After a mesmerizing 5th season premiere, The Walking Dead’s second episode of the season, “Strangers” (written by Robert Kirkman and directed by David Boyd) was somewhat of a mixed bag. It provided a cohesive theme of forgiveness touchingly carried out throughout the episode, as well as some interesting character beats. But it also suffered from some predictability and credibility – stretching (even within its own universe) moments. Mostly, though, it had “set-up for future episodes” written all over it.
The satisfaction quotient in seeing the whole group together again was still high in this episode, especially with the slow motion montages of them walking through the woods in unison. After some time, the group rests momentarily, and we get the first vestiges of the episode’s theme, as Rick absolves Tara from culpability in the prison attack, even indulging her fist bumping request.
Tyreese and Carol have a little talk by a river, and in telling her that some of the group knows and accepts what she did at the prison, (and he will make the others accept it as well), he is proclaiming that he has truly forgiven Carol for Karen’s death. But he won’t tell about the girls. That’s too painful, and he just needs to forget. Carol’s reaction to his words made it clear that she knows such things can never be forgotten.
Rick and Carol have a nice moment together, continuing the theme of forgiveness between members of the newly reunited group. Carol returns Rick’s watch, and his gratitude at her heroic acts at Terminus, along with her continued care of baby Judith (in Rick’s absence) result in him asking to join Carol on the road that he banished her to not so long ago. Carol accepts, of course. And with that another fence is mended.
Carol, though seemingly happy to be with her group again, is trying to push the events concerning Mika and Lizzie as far down as the recesses of her mind will allow. She won’t, or can’t, tell Daryl anything. It’s a testament to how much Daryl respects Carol that he acquiesces and stops asking questions so quickly. A little later, Daryl’s tracker senses perk up when he feels like someone may be watching and/or following the group. And it turns out he’s right.
As the survivors make their way through the woods, Bob and Sasha are acting way too happy together, playing a game of “good out of bad,” complete with kisses. Since this show is famous for suddenly showcasing the actions of a supporting character before killing them off, it wasn’t hard to guess something bad would happen to one of them in this episode.
When the group hears human screams for help, Rick, – no longer saddled with his “we can work this out and live together ” mentality that he had during the prison attack – is leery to respond, but his conscious, AKA Carl, runs to lend assistance. It’s here we’re introduced to Father Gabriel, who sits upon a rock and can’t do anything more than scream for help as walkers grab his feet. It’s hard to believe that anyone would venture into the unknown in the zombie apocalypse without a weapon, but apparently, he has the word of God to protect him. After our group of survivors saves Gabriel, he tells them he has been holed up in a church nearby, and Rick, immediately suspicious (and rightly so) of a lone guy out in the woods vets Gabriel with his three important questions. But Father Gabriel hasn’t killed a single walker or human, and he does have that church, so the group head out toward it.
As they are shown arriving, the willing suspension of disbelief circuit in my brain is screaming at me. Why has this place not been overrun by walkers, when every other structure, including the farm, the prison’s fences, the morgue, and just about every other place in the history of The Walking Dead universe -including military installations – has been overtaken? There’s not even any barriers erected that could slow down walkers (like Morgan put up in Season 3). But alas, this was only one of many times I was taken out of the story by such things.
The episode quickly redeems itself, though, when part of the group heads inside the church. Throughout the series, the show has done many of these “discovery” scenes, and they’re always windows into characters’ psyches (with Carl’s reaction to seeing video games in a kid’s room and Michonne’s pain at finding the children’s skeletons in their beds examples from last season). This time, we see Carol stoically looking through handwritten pages of the Old Testament with “Thou Shalt Not Kill” written in big capital letters, Rick skeptically eyeing the empty canned goods lining the alter floor and Glenn’s almost imperceptible smile to a stitched biblical quote lauding good works. There was no dialogue in the sequence, but the scene said a lot about the interiors of our characters.
Abraham finds a short bus behind the church and is eager to get on the road to Washington D.C., but Rick wants to take a moment to gather food and ammunition. This we know, will inevitably lead the group to go on one of their infamous supply runs. Rick will take part of the group, and due to his extreme mistrust of Gabriel, demands he accompany them. Tyreese, however, will stay behind, content to be with Judith, who he has clearly bonded with while on the road.
Before the group leaves, Rick (afraid that Gabriel might have “friends”) warns Carl to be ever watchful, and reminds him that “You are not safe.” Though perhaps difficult for a kid to hear, Rick has to ensure Carl is being vigilant. But Carl, who at the beginning of Season 4 was going down a dark road, reassures his dad they are strong, and besides, “everybody can’t be bad.” It’s ironic that Carl tries to dissuade his dad from his aggressive cynicism, seeing how he was full of bitter resentment when Rick took a more passive, peaceful stance last season.
The group heads to town, and on the way there, Bob encourages Rick about D.C., telling him that a cure will be found, and they will get their lives back. Poor Bob, could it be any clearer that he is in serious trouble? He’s way too optimistic, and even a more blatant clue, the character rarely has dialogue with Rick.
Meanwhile, Daryl and Carol find a broken-down car nearby, and recognizing Carol’s distant behavior, Daryl tells her that people can start over, even in this landscape (which ironically is a lesson he learned from Beth last season). Carol says she wants to, but her disbelieving expression doesn’t match the sentiment expressed.
