Airdate: February 15, 2015
Directed by: Julius Ramsay
Showrunner: Scott M. Gimple
Written by: Heather Bellson (episode); Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore (graphic novels); Frank Darabont (creator)
With events from the last two episodes fresh in their minds, the members of Rick’s group find themselves in more and more desperate times as they move north into new territory. To make things worse, a nasty dry spell has set in, making it hard to find water, and impossible to find food. As bad as things have been, they haven’t reached their nadir yet – how much lower can things go?
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of The Walking Dead S05E10, “Them” – read more at your own risk.>>
How desperate are things? Try earthworm-eating desperate. The episode opens on Daryl digging around trying to find water, and unearthing a work instead, which he then eats. He even seems to enjoy it. Maggie looks absolutely distraught, and Sasha not much better, as she scuffs her foot in a dry creek bed filled with dead frogs. Their vehicles have all run out of gas, they’re out of food and water, and they’re just walking down the road, heading north toward DC. The only jarring thing is Judith – she looks happy, healthy, and surprisingly clean. In their defense, if they’re going to use real children to play Judith (unlike the extremely fake doll used in the recently Academy Award nominated American Sniper), then they need to keep them happy and healthy – but maybe a little CGI to make it look like she hasn’t come straight from the shower and a change?
Maggie is walking alone, even Glenn giving her some space. Karl approaches her and gives her a music box, which is broken. He can’t crack her, so he backs off, and Father Gabriel tries next. He tells her that he’s there if she wants to talk, and she basically tells him to shove it. She reminds him that he had one job to do, to take care of his flock, and that he turned them away. He has no right to talk to her.
As they trudge along, we can see a small group of walkers following them. Sasha wants to take them out, but Michonne tells her they need to listen to Rick, to conserve what energy they have left. Sasha insists she could do it alone, and Michonne brings up Tyreese, his anger, but this just angers Sasha, who tells Michonne that she and her brother are not alike.
Daryl heads off to try to find food and water, Carol insisting that she accompany him. He’s wound tighter than a spring, but he won’t open up, even to Carol. She tells him that Beth saved her life at the hospital, and she knows Beth saved his life as well. She offers him Beth’s knife, and kisses him on the forehead. This is not, however, the kiss that a considerable percentage of the fan-base has been hoping for. It is completely asexual, a very maternal kind of kiss. Imagine Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Teapot in Beauty and the Beast kissing Chip goodnight. Before they head back to the road, Carol reminds him, “We’re not dead – that’s what you said. You’re not dead.”
Reaching a bridge over a small ravine, Rick and company decide to deal with the walkers following them, expending the least amount of energy needed as they start leading the walkers to the edge, and then pushing them down the ravine. Sasha, however, has other plans, pulling her knife and wading into them, ruining everyone else’s positioning and putting the entire group at risk. She nearly stabs Michonne, and then does slice Abraham’s arm as the rest of the group find themselves having to react to her rage. She’s suddenly becoming an even bigger liability to the group than her pacifist brother was (don’t read this as a condemnation of Tyreese in toto – I love the character, and Chad Coleman’s portrayal, but there were times that Tyreese almost got people killed due to his inability to act). When the last one is down, Michonne grabs Sasha and tells her, “I told you to stop.” Sasha is defiant, and doesn’t appear to be sorry even a jot.
The group continues, and finds some abandoned cars. The moment here is when they’re checking for supplies, and Maggie finds a walker, bound and gagged, in the trunk of one of the vehicles. It looks vaguely like Beth might, had she been left to rot, and metaphorically it obviously reminds Maggie of the fact that Beth was kidnapped previous to her death. She shuts the trunk, unable or unwilling to kill the thing, but as she walks away, it begins to bang against the trunk. Maggie looks a little guilty, a little resigned, and heads back to finish the job. She can’t get the trunk open, so Glenn comes to help, and he kills the walker. This is reminiscent of the Sasha/Tyreese dynamic when Tyreese offered to deal with Bob, and Sasha later dealt with the Termite Tyreese had let go. Here, Maggie is admitting on a subconscious level that she can’t go it alone in this world, despite her anger and her pain. Glenn is trying to find a way back with her, and this felt like a first step.
The group sits to take a rest, and as they are waxing poetic on how things can’t get any worse, a pack of feral dogs comes out of the brush on the far side of the road, growling and menacing the group. Rick crouches, pulling his knife, as the rest of the group tenses – but Sasha takes out the entire pack quietly and efficiently, using her silenced automatic to do the job. She’s becoming quite the sniper, and has a quick eye. For fans of the comics, this may bring to mind a character that is no longer alive in the television show, but who ended up showing a similar skillset – I wonder if Sasha is intended to fulfill that role heading forward?
