By now, it’s clear where this season of The Walking Dead is heading; there’s going to be a confrontation in Alexandria between Rick’s group and Deanna’s group over the fate of the town. Probably more people will die, zombies will presumably will be involved. But the way this show is, the big explosion can’t hit until the end of the season, so right now, we’re stuck in the rising action—which, at least in theory, is a perfectly fine place to be. Most serialized thrillers like this one aren’t a constant series of detonations—there are lulls between big bangs, key periods of time when things are clearly getting worse, but not yet as bad as they can be. It’s like music, really. If you’re loud all the time, you deafen the audience and you lose the impact of loudness.

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So I’m not not here to criticize the show for not blowing all the stops this week. There’s a terrific sense of rumbling ugliness just behind the scenery, a feeling that all of this friendliness and goodwill and calm is just going to make the bad news worse when it finally arrives. The problem is, to keep things from boiling just yet, we need to keep following various subplots that aren’t anywhere near as interesting as the main question of just what the hell Rick is planning on doing.

Take, for instance, Carl and his new girlfriend. It’s nice that Carl gets a storyline for once, and he’s not terrible or anything. But there’s nothing particularly compelling about watching two grade schoolers skip around the woods, talking about how life makes more sense in the chaos. Ostensibly, this all fits in to the larger point about how Rick’s group (Rick most of all) is struggling to fit in, and how the world is changed, and the debate between Rick’s way of doing things, and Deanna’s, but the concept is curiously forced, even given the dictates of the situation. Something’s off in the rhythm of all of this, too many of the arguments about what the world is really like now ring false, contrived. It doesn’t help that there was no real moment in which the main ensemble seemed to really try and settle in to town; a few scenes here and there, but not the necessary calm before the storm. They arrived, they were immediately suspicious, and then things got worse. It’s not as bad as earlier arcs in the show have been, but it still seems truncated by the demands of its placement in this season.

Then there’s Sasha. Michonne and Rosita’s efforts to talk her down drum up drama with the idea of how difficult it would be for the survivors to adjust to a peaceful life, but the PTSD narrative just doesn’t ring true. The theory is sound enough, but the result borders on self-parody. Which is bizarre, because it makes sense that Sasha would be messed up after the season she’s had, and that Michonne would still be carrying some scars (and that Rosita would be, um, there I guess), but while the sequence had intensity, the intensity had no weight. I still struggle to care about Sasha’s breakdown, and while Michonne’s behavior here is important to make her decision at the end of the episode more powerful, it’s still not all that thrilling.

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Compare that to Glenn’s brief conversation with Nicholas, a conversation that has some immediate darkness behind it. Nicholas is covering his ass, but Glenn is just saying the truth, the sort of well-intentioned move that will, this show being what it is, inevitably lead to chaos down the line. (The discovery that Nicholas is the one who found Rick’s gun does not bode well.) It’s not high drama, exactly, but it at least feels like it matters, and like it’s a scene that came out of the characters’ choices, and not just because the writers decided this week that these two needed to have an argument. The show has gotten so much better at mood and pacing that’s it’s painful to realize the character weaknesses are always going to hold them back. Well, the character weaknesses and the basic premise, but that’s an argument for another day.

Still, Rick’s scenes packed a wallop this week, building to an ending that I didn’t expect. The scene with him and Jessie in the garage plays up Rick’s unhinged mental state to a degree that’s surprising, even in a season that’s worked hard to suggest that its protagonist is no longer as all there as he used to be. After seeming to set up what looked like romantic chemistry between Jessie and Rick in earlier episodes, the writers appeared to go in a different direction in entirely—Pete’s abuse is still a factor, but Jessie acted legitimately disturbed by the way Rick was behaving, to the point where it threw into doubt all of those earlier assumptions about her feelings for him. Which is deeply unsettling, and a really smart place for the show to go, demonstrating just how skewed Rick’s perceptions have become. The scene immediately afterwards of him standing in the street, struggling to keep a grip in the face of what looks for all the world like peace and prosperity, was effectively nightmarish.

And then he forces his way back into Jessie’s house and lays the whole situation out for her; and now, for some reason, she decides that’s she’s totally down for having Rick as a protector. I guess you could say that learning your son was trying to find a gun to protect you would change your perspective on things, or that Jessie is frightened enough of Rick that she’ll say anything to appease him, but she doesn’t act frightened; and while learning what Sam did would definitely give anyone pause, Jessie seems mostly interested in finding out if Rick is trying to protect her and her son because he has feelings for her. When he tells her he does have feelings, she’s totally on board. The character doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this point, but hey, maybe she’ll pull herself together next week.

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The Rick/Pete fight that served as the episode’s climax was pretty cool, though. And it led to a breakdown for Rick that throws the whole “I’m going to take Alexandria over” plan in jeopardy. Rick has been on the edge for a while now, but it’s fascinating here to watch him rant at the townsfolk, because part of what he’s saying (like the fact that these people are absolute shit at going on runs outside the fence, unless it’s Aaron on a recruiting trip) is legitimately true. That doesn’t make him sound reasonable or even sane, but it also makes him impossible to dismiss. The show has tried to do ambiguous conflicts before, and fumbled them because it’s hard to work up a lot of tension when the “bad” guys are too indistinct to be a clear threat. But there’s tension right now because the Alexandrians’ apparent decency works in perfect contrast with our heroes’ rugged desperation. It’s still entirely possible that all of this will collapse next week, but for once, there’s a fight going on with a risk that feels more pressing than the loss of a location or the sacrifice of a couple of cast members. We’re trying to figure out if Rick Grimes has a soul left.

Stray observations:

  • A caveat: I missed the first ten minutes or so of this week’s episode due to DVR woes. Managed to get a scene breakdown of what I saw from a friend, but feel free to disregard my grade even more than usual.
  • Very curious where the “W” forehead mark is going. Aaron and Daryl find another body on a recruiting mission, only this one is a woman tied to a tree and left to be devoured by walkers. So is there a nasty group out there, or is this just a lone Alexandrian, driven insane and turned serial killer? Whatever it is, I’m guessing this will be a factor in how next week shakes out.
  • The fight between Rick and Pete was well-shot for the most part, appropriately brutal and disturbing. (I liked how Pete knocked Jessie away when she tried to intervene, and then Rick knocked Carl away when he tried to intervene.) But the shot of the red balloon floating off into the sky was a bit much.

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