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: First, I should say it's both tragic and awkward how metaphoric turns-of-phrase like "eviscerate" and "heartrending" and "gut-wrenching" can end up becoming so literal with The Walking Dead. I'll try and stay away from those kinds of descriptors for the sake of everyone still shaken by the gruesome events of "Spend," which marked the final, blood-spatter-filled appearances of Aiden Monroe, Deanna's son, and (screams internally) Noah. Not since the explosive death of a certain prince on Game of Thrones last year have I felt this moved to something akin to emotional nausea.
But let's quickly re-establish the big events of this episode: Glenn, Noah, Eugene, Aiden, Tara, and Nicholas left to scout for some supplies. Rick and Carol discovered that Jessie's husband, a surgeon/drunk named Pete, is likely beating his family. Abraham saved the life of a fellow builder after a zombie attack, won the respect of the construction team, and was promoted to be their leader. And, in a sickening touch, Father Gabriel lost his mind and told Deanna that Rick and the rest have Satan in them and aren't to be trusted.
Glenn and company ran into a series of grotesque misfortunes culminating in obscene, close-up death scenes for Noah and Aidan. Why, The Walking Dead, did you have to show Noah's face being ripped apart? I can't get the image of his tongue hanging out as he screamed and slowly died in front of Glenn's eyes on the other side of that glass out of my head. I was horrified on Glenn's behalf and can already imagine this unspeakably traumatic incident killing him in some way. Just when the show begins to let everyone recover from their wounds, it rips fresh ones. Noah's completely unnecessary death was a reminder of how fatal cowardice could be, a fact rarely illuminated considering how brave everyone on the show has become. Nicholas' craven selfishness, incidentally, highlighted how brave Eugene proved he could be when everyone needed him the most.
This episode proved just how good Rick and his people fundamentally are. They will risk their own lives time and again to save others, even those they don't like. And so the overarching tragedy of all the mini-tragedies in this episode is that Father Gabriel's words, combined with the likelihood that Deanna might blame Glenn for Aiden's death, will jeopardize the group's trustworthiness in the eyes of Alexandria. Which means, they're going to be in danger. And this situation has become far more toxic, far more quickly, than even I as a cynical viewer could have expected.
This show is slowly tearing me apart, David! (Okay, I'm done.)
Sims: Ugh. Even speaking as a horror fan, sometimes the gore of The Walking Dead is just too much. Tyler James Williams was an adorable adolescent Chris Rock on the great, underrated sitcom Everybody Hates Chris for five years. I don't know that I wanted to watch his face get ripped to pieces. After an episode like this, it's particularly amazing to consider just how popular this show is, considering the intensity of its content. But the people demand (occasional) gore, and this episode had plenty—but it all felt a little rushed through. After weeks of brooding in Alexandria, this explosion of violence (plus Father Gabriel's betrayal) should be enough to rip the community apart, but it didn't feel quite earned.
That's partly the inherent nature of the show: It can whack the "ZOMBIES!" button whenever it wants, and if that threat lurks around every corner, it can sow chaos without warning and always feel authentic. The point of the disaster in the warehouse had been proven weeks ago—the Alexandria folks don't know what they're doing, and are more than happy to turn tail and run even if it means leaving others to zombie deaths. Still, it felt coincidental to the point of annoyance that on his first big mission with Rick's crew, Deanna's son bit the dust; similarly, Noah (or another big name from the cast) had to die to raise the stakes from Rick's side of things. The horrifying presentation of his death wasn't entirely pointless, as you noted, Lenika. Glenn, always one of the group's most level-headed and avuncular members, has been particularly scarred here.
The randomness of everyone's missions added to my confusion: tossed-off bits of expositional dialogue explained just why one crew is loading into a van and searching a warehouse, and another is driving some construction equipment, but after weeks where every piece of action has been so deliberate, in search of some specific goal, this all felt very vague. There was a reason for that: It was just set-up for zombie attacks in every corner. Added to the pile-on were Carol discovering Pete's abusive tendencies, which she wants Rick to deal with immediately, and Gabriel ranting to Deanna that his group are a bunch of Satan-loving evildoers.
