There are several ways that The Walking Dead has improved itself over the past two seasons. (While season 4 was deeply flawed, much of what’s worked about season 5 started then, I think; the writers just needed to dig themselves out of the trap left by the previous three years.) The biggest and most obvious change is that the show has strengthened its character base, finding ways to make the main ensemble interesting and engaging to watch. There’s also a clearer understanding of how to use structure to tell more effective stories, as the mix of multiple focus and single focus episodes we’ve seen this fall has shown. But there’s something else, too; something which, while subtler than the other improvements, is arguably more important.
In short, The Walking Dead has gotten better at balancing hope against despair. At its worst, this was a show about irritating people who shouted at each other until some of them died. It was watchable (for those of us who liked watching) because those deaths were gory and horrific, and because there’s a brutal simplicity to a story in which every decision was almost always the worst. A show about tedious assholes struggling to delay the inevitable was never going to really be great, but it at least had the novelty of letting us enjoy the horror without ever getting emotionally attached to any of it. It was like watching a crummy horror movie sequel; the fundamental nihilism of the narrative made it easier to ooh and aah at all the gory stuff.
Now, though, there are moments of transcendence and hope which don’t feel like Lucy promising Charlie Brown that this time, she really will let him kick the football. “Crossed” has its share of such moments, particularly near the end: Tara’s awkward, utterly endearing sense of humor has managed to work its magic on Glenn and Rosita (also, she found a yo-yo!); Beth has managed to get Carol the drugs she needs, even if the odds are stacked against her survival; Eugene is awake again, although god only knows if his brain is working; and Abraham, after spending what seems like an eternity on his knees, finally accepts the water Maggie offers him. The shot of his bloody hand picking up the bottle was moving to an extent I was not expecting; it didn’t surprise me, as I didn’t think the show was ready to write Abraham off just yet, but it was powerful, and hopeful, stuff.
Then Sasha makes the mistake of trusting the most likable of the captives from the hospital crew, and he bashes her head into a window and escapes. In previous seasons, this twist would’ve felt like someone shaking their heads, reminding us that all is lost and never trust anyone, and being decent can get you killed. It’s possible that we’re supposed to take that message from this scene even now, but to me, it read as something more complex, something that made the optimism of the earlier scenes all the more valuable.
When The Walking Dead tries to insist that kindness is an inevitably fatal flaw, it fumbles. If we’re just watching people struggling against their humanity, failing, and then getting punished for it over and over again, it’s hard to give a damn about anything in the show’s world. But if this is a world where friendship and trust and affection can still exist; where it’s possible to be happy and build a life, albeit at great cost and sacrifice; well, then you have a story that’s worth telling. You can’t have everything always work out for our heroes, but you also can’t have every attempt at making a connection end with someone getting a face full of window. The balance matters, and the fact that the writers seem to understand this now makes both the happiness and the betrayal all the more affecting.
“Crossed” takes us back to the multiple focus storytelling that began the season, which makes sense; next Sunday is the last episode before the hiatus, and that means it’s time to bring everyone together, even if the “together” isn’t necessarily about them all sharing the same space. We follow several different groups: Rick and most of the church folks (minus Carl and Michonne) heading to Atlanta to save Beth and Carol; Tara, Glenn, and Rosita going to get water while Maggie keeps an eye on Eugene and Abraham; Beth trying to keep Carol alive; and, back at the church, Gabriel freaking out and deciding to run away from Carl and Michonne after Carl tries to convince him to learn how to defend himself.
Some of these stories work better than others. Gabriel’s struggles don’t really go anywhere, and it’s hard to get that involved in a character who’s behaving so clearly against his better interests; his sweaty panic and self-loathing are well-drawn, but after a certain point, you just want him to either die or get sane, and neither happen this week. (He does refrain from crushing a zombie’s skull because the zombie is wearing a cross. Because he’s a priest. Get it?) But even the weaker sections work towards telling a somewhat contained story on their own terms. While Rick and the others efforts in Atlanta remain unresolved (and Carol is still unconscious), there’s no sense of the muddiness that haunted the show’s worst efforts at serialization; the characters have clear, defined goals, and if those goals aren’t accomplished this week, we still know the end is coming soon.
We’ll have to wait until next week’s mid-season finale to know exactly how things in Atlanta shape up. This week, we see Rick is still pushing for the harshest solution to every potential problem, and Tyreese wants to try and avoid bloodshed if possible; surprisingly, Daryl sides with Tyreese. This could be because, with Carol and Beth both inside the hospital, Daryl wants to minimize the potential risk. But it’s also a sign that Rick has pushed past one of the group’s most effective survivors in the ruthlessness of his pragmatism. (I guess we’ll know Rick has really gone off the edge if even Carol tells him to hold back.) Yet Rick can still be reached. One of the officers they kidnap for a proposed hostage exchange recognizes that Rick used to be a cop himself, and the two of them manage a temporary mutual respect. That respect is destroyed as soon as the cop (Lamson, although I’m not sure on the spelling) manages to manipulate Sasha and get himself a chance to escape, but still, it was a nice chat they had.
While not as powerful as some earlier episodes, “Crossed” still gets the job done, moving characters to where they need to be for when the real shit goes down, and finding some small, human moments in the meantime. There’s also a scene in which Daryl rips off a zombie’s head and uses it to bash in an assailant, which is one of the more creative uses of a carnivorous corpse that I’ve seen in a while. Scenes of unexpected friendliness and humor, and scenes with body parts used as weapons; like I said, it’s all about balance.
- Tara is pretty great. Just wanted to say that. Go Team GREATM.
- Dawn, on the other hand, is not. I don’t know if it’s the actress or the character, but her one scene with Beth this week just made me cringe. (I just don’t buy her as an authority figure.)
- Carl is very big on teaching self-defense.
- A nice moment between Rick and Michonne before he left for Atlanta; he’s worried about Carl, she offers to rake Rick’s place on the trip because she “owes” Carol, and Rick tells her he owes Carol more.
- We finally get some backstory from Rosita. Nothing major, but the character feels much more like a person now,
- One of the reasons Sasha mistakenly trusts Officer Lamson is that his first name is “Bob.” She’s broken up about her Bob’s death; this isn’t something we necessarily need to see a lot of, but it’s nice that her and Tyreese’s scenes together helped to justify her (bad) decision in the final scene.
- Beth’s raid on the medicine cabinet, including a quick strawberry bribe to another ward of the hospital? Cold as ice. That lady adapts.
- There won’t be a screener for next week’s episode, so the review will post later than usual. See you then!