Welcome to another episode of The Walking Dead. This week’s episode is brought to you by the letter “fuuuuuuuuck.” Can you say “fuuuuuuuuck,” kids?

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“Thank You” picks up with Rick and the group trying to herd a swarm of walkers away from town, and as is to be expected on this show, things are not going well at all. Within minutes of re-joining our heroes, one of the Alexandrians gets himself eaten. Soon after that, the horn stops, but not in time to stop another Alexandrian from shooting one of his fellows in the leg in a bout of panic. Oh, and yet another Alexandrian sprains her ankle, because hey, it’s a horror show and we can’t give up on all the cliches. Did I mention the Alexandrian who cracks under the pressure and apparently gets Glenn killed?

In case you haven’t picked up a theme here, let’s underline it: the Alexandrians suck. Almost to a man (or woman), they suck, and their weakness and incompetence is putting them and everyone else in danger. This has basically been a running gag ever since Rick and the others arrived in town. The people of Alexandria are friendly and welcoming, but due to some lucky coincidences and a few good design choices, they’ve managed to stay at a remove from the real danger. But that can’t stay true forever. The shit is now getting real, and people are dying like noobs.

This is fine in concept, and it’s not hard to understand the appeal of this conflict to the show’s writers. By now, our main characters are so damn competent at what they do that it strains plausibility to have them constantly running into threats they can’t handle. Instead, why not give them a group of babes in the woods to take care of; this offers both a chance for raised tension and for drama as we contrast the harshness of Rick and Michonne and the rest against some folks who behave like how normal people (in our world) are supposed to behave.

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Unfortunately, this has never been a subtle show, and “Thank You” abounds with excessive sign-posting and belabored dialogue, making sure we don’t miss a point that’s been obvious since it was first introduced. The moment where the latest idiot to criticize Rick gets himself killed is clarifying to the point of absurdity. Is this just going to keep happening? Is anyone who doubts Rick’s wisdom going to literally lose face? (Or back, or throat.)

Characterization has always been one of The Walking Dead’s biggest weaknesses. The show has gotten better at it in the past couple of years, but even now, the clearest defining trait we have for anyone is their ability to survive. Rick, Michonne, Carol, and Daryl have distinct shadings to them, but at the core of who they are is their gift for staying alive when so many people around them have died. It’s a necessary trait, but unfortunately, it’s so dominant that it makes it difficult to see other aspects of personality. Everything we know about them, and most everyone else, is determined by how they relate to the challenges of living in a world full of zombies. Every character building moment ends up can only be seen through that lens.

This has made for some absolutely stunning set-pieces, and has built up a strong emotional attachment in the audience (when you know people can die at any moment, you tend to get invested in the ones who are really good at not dying), it also means that the conflict with the Alexandrians was doomed from the start. Ideally, we should’ve been able to appreciate the sheltered lives they’d been living as a beautiful, but doomed, experiment—there should have been a sense of loss that the town is being torn apart. Instead, it’s hard to summon up much more than low-level irritation for all these morons who keep hitting themselves.

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“Thank You” maintains a level of intensity throughout, which helps to gloss over the rougher bits; it just suffers every time it slows down to try and make some sort of point. Early in, Rick splits up with the others; he tells Michonne and Glenn to keep everyone moving, and that they will lose some people (by some people, he means “Alexandrians”)—when they do, they should leave those people behind. Heath overhears this, and doesn’t much like Rick’s approach to leadership.

Which is fine, and it leads to one of the better confrontations in the episode, with Michonne basically telling Heath to shut the hell up because he has no idea what he’s talking about. But refusing to leave well enough alone, we later get a scene of Heath insisting he and Michonne should leave someone behind—and on top of that, he later sees a reflection of himself covered in blood, which is pretty much exactly what Michonne told him would someday happen. It would’ve been less subtle if Michonne had turned and screamed, “YOU’RE JUST LIKE US NOW,” but only barely.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the whole arc of the episode is once again designed to prove Rick right. The group stops in town to patch up its injuries, and by stopping, more lives are lost, just like Rick knew they would be. If anything, he makes the mistake of not being pessimistic enough; he wasn’t prepared for the Wolves attack, and while he takes out the Wolves who try and hit him in the RV, he also runs into an engine that won’t run just as the zombies start coming out of the woods. That’s solid, brutal thriller plotting right there, but the show’s continued pessimism, combined with its weird way of punishing people for compassion, makes for something that lacks much shading. “Everything’s the worst, and it’s your fault for expecting better” is a hard pitch for a TV show, because it offers no opportunity for catharsis; just occasional breaks in the suffering, which inspire people to lower their guards, and then they die.

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Speaking of which: Glenn. I have a crazy theory about this—our very own Josh Modell came up with something similar independently of me, and given that he put together video evidence, I’ll let him do the explaining in a stray observations link below. But assuming Glenn is dead, what’s the arc here? Glenn spared Nicholas’s life earlier; Nicholas did his best to deserve that mercy; but ultimately he couldn’t handle the pressure, and when he finally snapped, he got Glenn killed as well as himself.

There’s something so fundamentally defeatist about this that I’m reluctant to critique it much further until we know for sure that Glenn really is a goner. But even putting that aside, this is a bummer of an hour. That’s an odd criticism to make (this has never been a happy show), but given how drab most of the Alexandrians are, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for watching them struggle and fail to keep up. There are occasional moments of brightness here, and Michonne continues to be a force of good in the universe, but the ultimate effect is like riding a fast train through a tunnel that never ends; there’s pleasure in speed, but sooner or later you start missing the light.

Stray observations

  • Here, as promised, is a video discussion of the Crazy Theory About Glenn (That I Really Hope Is True). (If Glenn really is dead, what miserable, depressing, and anti-climactic conclusion for one of the show’s longest running leads.)
  • Actually, I wouldn’t mind it if “men criticizing Rick and then dying almost immediately” becomes a runner on the show. Eventually it would be legitimately funny!
  • Glenn to Rick: “Good luck, dumbass.” Right back at you, buddy.
  • There’s a minor subplot about Daryl pulling away from Abraham and Sasha because he wants to find out what’s going on, but then rejoining them. It’s fine? I dunno. It’s interesting how the show has to hold Daryl back a little at this point; we can’t have too many bad-ass characters in play at once, or else we lose some of the suspense.
  • Plausibility concerns rarely bother me much with this (or any other) show, but it’s odd that they only hear a few gun shots late in the episode. I’m not sure how the timing of this adds up.
  • I get the point of the guy getting bit, wanting to send a message to his wife, Michonne insisting he’ll make it back alive, only to watch him torn apart a few minutes later—again, it’s that “Optimism will always screw you over” idea. But Michonne and Heath watching their former friend getting torn apart in gory detail without either of them thinking to shoot or knife the poor dude in the head to spare him the agony was frustrating. This should be standard operating procedure by now.
  • The Wolf who first attacks Rick at the end—that’s the one that Morgan faced off against, right?

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