This week’s installment of The Walking Dead, “The Distance” (writer Seth Hoffman’s third episode this year), set up all its building blocks for the rest of the season. It moved our group to Alexandria, introduced us to two new characters (with the potential for many more), and gave us unique insight into veterans Rick and Michonne.
At the beginning of the episode, Maggie and Sasha bring Aaron to the barn to meet the group. It quickly becomes clear – as everyone jumps up and draws their weapons – that our survivors have learned a lesson or two about the prospective danger human beings can bring. Of course, their wariness was as it should be. I particularly liked how it was showcased when Aaron took a step forward with an “it’s nice to meet you,” making everybody react, with Daryl moving right behind him and Maggie putting her hand out to say “oh no you don’t.” It was a wordless but effective way to show the initial mindset of this entire group.
Aaron, who has been watching the survivors, explains his reasoning for the intrusion: He has a community, and Rick’s gang, being the tight knit, brave, and strong group that they are, would be a good addition. Aaron knows that in this landscape, people are the greatest resource. But after hearing his seemingly earnest appeal, Rick responds by punching Aaron in the face.
Aaron comes to, tied up but undeterred, and continues to plead his case. He seems convinced that his people need Rick’s people. Aaron even brought vehicles to bring them all to the community, but conveniently, they’re not within viewing distance. This sets up the need for everyone to separate in order to check out Aaron’s story. Rick is certain this all means trouble for his group, but Michonne makes an adamant declaration that she’s going to see if it’s all real, as the potential to have a safe place to live is too tempting.
I liked Michonne’s hopeful attitude here. She has come a long way from the sword wielding, pet-zombie carrying woman she once was. And with the possibility of getting to a safe haven, it was right for some of them to go check it out. But calling Rick’s attitude dangerous for the group? Doesn’t anybody remember Grady Memorial, which, according to the show, took place less than a month ago? Nobody wanted to go with Rick’s plan of killing his way through Beth’s captors, and instead went with the brilliant “trade” idea. And ultimately, that plan got Beth killed. Not to say that Rick is infallible, but he has good instincts (he was a cop, after all). And he is pretty reasonable. He ends up agreeing to Michonne, Glenn, Maggie, Abraham, and Rosita looking for the cars, while the others split into pairs to watch the perimeter of the barn.
On the road, Glenn takes charge, ordering that they shoot anyone who comes near them. Michonne is in a moral dilemma about that, suggesting people may come along who are just like their own group. But Glen only responds “If it’s someone like us, we should be afraid of them.” Michonne then reminds him that people like them saved Father Gabriel, turned the other cheek and took in Tara, and “saved a crazy lady with a sword,” obviously turning her into somebody very different. Indeed, throughout this episode (and in other recent ones) we see how Michonne has transformed into someone so invested in her people that it makes her long for something to hope for them. I also get the feeling the writers are making a sharp turn by replacing Tyreese with Michonne as the voice of reason (and perhaps the moral center) in the group. But I’m not sure I buy that switch completely.
It was an interesting commentary on the small group’s uneasiness with possibly encountering other humans when the five hear rustling in the woods, and they fear it might be some of Aaron’s men. When they see a walker emerge, they all seem to breathe a sigh of relief, and some of them even put down their weapons. With their predictable nature, walkers (as long as they don’t outnumber our group members) have come to pose less of a threat than people.
When Rick and Aaron are left alone in the barn, they end up having a showdown of sorts. Aaron tries to win Rick’s trust, and Rick, wild-eyed and perpetually suspicious, won’t buy into what Aaron’s selling. I actually loved Rick’s line “Just because we’re good people, doesn’t mean we won’t kill you.” Kind of says it all.
When Aaron proposes that Rick give a hungry, crying Judith some applesauce (which Aaron brought) to quiet her down, Rick smartly wants the stranger to taste it first. Aaron then seems to get quite offended that Rick would think the applesauce might contain poison. Honestly though, Rick’s behavior doesn’t seem all that paranoid to me. Given what’s he’s been through with other human beings, it makes perfect sense.
The fact that Aaron initially balked at eating the applesauce just because he hated the taste seemed pretty unrealistic. It was a contrived way to attempt to add suspicion – and thus tension – to the scene. But then again, perhaps it was there to give us a bit of Aaron’s backstory concerning the kind of childhood he had with a mother who would make him eat foods he didn’t like in an attempt to make him “more manly.”
