Well that was fast. Rather than stretch out Gareth and the other Terminus survivors as recurring threats lurking in the shadows, “Strangers” follows the premiere’s lead, diving right in with irrevocable results. This quick-burn approach to plot is a welcome change for the series and one that will hopefully continue, at least for a while. The closing scene is an effective one, opting for certainty over a cliffhanger—rather than question whether the Terminus stragglers (including Martin, or as regular reviewer Zack Handlen has so lovingly dubbed him, the Asshole) will hurt Bob, the camera pulls back to reveal that they already have. It’s a viscerally disturbing moment (though for those curious, yes, it could be worse) and one that demonstrates commitment on the part of the writers to this storyline. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple seems to have learned from the mistakes of the post-Woodbury Governor arc, tightening the shading of the villain from a mini-arc to bookends in the premiere and teasing the possibility not of foes hiding out of sight, but an ally, Morgan.

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Bob’s amputated leg may be a surprise, but with so many shots of him and Sasha cozying up together, “Strangers” telegraphs harm coming his way almost immediately. The Walking Dead has played with the theme of survival versus living several times, often paying it mere lip service before moving on, but here it is prominently featured, with Bob, Carl, and Abraham each making their own pitch for life: Bob’s an optimist, Carl a pragmatist, and Abraham a pitch man. Abraham is selling, and hard, with promises of safety and comfort waiting in D.C. that this group should see through immediately, but it’s Carl’s approach that likely convinces Rick. He knows better than to think safety is out there somewhere for him and his group, but if they’re going to keep moving, why not head to D.C.? As the group eats dinner, they’re bathed in warm light—a stark contrast to their emotionless episode-opening march—showing the power and comfort of aspiring to more than mere survival. Rather than undercut or devalue this with the final scene, the series leaves the topic open for debate by crippling but not killing Bob—how does an optimist react to being irreparably harmed, but not immediately killed?

The most compelling case for life over survival, however, comes from Michonne. While many fans will miss her katana, it’s lovely to hear that she doesn’t. Michonne has come a long way over the past two seasons; she’s much more than the woman with the sword. It’s great to see the show recognize and embrace this. Her conversation with Rick works well, checking in on their relationship and nodding to the audience, who may have been wondering what had come of the katana. There are several such interactions in this episode and unfortunately, most are not nearly as successful. The entire first act of the episode slows the energy and pace of the premiere down to a crawl, with one unnecessary and clunky exchange after another.

Whereas Michonne and Rick are pushing a cart together, giving them a reason to catch up, Tara and Rick’s conversation is labored at best. They had plenty of time to go over any lingering resentments in the Terminus boxcar. Everything shown here is solely for the audience’s benefit and neither the script nor performances hide this. Also extraneous, though well-shot, is Carol’s talk at the creek with Tyreese. There’s no need to catch the viewer up on who knows which dark secrets, particularly when Carol shows her reticent to speak about the girls so soon afterwards with Daryl, in the best of the episode’s brief exchanges, successful precisely because the two do so little talking as they sit watch. Carol’s earlier scene with Rick fares better, but is similarly stilted. The lighting is gorgeous, which certainly helps, but again, the dialogue feels completely inorganic and strained. Rick’s, “Will you have us?” is a surprise though, and a nice, compassionate note to end on.

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This may be a conversation-heavy episode, but as The Walking Dead so often does, it also delivers a compelling and inventive central action set piece. The newly introduced Gabriel, thankfully left somewhat of a mystery, leads the group to the food bank, where they face the show’s latest twist on the undead: slimy, skeletal zombies. As in “Seed,” this is the group working as a well-oiled machine and it’s satisfying to see them calmly assess the seemingly perilous situation and execute their plan effectively. This is how they’re still alive. The zombies are appropriately gross and the Walker in the glasses that so terrifies Gabriel (his photo at the end of the episode may contradict this, but she’ll always be Grandma Ethel Zombie to me) is absolutely hilarious, but Bob’s attacker is one of the least effective zombies the show’s done. As for Gabriel, he’s yet to make much of an impression, but his reticence with Rick is almost refreshing—the last thing the character needs is a revealing, tortured monologue. There’s no sense that the group will be staying at the church for long, but it’s also nice that the writers don’t feel the need to rush them out the door either.

Despite its disappointing start, “Strangers” is a promising follow-up to the compelling and energetic “No Sanctuary.” With much of the interpersonal politics and exposition handled, hopefully Gimple and company will be able to expand quickly on the threads established here and continue to build momentum through the season.

Stray observations:

  • The ominous music at the end of Carol and Daryl’s watch scene may be over the top, but the combination of electric guitar badass scoring and Western-influenced light, ostinato drums for their slow motion walk down the road is great.
  • Tara’s admission to Maggie of her collusion with the Governor is a lovely moment and one of the few bits of character negotiation that really did need to be addressed. That being said, she gives Tara a warm hug and Rick mentions how the group is a family, and yet the only person to say Beth’s name is once again Daryl. When Beth pops back up, like she will, the writers are going to have some careful work to do trying to make Maggie never mentioning Beth feel organic.
  • Carl may want to give Gabriel the benefit of the doubt, but thankfully he’s not an idiot and immediately alerts Rick to his discoveries on the exterior of the church. This helps legitimize his point of view and give his opinion weight—he’s not a naĂŻve kid to be coddled, he just has a different perspective.

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