The Walking Dead will always be a heavily serialized show. There will be occasional stand-alone episodes that tell a contained story, but even those will serve the larger narrative; this is a series that has invested from the start of its run in following its characters through their lives, and making sure those lives are always a matter of one thing leading to another thing leading to another. That comes from the comic book, in part, but it’s also a function of modern television—we’ve come to expect continuity. Besides, the zombie apocalypse wouldn’t be nearly as engaging if every week didn’t bring with it the possibility of fresh disaster, a disaster which will have permanent consequences for the rest of the run.
That said, heavy serialization can be even more difficult to pull off than no serialization; the writers need to find a way to make each episode distinctly itself, even in the context of the big picture. If they don’t, everything blurs to get and boredom creeps in. Which is part of what made season 2 such rough going in spots. There were no sense of momentary closure, no shorter plots buried in the longer ones, at least not in any meaningful way. It was just people wandering around yelling at each other and stalling until the various finales. (And hell, those finales were pretty good. Remember when Carol’s daughter was already dead? That was strong stuff.)
Thankfully, the Walking Dead creative team has gotten much, much better at structure. Which is why, even if the core message of the show still irks me, I can find myself getting caught up in immediate events. “Remember” is one of my favorite episodes of the season to date for several reasons, but one of the big ones is the effort the script takes in giving what is essentially the first step in a longer journey the feeling of a complete unit. There’s an arc here. It’s given some flavor by the videotaped meetings between Deanna, the leader of Alexandria (the new town where Rick and the others are taking shelter), and various members of the main group. But the main point doesn’t need the flavor: our heroes take the risk of getting involved with Alexandria, they find that everything is (mostly) on the up and up, and they decide to stay.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but what makes this work is how well Rick and the rest are contrasted against the largely nice, but disturbingly complacent citizens of Alexandria. While it’s still possible that the town has some dark secret (and Deanna’s son Aidan is an asshole), the episode works very hard to establish that they’re decent, trustworthy folks. There’s some “waiting for the other shoe” tension throughout the hour, but none of these people really seems like a threat. Which creates it’s own sort of discomfort, at least for me. At one point, Rick shaves his beard off, and a nice neighbor lady (Jessie) offers to cut his hair. There is no menace in this scene at all, stated or implied, and yet it’s somehow unsettling—her kindness, and the thoughtful, patient maturity that Deanna shows throughout, is unnerving. Not because it’s a lie, but because they seem to be sincere, and that means a new kind of risk.
Then there’s Rick, and Daryl, and Carol, and the rest. The video interviews are clever, but largely unnecessary, outside of one amazing moment. When Carol sits down in front of the camera, she looks a little different; she’s friendlier than you’d expect, and more enthusiastic about joining this new group of people. And then she talks about her dead husband Ed, and how much she misses him. If the truth wasn’t obvious before, it’s obvious then. She’s lying because, as she later explains to Daryl, she wants to get a good job (Deanna assigns jobs) that will let her get a sense of the community. She’s no more trusting than the others. She’s just better at covering up her true intentions. (Being an abuse survivor gives her an edge. Carol is familiar with hiding how she’s really feeling.)
There’s one dispiritingly familiar sequence when Glenn and Tara go out with some of the local zombie hunters, and find out the guys are dicks who get weirdly invested in revenge against specific walkers; we’ve seen this sort of short-sighted alpha male bullshit before, and while it helps to create some tension between our heroes and the regulars (tension which Deanna then defuses, interestingly enough), it’s not really necessary. What comes across most clearly in “Remember” is the uber-competence of the central ensemble, their skills as survivors, their hesitance to accept the possibility of peace, and their ruthlessness once they realize they might have found a new home. Over and over, Deanna stresses that it matters who people were “before,” an idea Rick rejects; and while he accepts her offer to become the new constable (along with Michonne), he’s still driven by what he sees as the more immediate reality. This is a nice place, he tells the others, and if the locals turn out to be too soft to hack it, well, they won’t pose much of an obstacle if our group decides to take over.
That’s a strong, potentially fascinating dynamic, and while the show has a history of introducing neat ideas, only to fumble in the execution, this one has a good chance of working. Another reason that “Remember” works is that it’s the first time in a while that the show has suggested the possibility of a new status quo, one that could significantly affect how things work from now on. This could all fall apart by the end of the season, but if Rick and the others stick around, Alexandria could be a home base that offers more chance for loss and moral complexity than previous settings. Rick keeps saying that life is about survival, but here’s a chance to make it about more than that, and it could be interesting to see how Rick deals with that possibility.
And hell, not just Rick. Carl has one of his strongest scenes in a while when he goes to hang out with some kids his age, and they offer him a choice between playing video games or playing pool. He freezes up. After seeing him turn into a grim-faced killing machine over the past two years, it’s reassuring to realize he can still be taken aback by something so straightforward (and yet so understandably overwhelming) as a chance to do basic teenager things.
This also makes Rick and Daryl’s resistance (Daryl is especially not having any of this) more than just simple toughness. There must be some fundamental insecurity in most of these people that they’ll be able to adapt to a “normal” life again. And their natural response to that insecurity is also the response they’ve had drilled into their heads for months now: circle the wagons, trust no one, and prepare for war. This could theoretically pit them against Deanna and the others, and while we’ve seen the main ensemble fight other groups before, this is the rare time when it’s hard to know who to root for. Both sides have clear, even sympathetic reasons for behaving as they do. That makes the thought of them pitted against each other more compelling than just a matter of who shoots first.
- I was surprised at how much I liked Deanna. She just seems so reasonable!
- Also, she’s a former congressperson who is so good at reading people that, if she hadn’t won re-election, she was going to be a poker player. That’s fun backstory.
- “I like it here. I like the people. But they’re weak, and I don’t want us to get weak too.” -Carl, laying it out.
- Deanna, on assigning people jobs: “Looks like the Communists won after all.”
- Okay, I may have misheard, but it sounds like Aidan and his buddy called guns “sweet ass biscuits,” which is about the dumbest damn thing I’ve ever heard.
- Not sure what to make of Rick’s brief encounter with Jessie’s husband, so I’ll just mention it here.
- “But if they can’t make it… then we’ll just take this place.” -Rick