When Michonne gets back with the others, having verified the reality of the vehicles, she once again challenges Rick’s leadership position by declaring that they are making the trip with Aaron. At least this time she asked if anybody else had any input. Rick concedes, but wants to take route 23, instead of 15, the route Aaron cleared. I know this was yet another point inserted just to get our group into a perilous situation later, but how exactly did Aaron and his people clear an entire route, then also ensure no walkers would stumble upon it after it was cleared? I know, I know, I shouldn’t ask questions that have no answers.
While the whole group drives the two vehicles toward the community, things seem to take a more sinister turn. Aaron took no pictures of his people, making Michonne suddenly grow suspicious enough to ask him Rick’s three questions. Aaron’s cryptic answers were a much more effective way of making his motives ambiguous (and infusing the scene with tension) than the applesauce bit was. But Michonne’s growing suspicions would have to wait, because the “non-cleared” road is full of walkers, which Glenn mows down in order to let the RV behind him turn around and escape.
When the car won’t restart (too many walker parts in the engine), Michonne, Aaron, Rick and Glenn have to get out, giving us the biggest action sequence of the episode. It’s noteworthy that even after (almost) five seasons, this show still knows how to do these big scenes, combining music, lighting, and actor reactions to provide a sense of urgency and strong foreboding (not to mention always having a cool walker kill – this time using a flare gun). I must admit, I did let out a little yelp when Glenn got attacked by that walker. The show has killed off so many group members lately, I half expect there to be one every episode now. Thankfully, there wasn’t.
The four make it to the garage, where they’re reunited with the rest of their people, and where we meet Aaron’s partner, Eric. Aaron finally reveals (feeling indebted to the group for saving Eric) that his community is in Alexandria. So after Glenn convinces Rick that Aaron and Eric won’t be plotting against them through the night, the group rests up for what may be their most important journey yet. Now – comic book spoiler alert – I don’t read the graphic novels, but I do know that Alexandria plays a very important role in them. So the fact that our group is finally on their way there is a big deal.
Michonne and Rick shared two conversations in this episode: In one, Rick reminds her of the huge responsibility he carries in determining the fate of his people (not to mention his own children) when choosing to enter the gates of a strange area. The silence that surrounded places like Woodbury or Terminus still haunts him. In the second conversation, Michonne responds by telling Rick it’s time to let go of the bitter suspicion and fury – at least a little bit. Yes, it’s what has kept him and the others alive, but Michonne echoes the same sentiment Carol expressed to Daryl about how those feelings – those experiences – can consume you. And then, right there, on the spot, Rick seems to soften a bit. But unwilling to go all the way, he sneaks off and stashes a weapon near an old shack. Old habits die hard, Rick.
When the group finally drives up to the gates, we get the most moving scene of the whole episode – with a close up of Rick’s eyes as they convey first his intense worry – and then his immense relief as he hears the sounds of kids playing from behind the walls of the camp. I think we may have even see a glimmer of hope flash across those eyes as well. Before they go in, though, Carol tells Rick, “Even if you were wrong, you were right.” Carol knows all too well how those feelings of mistrust consume, but how they also keep you alive.
The theme of hope pervaded this entire episode – just like it did last week. That’s two in a row, so we know something bad is going to happen soon. The question is, what will that something be? The “humans are bad” plot has been done to death – literally, causing the death of many group members. This time, the story inside the walls of the Alexandria community has to be different. But having covered walkers, bad people, and even a plague in previous seasons, what does that leave?
One thing this show knows how to do, though, whatever the plot, is move the characters into different places emotionally. We see their transformations – large and small – in every episode. Not every show is good at doing it, but The Walking Dead excels at character exploration within whatever story it’s telling.
Now we wait to see what’s in store for our group. Is Aaron one of the good guys? Does he have a hidden agenda? What other characters will we meet? Will our group members get to have their own houses? (Seriously, I think it would be interesting to see who goes to live with who.) The camp seems pretty secure, so any walker action will have to take place outside its walls. Right now, the last few episodes of Season Five are a blank slate. But as the show always manages to do – they have me curious to see what’s next.