If you ever wanted a perfect visual metaphor to represent the core truth of The Walking Dead, you could do worse than the scene that takes up roughly twenty minutes of tonight’s episode, give or take: our heroes trudging slowly down the road, sweating and bitter and exhausted, while a horde of zombies trails behind them. The zombies are too slow to catch the living, but they also never get tired or bored or distracted. The humans will eventually weaken. They can either turn and face the danger, or they can keep walking, and hope the situation will change, even though they know, deep down, it won’t. And slowly, one by one, they drop, and the monsters feed, and the cycle continues.
Okay, that last bit doesn’t happen in “Them”—we are treated, thank god, to an hour in which no living people die, thank god—but it’s pretty strongly implied that it could happen; and even though Rick and the others stop to take care of the problem (and give Sasha a chance to show just how disturbed she is over Tyreese’s death), there’s also an understanding that the fundamental model never really changes. Unless The Walking Dead decides to throw in a miracle during the finale, the dead will keep rising, and keep walking, and the living will have no choice but to keep fighting to survive, until they make enough mistakes and they are brutally killed.
So yeah, that’s fun. But at least it looks neat on the screen, and the episode does a great job of selling the heat, exhaustion, and despair of its characters. The dialogue remains, at best, functional, and there’s a painful familiarity to so many of the conversations we hear. This person is struggling with grief. This person doesn’t know how to let themselves feel bad. This person has guilt. This person is angry because they feel bad. This person is worried. And so on and so forth. It’s not that this isn’t justified, exactly; these people have been through hell, and if they were all sunshine and rainbows after the deaths of two of their companions, it would’ve been absurd. But at this point in the run of the series, it seems like we’ve spent hours listening to inarticulate, wincing people fumble their way through blunt expressions of sorrow. The novelty is gone. Worse, it’s hard to give a damn anymore, because the grief no longer feels specific. It’s just one more corpse on the pile.
If you want specific, you have to turn to the show’s efforts at world-building, which, at least on the small scale, continue to be impressive. “Them” features one of the most unexpectedly disturbing reveals I’ve seen in a while: while looking for water, Maggie opens the trunk of a parked car and finds a zombie trapped inside. But not just any zombie—it’s a gagged woman with her hands and feet tied. While it’s possible that this is just the result of some misguided family member trying to hold onto a loved one post-zombification, the darker possibility immediately suggests itself: that the woman, while alive, was a kidnap victim, and was left in the car to die once the world went south.
That’s deeply, deeply creepy to me, in a way that forces me once again to think about the implications of the zombie apocalypse, only this time in an unexpected way. And even if you want to take the less unsettling interpretation, the way the scene plays out—with Maggie slamming the trunk shut, then struggling to open it again, with Glenn joining her and eventually taking care of the problem—is efficient, tense, and, in its own odd way, somehow moving. I’m still not really sure that the world needs a multiple season television series about the death of hope, but the fact that there’s still this much gas left in the tank is impressive, and helps to keep the more tedious aspects of the episode (oh look, Sasha is courting death after losing Tyreese, that’s new) from being completely overwhelming.
“Them” is a necessary episode; it serves as something of a palette cleanser after the unremitting misery of the previous two hours, wallowing in grief for a large chunk of its running time while still offering the necessary uplift in the finale to trick us into thinking that maybe things really work out okay. (Well, trick the characters at least.) And to its credit, the show doesn’t cheat to make things look brighter. Our heroes find water left by “A Friend,” but Rick and Abraham won’t let anyone drink it; there’s a rainstorm that helps fix the water problem, but it turns into a vicious thunderstorm; Daryl found a barn for the group to take shelter in, but their presence attracts a mob of zombies in the middle of the night. Sure, that mob forces everyone to work together, and probably allows for some kind of muted emotional catharsis, but Beth and Tyreese are still dead. And so many other people are dead, and soon most of this group will be dead too, for one reason or another.
Honestly, it’s not bad, and the arrival at the end of a new face—the “A Friend” who left the water, and who seems to know an awful lot about the group—has promise. Obviously that promise will eventually go from nightmare to daydream, but if we’re going to keep trudging down this road, even the illusion of novelty is welcome. It’s something I’m not sure I really make clear in these reviews; even with all my criticisms, I still find the show watchable, and occasionally even inspired. The foundation is rotten, and I don’t think can ever be truly fixed—these characters, even at this late date, remain thin if only because the crisis they find themselves in makes it nearly impossible for them to have personalities outside of the immediate problems. (Although some of the newer folks have done a good job of it.) Life and death is a consequence on a lot of TV series, but here, survival never seems like all that much of a reward. Congrats, you live to suffer another day.
Yet there’s still some energy here. I still hope against hope that maybe things will turn out okay. (I mean, they won’t, but the hope remains.) And maybe we’ll see some bad guys who aren’t immediately dispatched or boring. Maybe Rick and the others will turn out to be the real villains this time around. Maybe we’ll get a storyline that offers something with more texture than violence, death, despair. I mean, we won’t, but I’m going to enjoy hoping.
- I’ve avoided talking about the comics, mostly because I’ve only read the first fifty issues and I did not like them, but (and I guess this sort of counts as a spoiler, even though it has nothing to do with anything happening to a character) Rick delivering the “We are the walking dead” line tonight was unexpected. In the comic, it’s a hilarious melodramatic moment that suffers from Robert Kirkman’s didacticism and utter lack of subtext (and the meaning is a bit different). Here, it’s just an attempt to come up with an approach to life that can keep people alive and prevent them from losing their souls. I’m not sure it works even here, but it’s far better than a shouted monologue that’s supposed to CHANGE EVERYTHING and does not, so points there.
- I get nervous every time I see that baby.
- There is still some tension between Abraham and Eugene, although Eugene doesn’t appear to be suffering from the head injury he sustained previously.
- Here is an example of bad writing: Maggie, referring to a zombie: “She could’ve shot herself.” Carol: “Some people can’t give up.” That’s not a bad exchange. Little obvious, but not bad. Then Carol adds, “Like us.” As though it were possible for anyone watching the show to not make that connection. The series’ themes are so repetitive and one note that’s hilariously insulting that the writers believe we still need training wheels to keep up.
- “I have good news.” Oh dear.