As everyone else stands around looking stunned, Rick does the practical thing: he gathers firewood so they can get some dogs on the barbecue. This scene is definitely disturbing, and represents a nadir of sorts for the group. While they’ve been able to avoid the cannibalism that corrupted Terminus, eating dog is such a social taboo in North America that, for some, it comes a pretty close second on the list of “things I’d never eat.” This is a pretty gutsy move by showrunner Gimple, as it does step over some pretty serious boundaries – but I think it is an incredibly effective way to show just how desperate things are for the group. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unpalatable, but it’s something the group has to do to survive. Among the group, Noah looks the most disturbed by their actions, telling Sasha, “I don’t know if I can make it.” “Then you won’t,” she replies, lacking any sympathy whatsoever.
There’s a hugely symbolic moment that happens here. The camera lingers on the empty dog collars on the road (“Duke” one of them says), with the fire and the roasting meat in the background. As they sit there eating, Father Gabriel removes his starched clerical collar and tosses it into the fire. The dogs’ collars are symbolic of an earlier, more civilized time, when they were man’s friend, not feral wild beasts searching for food and survival. Similarly, the clerical collar is representative of Father Gabriel’s civilized past, when he gave solace and succor to his flock, when he had the authority and respect necessary to offer the kind of counselling he offers Maggie. He took his first step into the modern post-apocalyptic reality when he picked up the machete a few episodes back; here, he takes the second and final step. He may not be ready, but he is cognizant of his situation, and of who he is.
Abraham confronts Sasha, trying to use his tough-love technique (although not quite as tough as the tough-love he showed Eugene some time back). He tells her, “The way things are going, you’re what’s going to make things worse. You’re with friends,” to which she replies, “We’re not friends.” Cold as ice.
Daryl heads off again looking for water, coming across a solitary barn. He sits against a tree to watch for movement, and lights up an extremely dry cigarette. He takes a couple of pulls, and then puts it out on his hand. The foley people do excellent work here – you can hear the sizzle of Daryl’s skin – and he hardly flinches before dropping the still-smoldering cigarette to the ground. He starts to shake a little, and a tear rolls down his cheek. He’s fighting his emotions every step of the way, but finally, he’s able to release some of the pent up sadness he’s feeling over Beth’s death.
This theme of water continues when the group comes across a more mysterious gift on the road – a bunch of neatly placed water bottles and jugs, all filled, with a note: “From a friend.” The group looks around warily, Daryl scaring them a bit as he makes noise on his return. They’re not sure what to make of this offering, afraid that it’s likely more than it appears. Eugene, showing his true nerd-cred, picks up a bottle and opens it, saying “Quality assurance” as he goes to take a sip. I say nerd-cred, because as he said this I immediately pictured him in some little software start-up in Austin, back when he was a teenager, doing game testing (aka Quality Assurance) for minimum wage, and loving every minute of it. Before he can take a sip, Abraham knocks the bottle out of his hand, spilling water everywhere.
This is an interesting moment, as it shows that Abraham has, despite almost killing Eugene when his secret was revealed, has at least on some level gone back to being protective of the less-able (at least physically) man. I don’t know if this spells a true rapprochement between them – I suspect not – but it at least hints at the continued viability of the two of them being in the same group.
As they stand around trying to figure things out, nature finally gives them a gift: it begins to rain. Nay, it begins to pour, and as Gabriel mouths thanks to the god he so recently forsook, Rick and the rest quickly set out their bottles and hats to catch as much water as possible. However, the gift is a little to bountiful, and they’re quickly making their way to the barn Daryl found earlier, seeking shelter from what is quickly becoming a violent storm.
In the barn, Maggie finds an extremely lethargic walker, which she is able to dispatch. Carol stands with her, and tells her that “Some people can’t give up – like us.” This voices the previously unvoiced, save for perhaps by Tyreese last week – that they’re on the verge of giving up, that a large part of each of them just wants to stop trying. Rick recognizes this, and tries to rally the troops around a fire that night.
