Every week for the fifth season of AMC's post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, David Sims and Lenika Cruz will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show's increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Sims: The fifth season of The Walking Dead has, more than anything, dealt with the emotional scars Rick Grimes and his crew have suffered through their years together in the apocalypse. “Try,” the penultimate episode of the season, saw their tenuous membership in the Alexandria safe zone begin to collapse beyond repair; more than that, though, it underlined just why the show has pursued this narrative angle in the back half of the season. As Rick repeatedly yelled at everyone, Alexandria is an unsustainable fantasy for its residents: a thin sheen of optimism over the desperate situation that is the world at large. But more than that, it’s an unflattering mirror being held up to Rick and company—a glimpse at what his lawless group looks like to a community that never left civilization behind.
In Alexandria, Rick has practically walked into the past, and despite his best efforts to fit in he seems sorely out of place. It was never more painfully obvious than in the final moments of the episode, as a bloodied Rick ranted and raved about the horrors of the real world to the gathered townspeople, reminding them that they can’t keep the zombies, and all the consequent horrors that come with them, out. Rick’s motivations are somewhat noble, somewhat not: He wants to neutralize Jessie’s abusive husband Pete, partly (he admits) because he has strong feelings for Jessie. He was willing to kill Pete if necessary, but instead engaged in a public brawl that made him look like the bad guy, and things ended with him getting clocked in the head by Michonne.
It was hard not to agree with that decision. Even though most of what Rick said made sense—Alexandria is in a bubble and one that’s clearly about to burst—he was behaving with no endgame in mind. Unless he was looking to mow through all of the citizens just to teach them a lesson, he didn't really come off like much of a leader. While Michonne’s feelings are always much harder to guess at, she’s always been the pragmatist of the group.
But this season has dealt so expertly with the post-traumatic stress being suffered by the entire ensemble, and Rick’s meltdown was a powerful flashpoint along those lines. It’s been weeks since Rick really had something vital to offer his people outside of the constant reminder that the world is a dangerous place. I find it hard to believe that it’ll be Rick vs. Michonne next week, but the dynamics that have been eroding all season finally collapsed this week.
Most of “Try” dealt with the characters’ PTSD in some form or another, be it Sasha unwisely engaging with zombies en masse outside of Alexandria, or Glenn (wisely) tearing into townsperson Nicholas, whose cowardice led to Noah’s death last week. It was a bit of a slow-mover, since it had to build to whatever inevitable conflict will boil over in next week’s season finale. But I thought it had the kind of emotional heft this show needs to get through its less action-packed hours. Rick’s meltdown was neither surprising nor overwritten—it felt like the logical mindset for someone who has suffered as he has. But what comes next? And what do you think the zombies with the Ws carved in their foreheads are all about, Lenika?
Cruz: So, things played out largely like we expected they would, which made for a slightly slow episode—that entire Sasha, Michonne, and Rosita chase in the woods triggered major eye rolls, while Deanna rejecting Carol's tuna casserole was just rude. Part of the reason I love this season is that most of the predictions I make for any given episode for the next week are frequently debunked. I always think I know, but I have no idea.
That said, there were a couple of redeeming moments, most notably in the performances of Rick and Glenn, who electrified every scene they appeared in, bloodied or otherwise. And this episode finally revealed something I'd been somewhat blind to: That for all of Alexandria's harsh (or not harsh) realities, the townspeople aren't necessarily the "crazy" ones. All it took for me to realize this was Sasha going rogue, Carl and Enid romping through the woods in secret, and Rick telling Deanna that Pete needed to to be executed.
I am 100 percent over the scenes dedicated to showing just how traumatized some of the characters are, so I was glad to see how well Glenn coped with being back in the town with Nicholas. Their subtle but meaningful confrontation at the van (props to Glen's icy delivery of that line "I'm someone who knows what you are") ran in direct contrast to Rick's brutish tussle with Pete. Glenn has grown so authoritative, selfless, and brave over the last five seasons, following in Rick's footsteps in many ways. But in this episode, he proved how many leagues fundamentally lie between them emotionally. Even Glenn's less admirable moments have never betrayed a fascist streak.