The group finds the local food bank, and when they enter they see that water has flooded the basement and turned it into a sewer of sorts. Down below are walkers, but the group hatches a plan to barricade themselves in with shelves, kill the walkers, and take the food. However, when Gabriel sees a walker that was clearly someone he used to know, the plan goes awry.
Now, the show is usually very good with their walker action sequences, and the zombies with their shriveled, waterlogged skin falling off were awesome, but something just wasn’t up to par in this scene. Why couldn’t Rick just go after Gabriel himself while the others kept fighting the walkers from behind the shelves? The decision to push the shelves down on the walkers and then “fight through them” to get to Gabriel seemed unnecessarily risky.
Even worse was the sequence of Bob’s attack by the walker. Though it’s plausible that he was caught off guard when he was pulled underwater, why did it take the others so long to come to his aide? Sasha, Michonne, and Rick were all behind Bob in the scene, but none of them could move faster to take this walker down? They’ve all fought much more efficiently, with many more walkers attacking than in this scenario. I know they needed to get from point A to point B with Bob, but the set up could have been executed a little better. Well, at least the group finally got a ton of supplies, which was satisfying to see because they never take enough on their supply runs! This time they needed carts to carry it all.
When Rick returns, Carl shows him some scratch marks and a phrase saying “you’ll burn for this” carved in the exterior wall of the church. This phrase seems to suggest Gabriel may have saved himself by locking the church down, leaving others to be attacked by walkers. In any case, between the carved words and the friend-turned walker woman, it’s pretty clear Gabriel has sinned.
With a shelter over their heads and food in their stomachs, the group is in a celebratory mood. Abraham makes a toast, and then takes the opportunity he’s been waiting for to appeal to the others to make the trip to Washington D.C. He tells them they can do more than just survive. They can get to a place that has an infrastructure built to withstand the worst, and have a real chance at a better life. They can, in literal terms, save the world. It’s a good speech, both by the character and the actor (the capable Michael Cudlitz has not been given much material to date). And considering that the entire group knows so little about what is happening in the rest of the outside world, it seems more than reasonable they would decide to make the trip. After some lighthearted laughter when baby Judith weighs in with her vote, Rick agrees to go. And just when there’s a happy, hopeful moment, we know something very bad is about to go down.
Before we get to that, though, there are more character beats to follow. First, we see more acts of forgiveness as Tara confesses to Maggie about her presence with the governor when Maggie’s dad was murdered. Maggie not only forgives her, but lovingly embraces her too.
And Rick, though grateful for Gabriel’s hospitality, lets him know in no uncertain terms that should any of his people be hurt by Gabriel’s secrets, Rick will kill him. Fair enough.
Next, Daryl sees Carol outside (near the car they found) attempting to leave the group. Why she would be willing to go it all alone is questionable, but perhaps since nobody else will sentence her for her actions, she is imposing the penalty of banishment on herself. More pressing matters come into play, though, when Daryl sees the car with the cross on the back (conveniently) drive right past him and Carol, and when he tells Carol it’s the people who took Beth, the two chase after them (in the car that has been conveniently fixed). Gee, all these working cars with gas should make taking the trip to Washington a no-brainer, shouldn’t it?
Back at the church, Bob sneaks out from the rest of the group and begins to cry, and since it was all love and optimism from him earlier, I’m thinking he got bit in that water. But we don’t get that possible reveal, because he gets knocked unconscious instead.
Bob awakens to the remnants of the Terminus people, including Gareth and – what the hell? – Martin, surrounding him. I can’t believe after Martin threatened Judith’s life (especially since Tyreese is so attached to her), he would let the guy live. But there he was. After Gareth gives Bob a little spiel about their actions being nothing personal (though, in their minds, “cosmic justice”) they proceed to eat his leg in front of him. This scene was macabre and grotesque, way worse than the troughs last week. It wasn’t’ due to the gore factor, which the show has gotten particularly explicit showing, but the sheer inhumane depravity of it. There was something about watching Bob – helplessly tied to a tree and completely alone – weeping as the “hunters” taunted him while feasting on his flesh that made me viscerally react so strongly it took me out of the story. It was sickening to a degree that the show, despite having shown a child murder her sibling, a wise old man get beheaded, and a teenage boy almost get raped, has not descended to before. For me, it was just too revolting.
One thing is for sure, when Rick and his gang get to the Terminus hunters, payback will be swift and severe. And when it happens, I will be on my feet, cheering for the Termites’ brutal, bloody deaths.
Overall, this episode had lots of interesting character beats, but stretched the bounds of credibility numerous times. I hate when the show produces those eye rolling moments when it could just try a little harder in showing why things are the way they are (like a brief explanation why the church wasn’t overrun or why the group members took so long to get to Bob).
The episode did ask many good questions: Was Bob bitten? And if it was in the leg, will the hunters eating it cause them to turn? Conversely, will they actually have saved his life by cutting off the affected limb? I really like Lawrence Guilliard Jr’s acting and I have warmed up to Bob, so I hope he gets a reprieve from his death sentence. We also still have no real answers to what happened to Beth, what Father Gabriel’s sins are, and what Morgan is up to trudging through the woods. But only two episodes in, and this season has effectively enticed us with these questions, and set the stage for (hopefully) revealing some compelling answers.