He tells them about his grandfather’s experiences in World War II, how he pretended he as dead each and every day, so that living became a reward, and something of a surprise once the war was done. Rick equates them to those soldiers facing hell, saying, “We are the walking dead.” He reminds them that, “We do what we need to do, and then we get to live.” He’s saying that yes, this isn’t a life they’re leading right now, but if they just do what they need to, they might get to live again one day. As I watched this, it put me in mind of the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary special that was airing after ,i>TWD (on a different network), and I actually called him Debbie Downer, one of SNL‘s recurring characters from the past. As far as motivational speeches go, it wasn’t the most rousing – but really, it was exactly what the group needed in this moment.
Right after this, a pretty important moment happens. The group is down, just about out, resorting to eating dog meat and relying on random rainstorms to give them water. They’re lying about the barn, no one sleeping close to one another. The wind outside is howling, making the barn doors shake and bang, and Daryl goes to check on them. Outside in the flashes of lightning, he sees a large group of walkers coming right for the barn. He leans into the doors, trying to hold them out, but there’s no way he can do it. Sasha sees what he’s doing, and runs to help; then Maggie sees the two of them, and adds her strength. We begin with the three mourners, as established earlier in the episode. Each has resisted help, trying to deal with their grief alone. But here, when faced with an external existential threat, they begin to remember shades of their past, when they worked together.
In ones and twos, the rest of the group sees what’s happening, and rushes to help, even Eugene and Father Gabriel joining them. Everyone, save for Judith whom Karl laid carefully on the ground before adding his strength, joins together and holds back the night and its terrors. It’s quite an intense scene, with lightning strobing and wind howling, glimpses of walkers pressing up against the boards of the barn door. We go to black, and then to Maggie waking up. The whole group, earlier spread throughout the barn, is now sleeping together in a giant circle, each tight up against each.
Daryl comes over to Maggie, and they talk a little about Beth and Tyreese. They share more than they’ve been able to recently, a sign that things might be improving. Daryl hands her the music box that Karl had given her earlier – he’s fixed the mechanism, taking out some grit. Sasha joins Maggie, and the two go outside. The walkers are strewn about in bits and pieces, some impaled in branches and under fallen trees. A wide swatch of destruction passes right beside the barn – a tornado ripped through in the night, taking out the walkers but sparing them.
They walk a little ways off. Maggie tells Sasha she has to show her something – she wants her to see the sunrise, to find some semblance of beauty again. They talk a bit, and Maggie opens the music box. The little ballerina inside is blonde, again a reminder of Beth. Despite Daryl’s ministrations, it doesn’t work. Disappointed, Maggie places it on a fallen tree beside her.
Suddenly, a voice – a man approaches them, his hands raised. “I’m a friend,” he says. “I want to speak to your leader, I believe his name is Rick?” Maggie and Sasha, guns trained on this unusually clean and well-dressed man, look totally shocked. He introduces himself – his name is Aaron – and he tells them, “I bring good news.”
Can’t get much more allegorical or biblical than that. This episode is rife with Christian allusions. The trudge through the desert without food and water is reminiscent of the forty days of Lent; the storm and rain akin to Noah’s flood; Daryl’s self-inflicted hand wound a symbol both of stigmata and of self-flagellation movements (which also resonates with a conversation Gabriel has earlier with Maggie regarding hair shirts); and this is not to mention Gabriel’s burning of his collar, and subsequent thanking of God when the rain comes. In every way, the group tonight took on the role of Job from the Bible, tested beyond any human limits, and finding new strengths within their faith – but here, it is a faith in the group, and what it can do to help its members survive. This is, in many ways, the world of the apocalypse, the world of the dead rising from the grave of Revelations, but for the group, it is a post-religious world. Their faith has been destroyed, and now a new faith is rising up within them, a faith in each other.
Ending with the introduction of Aaron is a very interesting turn. His is a name that will be familiar to readers of the comics, but that doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot on the television show, where characters have been recast consistently into roles others have held, and some have been created out of whole cloth entirely. Whether Aaron truly brings the “good news” he claims, or is another prelude to some sort of new evil the group must face, there is one thing for certain: this stage of their journey is now over. Their world is about to change – Aaron is clean shaven, well-dressed, and apparently has access to large supplies of water, as evidenced by the stash he left the group on the road earlier. Where he takes Rick, and by extension us, will be the telling of the next few episodes. I look forward to watching the group slowly pull itself out of this pit of despair.
Steve’s Grade: B+
A slower-paced episode, but a welcome respite. The symbolism was a bit heavy at times, but it was good to see the group find new ways of being together, and of dealing with their grief. Aaron adds a very interesting element to the show that will be expanded in coming episodes – it’s always good to get new blood.