comic books, even a similarly haunted teenager for Carl to get to know. So what's the problem?
The main issue, I think, is the general incongruity between the Alexandria Safe Zone and the rest of the world. They live in such relative peace that even their zombie-killing rangers seem hopelessly inept, treating the walkers as enemies whom they can exact vengeance on. Rick and company know that kind of thinking is beyond pointless—the walkers are lethal pests, not prey to be toyed with. But Rick and company are also so scarred by their travails that they can't fully accept Alexandria for the opportunity it presents. What value is a safe haven when the world outside it is still so unforgiving and dangerous?
The second reason I'm so blown away by this episode is that closing line, where Rick promises his people that if they cannot make the situation work, they'll take it by force. It sounds like outright villainy—does he plan to slaughter the weak chattel currently occupying Alexandria, or simply knock off its leader and start running things himself? But what I liked even more was the fact that I kind of agree with him! I'm never more impressed by post-apocalypse storytelling than when it gets me to identify with its characters' frightening survivor mindset. Sure, Alexandria is safe, but what value does security really hold? I guess I should feel pangs of sadness when Carl tells his dad that the video games and comic books will make him weak. But he's right, and his innocence was already lost long ago. So why fight it?
I'm really happy with how this whole season, including the first half from last year, was working up to this Alexandria plot. The nightmare of Terminus made the group suspicious of every promise of sanctuary. The hospital was a chilling reminder of how power corrupts. And even Tyreese's death and the long boring march to D.C. a couple of weeks ago plays beautifully into their hardened hearts. We know that Rick is still a human being—I loved his silent "Aw, shucks" when Deanna praised his appearance without the beard. Carol's mother hen act was a frighteningly good piece of performance (I loved the way she pretended to struggle to unstrap her gun). Daryl's tough-guy possum-skinning helped emphasize his value as an enforcer. The whole group is silently working in tandem to protect themselves, because they just cannot trust anything else at this point.
Cruz: It's incredible what this new infusion of characters has done to ramp up new sources of tension on the show: There's Deanna's self-described "douchebag" of a son, who embodies that maddening mix of arrogant, hot-tempered, and naive. (How satisfying was it to see Glenn duck that punch and knock him to the ground?) There's Rick's new friend Jessie, whose husband seems like the seething, jealous type. There are Carl's new pals and, of course, Deanna herself, who seems like a sympathetic, clear-headed character, and whom I could see emerging as another moral compass type on the show in the same vein as Tyreese.
Which makes the possibility of a violent coup that much more distressing to imagine (I can't help but point out that the season finale is titled "Conquer"). Rick and the other survivors are strong and merciful, but they will always choose the safety of their own over all else. It's less clear what the priorities of the Alexandrians are. The next few episodes will likely involve more sniffing out by both sides, so I'm genuinely excited for The Walking Dead to take another shot at cultivating its own brand of zombie-apocalypse-style domestic drama.
This well-oiled episode unfolded so elegantly because the show didn't over-explain the new situation or rely on awkward one-on-ones to convey how the characters felt. A perfect example of subtlety and much-needed minimalism is when Michonne reassures Rick, during a late-night chat, that she's not afraid of committing to their stay and he asks her, "So then why are we both awake?" It's always a relief when the show takes a light hand with these kinds of moments, knowing what to leave out and how long to let poignant moments land. There's just so much to fit into these next few weeks that it'd be a shame to revisit the plodding self-seriousness of episodes like "Them," the only real letdown episode of the season so far.
David, what did you make of Deanna's little speech at the end, when she orders everyone to treat Rick and company "as equals"? Was she ingratiating herself to them when she thanks Glen for punching her son out? Remember that flashback to Rick's interview at the end? "People out there are always looking for an angle, looking to play on your weakness," he says. "They measure you by what they can take from you. By how they can use you to live." I know the obvious reading of this is that Rick and his group might be those "people out there." But I think it's possible that Alexandria might be trying to play on their weaknesses, too, measuring them by what they can offer. Or maybe the idea is that this way of thinking about self-preservation isn't necessarily wrong or exploitative, but just that it can become something akin to cruelty, or evil, very quickly.
Sims: Boy, did I love watching Glenn deck that jerk with such ease. Glenn is such a reliable background player for the show, and he hasn't gotten much to do this year, so it's always nice when Steven Yuen gets a little moment. Since the show no longer really has any need for comic relief (just the odd, darkly funny moment here and there), he's not as useful as he was in the early seasons. But, as Glenn himself said: He knows what he's doing.
Can I also say it's fun to call these folks the "Alexandrians?" I feel like we're in Ancient Egypt! Deanna is a terrific character and a great foil for Rick—her firm but kindly nature can be taken in so many directions. Is her ingratiating nature, telling the Alexandrians to accept the gang as equals, just part of her palm-pressing past as a congresswoman? Or, like you say, is she just looking to find an angle? Or is Rick's speech being used even more deviously—is it the survivors who are finding an angle on this safe space? If they take it apart, through violence or just by splintering the already-existing relationships of the camp, then they're the evil pests, like termites eating away at the foundation of a building. I love the idea of the group becoming antiheroes.
Maybe there's a more obvious twist en route, but I hope not: I don't want this to turn into another situation where the Alexandrians are nursing a dark secret, or seeking to use Rick as a pawn in some larger plot. But just based on this episode, I think there's much more nuance at play. After the sluggish start to this half-season, I couldn't be happier with how things are playing out.