This is the question the show has been pondering all season: Are Rick's crew, at this point, almost the bad guys? Has the world made being a bad guy the necessary sacrifice for survival? But as you noted, there's not really much ambiguity to the morality at play in this episode. Rick's crew is tough, almost military in its desire to leave no one behind, but they're fearless and efficient, and the Alexandria crew are gutless morons. After this week, Rick and company are practically justified in cutting through all of them if they pose a threat. Is that what the show is headed for?
Cruz: I think if things go the way we imagine they will, and Alexandria turns on Rick and the group, then they'll absolutely have to. But, with two episodes still left, a calamitous battle behind the walls would feel too rushed. However odd the exposition and narrative twists of "Spend" were, they were unexpected, and I foresee a slew of other complicating factors arising in "Try" and "Conquer." Hopefully, the rest of this season won't be as transparent, as first, everyone tries to make it work, and second, they fail, and so the group tries to "conquer" Alexandria.
Turning for a second to the Carol and Rick side story: The revelation that Pete (a surgeon) was beating his wife Jessie and son Sam made a lot of sense. Pete had way too creepy a vibe to just be a regular old jealous husband. But more importantly, the interaction between Sam and Carol took on a new light. In a weird way, Carol's threat that she'd kill Sam if he told anyone that she stole the guns echoed what the boy must have heard from his dad many times: Don't tell anyone about this, or you'll pay. It probably explains why he took it so nonchalantly and kept going over to bother Carol, rather than leave her alone like any other child might. And though Carol has developed so much since the start of the series, this discovery cut back to the very first person she was: the quiet abused wife and protective mother.
Having not seen Father Gabriel much since they arrived in Alexandria, I was a little caught off guard by his sudden sell-out. The cold open with him ripping out the pages of a Bible (ouch) mirrored another Father-Gabriel's-having-a-crisis-of-faith cold open: the one where he manically tried to scrub the blood out of the church floorboards. If there was anything that felt unearned about this episode, or just not properly set up, it might have been his betrayal to Deanna. He's been a kind of one-dimensionally unlikable and pathetic character from the start, but his explicit undermining of the group's newfound situation seemed excessive. Though he took sacred vows, he's obviously the spiritual weakling of the bunch, a nice parallel to how Rick's group sees much of Alexandria—incompetent and fearful.
I'd hoped Deanna would have brushed off Father Gabriel's madman murmurings as just that: the panicked words of an unstable individual. And there's still a chance she might and the show will sow conflict elsewhere. At least, that would be the most sophisticated way the writers could bring this season to a triumphant close.
Sims: Deanna probably would brush off Gabriel, if her son weren't dead after one day traipsing around with the group. Obviously that's news that's yet to break, but I think that's why I wasn't very inspired by this episode—all the crises were coinciding a little too cleanly. Hopefully the brewing confrontation will be a little more complex as you say, but if not, I actually thought Gabriel's breakdown made sense. While Seth Gilliam's casting suggested he'd be a crucial cog for the future of the show (The Wire alums usually are very heroic when they get to The Walking Dead), he's never really gelled with the group. Each episode has laid further groundwork for both his ongoing crisis of faith and his distrust of the group—Gabriel is on board because he wanted to survive, not because he cares about the people around him. And, of course, we know he's a coward. Perhaps he's identified Alexandria as the kind of place where he wants to stay, but without Rick's pernicious influence.
I'm in agreement on Carol's relationship with young Sam, though. Perhaps that's one reason she's so resolute in requesting that Rick kill his abusive father: because she's distressed that she, ever so briefly, entered into the same dynamic she was once on the other end of. Threatening Sam with (implied) violence if he tattled could have gone a lot of ways, a lot of them bad for Carol, but instead he fell right in line and became almost more eager to make her happy, because that's the type of abusive authority he's sadly used to. This is the kind of characterization The Walking Dead has been so good at this year: exploring its protagonists' worst tendencies—many of them learned through years in the post-apocalyptic wasteland—and questioning how justified they are.
Fans admire the hard-headed survivalist warrior Carol has become, of course, and there was something magical about the mother-hen performance she slipped into the minute they arrived in Alexandria. Her intimidation of Sam could have just been a character note, a sign of how much she's changed since the early seasons of the show, played almost for comedy. But Sam's backstory not only undermines the callousness of her behavior, it does it in a way that doesn't feel forced or excessively dark. I'll forever be more shocked by a simple story like this one, about base human darkness, than I will by someone's face getting ripped to pieces. That's the reason to keep coming back to The Walking Dead.