And while Rick certainly set himself up to look like a bit of a monster, I have a feeling that next week's finale, "Conquer," will see a third, even more dangerous party enter the picture and prove Mr. Grimes somewhat right. Hence the significance of the W-carved zombies: Tying people to trees to be eaten alive and dismembering zombie corpses for no apparent purpose seems like the behavior of genuine psychopaths. I'm just hoping that Morgan isn't involved in any of this.
Sims: I agree on the W-carver: For all of Rick's ranting and raving, he has plenty of reasons to remind everyone of how evil the world is. Just at the start of the season, he was being lined up for slaughter by other humans, and whatever's going on with this W-person (or group), it might be even worse. There was a cultish quality to the dead body Daryl found this week, as if the victim tied to a tree had been offered up as some kind of sacrifice. I am somewhat wary of The Walking Dead introducing another pure villain, but I see room for another interesting angle.
I very much agree on Glenn's characterization this week. The grisly nature of Noah's death, and the fact that it occurred right before Glenn's eyes, suggested it'd put him in the fugue state half the ensemble has been stumbling around in this year. Not the case—as you noted, Lenika, he's more clear-headed than ever in his understanding of how to survive, without threatening to kill anyone who poses a threat to the community at large. That's not to suggest Rick wasn't wrong to want to separate Pete from Jessie—more that he seemed a little too prepared to murder him to resolve the situation.
It doesn't help that Pete is the most thinly-sketched character in Alexandria, a leering, abusive creep who stumbles into scenes only to serve as an obvious looming threat. Any kind of dimensionality would have lent Rick's take on justice a little more ambiguity—as it is, you practically want him to blow the man's head off there and then, democracy be damned. The latter half of season five has mostly done very well to draw the ideological divisions between Rick's survivalist way of life and Deanna's consensus-building behind the walls of Alexandria. But to hear her reveal that she knew of Pete's abusive behavior and did nothing about it because he's a skilled surgeon made her seem like she belonged in the hospital or a similarly morally defunct apocalypse society.
Deanna's undoing should be her noble but doomed efforts to retain the traditions of pre-zombie life; having her support a psychopath like Pete didn't feel entirely in-character. Still, even if the method was flawed, the show has arrived at the showdown it's teased all year and has put Rick in a desperate position. I'm not sure viewers needed Rick's crush on Jessie to sell this fundamental breakdown between him and Deanna; so much other chaos has erupted around them already. But as a breaking point, it was a sadly human one, a reminder that while Rick may try to leave society behind in this new world, he's still a person of urges and desires, as human as anyone else.
Cruz: Right—the explosive conclusion of that episode was dampened by the fact that, 1) Deanna was protecting a man who beats his defenseless wife and son, 2) Pete has no redeeming qualities other than the fact that he's a surgeon, and, 3) Rick acknowledged that he was only stepping up because he had feelings for Jessie. So Rick was doing the "right" thing with impure motivations, while Deanna was doing the "wrong" thing with pure motivations. Lesson: Humans are complicated!
Yet the show went a step further in drawing a parallel between Rick and his son, who got quite close with Enid out in the woods. Carl doesn't have a whole lot of other male authority figures to look up to. As you pointed out, since arriving in Alexandria, Rick has been unwittingly defining himself in domesticated terms, as a husband and as a father. Hence his attraction to Jessie when he saw her holding baby Judith. He went from being overly protective of the entire group (remember the dawn of the Ricktatorship at the end of season two?), to being overly protective for selfish reasons, seen at the end of "Try." It's not clear whether he'll ever quite be able to focus his leadership energies in the even-headed way that Glenn and Michonne have been able to.
And so I don't see Rick's threat—that if things don't work out in Alexandria, they can just stage a takeover—materializing. I expect the saner heads around him will prevail for the safety of the group (though Jessie's predicament is in every way tragic and appalling), and I don't see Deanna executing or exiling en masse. So, in all likelihood, "Conquer" will include a lot of damage control, plus some other catalyzing force that'll split the group in some way. Like Michonne and the rest, I don't think a place with running water, tall walls, and an elevated sense of law and order (minus Jessie) needs to operate with an all-or-nothing, kill-or-be-killed approach. So despite the finale's title, I don't see Alexandria falling to the ground, even if their way of life there is fundamentally altered forever.