If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to suggest a thought experiment. Try, if you can, to describe Sasha, one of the show’s secondary ensemble members. But you have to follow a few restrictions. First, you can’t describe her by race, or by gender; second, you can’t describe her in terms of her relationship to other characters. So “black woman who was Tyreese’s sister and Bob’s girlfriend” is right straight out. Also, try to describe her without describing her specific emotional state in “Forget.” What I’m looking for is a word picture of Sasha that will bring to mind her fundamental traits as a person, the elements of her personality and history that set her apart from the rest of the group. I want to know who Sasha is—not her reactions to the present situation, but the core self that drives those reactions, that make us care if she’s happy or sad or bordering on homicidal.

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Go ahead, give it a try. Maybe you can manage it, which will render this whole experiment moot as a critical device; all I know is that I sure as hell can’t. Through no fault of Sonequa Martin-Green (who regularly manages to suggest both vulnerability and intense internal conflict), Sasha is a cipher, a figure who has no true self outside of her immediate context. Which makes the storyline in “Forget” that focuses on her distress not all that thrilling to watch. Yes, she’s stressed because Tyreese is dead and Bob is dead, and now everyone expects her to act like the world is normal again. That is entirely reasonable, no matter how much Deanna gets up in her face about it. The scenes at the beginning of the episode of Sasha struggling to sleep, and then going out into the wild and shooting family photographs, begging a walker to pick her off, are nicely done. But they don’t mean anything beyond themselves. There’s no sense of her really changing as a person, and no true drama in her coming undone, because there was no clear Sasha to change. Who knows who she’ll be next week, and who really cares.

The biggest problem with the show’s ensemble right now is that it’s too goddamn big, and while the writers have done an admirable job filling in most of the cast, there are still weak spots, and still lots of faces getting lost in the shuffle. When Abraham and Rosita turned up at the big “getting to know you” party later in the episode, I had actually forgotten they existed, and the two of them are two of the more memorable members of the group. It was frustrating to see Beth and Tyreese die in such rapid succession, but it’s clear that there needs to be some kind of winnowing going on. We just added a whole new town of strangers. Who knows if any of them are going to matter.

“Forget” works best when judged by its individual storylines. Sasha’s arc is overwrought and bordering on self-parody, and there’s a clunkiness to some of the dialogue scenes that’s probably always going to be a part of the series, for better or worse. (Wait, it’s for worse, why did I even act like that’s a question.) But Rick’s arc is good, and Daryl’s bonding session with Aaron is moving in a way I didn’t at all expect. Even Carol’s small contribution (which climaxes with her telling a young boy that he’ll be kidnapped and left for zombies if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut) is a sign of how much she’s changed, and how far she’s now willing to go.

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These stories work because they’re well told and go in unexpected directions, but also because we know who the characters are. They have the benefit of having been with the show from the beginning, and even if their development has been clumsy or half-hearted over the years, they still have a history we can latch on to. Rick is the one who used to be invested in being the good guy, in finding peace and maintaining the law; that makes it creepy as fuck when he starts making eyes at a married woman, and fondles his gun while watching her and her husband walk down the street ahead of him. Daryl is an emotionally reserved survivor with a redneck past and a sensitive soul—seeing him bond with Aaron is dramatically effective because it’s not immediately clear if Daryl will put up with him or tell him to fuck off. When he doesn’t, and when Aaron offers him a job as a recruiter (a gig which Daryl is legitimately pleased to take on), it’s satisfying because it feels earned. An exchange of trust was made, and it meant something because we know the risk Daryl is taking.

“Forget” is an example of the show’s central problems in miniature. The world-building is iffy; apart from the fact that the locals are generic intellectual liberal types (there’s a potentially interesting class warfare vibe to the interactions between Rick’s group and the Alexandrians), we still don’t really know how the town is set up, or how it works. There’s the usual unsettled feeling that hits whenever the characters are forced to stay in one place too long, like the writers have to work to figure out how to tell stories that aren’t about people running around in immediate danger. And there’s the trickiness of the characters mentioned above. Sometimes they land, sometimes they don’t, and when they don’t, they can drag down whole scenes.

The visual storytelling remains strong, however, and there’s so many possibilities for ugliness in the weeks ahead that I’m looking forward to seeing who wrecks things first. Rick is a legitimately interesting character now; not because he’s the “leader,” but because he’s showing a nasty, dangerous side that’s presumably been developing for months. While antiheroes are a dime a dozen, turning Rick mean could potentially make him far more exciting than just a dude who looks worried a lot, and it could also create potential new plots for this season and beyond. The final shot of him standing next to the wall, listening to a zombie outside, and smiling, is evocative and creepy and, as is so often the case on this show, effective because of its wordlessness. We’re not exactly sure what’s going through his mind just then. But it’s probably not good.

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Stray observations:

  • Olivia asks Sasha to bring her back a boar’s leg for some kind of cooking thing. These people couldn’t be more obviously out of their depth if they were drowning.
  • Sasha uses a silencer while shooting up pictures. Wouldn’t you want to conserve those? Does someone in town know how to make them?
  • While planning the Great Gun Theft, Rick, Carol, and Daryl find a walker with a “W” carved on its forehead. So that’s gonna be a thing.
  • While out hunting, Daryl and Aaron find a horse that Aaron’s been trying to catch for months. Daryl almost gets a rope around the animal’s neck, but zombies show up, and the horse gets eaten. This is probably a metaphor about how you can’t run free in this world forever.
  • Aaron uses his and Eric’s status as gay men in a largely heterosexual group to try and win Daryl over. It works surprisingly well, but also reinforces the feeling I sometimes get that this show was written in 1987.
  • Michonne hangs her sword on the wall. It’s almost like the sword is a symbol of her violent past, which is totally not an idea the show has driven into the ground already.
  • Great song cue at the end. Really unexpected and cool.

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