Episode: 511
Airdate: February 22, 2015
Directed by: Larysa Kondracki
Showrunner: Scott M. Gimple
Written by: Seth Hoffman (episode); Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore (graphic novels); Frank Darabont (creator)

Last week saw the group at their absolute nadir, with the deaths of two mainstays happening in short order, and both water and food running out as they head north. Just as it looked like tension and desperation would break the group apart, we got a wonderful moment of bonding as they worked together to hold the barn doors against both nature and a horde of walkers. But the real stunner was the in the close – who is this Mr. All-American hiker dude? Is Aaron good, bad, or indifferent? And what – or who – has he been eating to look so healthy? Click through for my review of tonight’s episode, where we may get answers to all or none of these questions.

<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of The Walking Dead S05E11, “The Distance” – read more at your own risk.>>

Right off the bat, it appears that both Maggie and Sasha, despite their caution, have decided that Aaron might just be legitimate. They bring him back to the barn, where everyone immediately grabs the nearest weapon to hand and gets ready for a fight. Maggie points out, however, that if Aaron had wanted to ambush them, he had them dead-to-rights out in the bush earlier. He speaks, telling the group that he wants them to “audition” to be allowed into his community. His job: “to convince you all to follow me back home.” He has pictures of his settlement in the backpack he was carrying, but Rick doesn’t look impressed. Maybe it’s because Judith started to cry immediately upon seeing Aaron. Regardless, after glancing at a couple of the photos, Rick strides toward Aaron and decks him with a sharp right hook.

About half the group – notably Maggie, Sasha, and Michonne – appear to be shocked and/or angry at this action. In fact, Michonne turns to him, and says, “So we’re clear, that look wasn’t a ‘Let’s attack that man’ look. It was the, ‘He seems like an okay guy to me’ look.” Rick explains that he wants to find out what’s really going on, and wants Aaron tied up. From Aaron’s backpack, Carl retrieves a a flare gun, immediately igniting Rick’s suspicions further. When Aaron wakes, he rather glibly compliments Rick on his punch, but Rick isn’t one for small talk at the best of times. He asks Aaron how many others are out there, using the flare gun as evidence that the newcomer is not alone. This is where Aaron suddenly starts to get interesting for me. Rather than answering Rick directly, he points that no matter what he says – “Eight…thirty-two…four hundred forty-four” – Rick won’t believe him, because he sees that Rick has already made up his mind.

Rick starts to get all Rick again. This is the new, never trust anyone ever again Rick, who is a product of all the horrible experiences they’ve had over the past couple of years. This is part pragmatism – after all, trust has not carried him or the group too far in the past – but a big part of it is PTSD. There’s no question that he’s suffering inside; he’s been broken (following the death of Lori), and had to rebuild himself. But even in the aftermath of losing his wife and the prison, he was still faced with horrors that would leave most people gibbering messes. Terminus and the ensuing Hunters episodes come to mind immediately, but let’s not forget also the Claimers, and how Rick managed to get out of that situation, literally tearing his captor’s throat out with his teeth. Events like these – they do not leave a person the same…or sane, for that matter.

That said, I love Rick – he’s all about the group and its safety. It could be argued that, with his two children, he actually has more at stake than any other member, although I’m sure an argument could be made for every one of them. But being that he has also been the de facto leader of the group since Shane’s death, it has been interesting to see people standing up to him this season – Daryl and Tyreese earlier, and tonight Michonne and Maggie. The two of them listen to Aaron’s story – that there’s one other watcher, and that they have two vehicles nearby to transport them – and they believe it. Michonne tells Rick – and this is an important distinction, as she is clearly not asking him – she tells Rick that she is going to go check out these vehicles. In the end, Maggie and Glenn say they’re going too, Rick asks Abraham to go as well, and Abraham asks Rosita to come as well. The five of them head off, while Rick pairs up the other survivors to go off into the bush and keep watch in case Aaron isn’t what he claims. Rick stays behind with the prisoner.

Aaron continues to try to smooth-talk Rick, telling him that while he’s been watching them, he’s seen that they’re good people, which means they’re not going to kill him. In one of his more verbose moments, Rick tells him, “Just because we’re good people, doesn’t mean we won’t kill you. If the five of ’em aren’t back in an hour, I’ll put a knife in the base of your skull.” Yep, can’t get much more direct than that. While they’re waiting, Judith starts to cry again, and Aaron points out that there is some apple sauce that Rick found in his backpack. Here, again, we see how pragmatic Aaron can be, as he tells Rick that he isn’t doing this altruistically, but rather as a self-preservation tactic: if Judith cries, walkers will come, and the guy tied up to a post is going to be the amuse-bouche. Rick hesitates, and then brings a spoonful of the sauce to get Aaron to eat it. Aaron resists, telling Rick that he has an aversion; apparently, his mother used to force him to eat certain foods in order to make him more “manly” – because apple sauce is the manly sauce. I’ve done some gender studies over the years, and this is the first I’ve heard of this. But good thing to know. So Rick keeps insisting, and Aaron – again, sounding logical and sane – points out that hurting Judith is not likely to predispose Rick to being friendlier, so he has nothing to gain. This, in fact, becomes the tenor of the interactions between the two men: Aaron sounds extremely sane and Rick does not. Aaron finally takes a taste, proving that the sauce isn’t poisoned (at least with nothing fast-acting), and Rick feeds Judith.

On the road, Glenn has taken on the Rick “I’m completely mistrusting and a little bit insane” Grimes role, telling the others that if they see anyone, they’re to shoot first. Michonne here begins to not just step into her role of voice of reason, which we’ve seen hints of the last couple of weeks, but she seems to really embrace it. She points out to Glen that if the group had taken that tack in the past, Gabriel wouldn’t be there, and neither would she. But Glenn makes a helluva point – if the group out there is anything like them, then they should be scared. There is a sinister moment, as we get a brief glimpse of a man watching them from behind a vehicle, dressed a lot like Aaron in a plaid shirt with a functional tan backpack. Notably, he does not have a weapon bared.

Right where Aaron said they’d find them, they find the two vehicles – one, a late model gas guzzling Cadillac, and the other an RV (cue poignant memories of Dale – more on this later). Point: Aaron. So far, his story seems to check out. After taking out a couple of nearby walkers, Abraham and Rosita check out the RV. Imagine how happy Abraham is when he finds a cupboard with S’getti Rings – he’s going to get “real” food again! He has a moment with Rosita (whom he thanked outside when she helped him dispatch one of the walkers), where he apologizes to her for his actions out on the road – well, he kinda sorta apologizes, saying about what happened after he’d beat Eugene, “Did you think I was going to hurt you?” to which she replies, “No – it’s not you.” That’s about the best the emotionally repressed Abraham is going to manage, but it seems to be enough for Rosita.

They bring the vehicles back to the barn, and while Rick continues to hesitate, Michonne takes charge, telling the group that they’re going to go with Aaron, and challenging anyone to speak up if they don’t want to. Everyone – even Rick – agrees to go, although he’s still recalcitrant at every step, refusing to follow Aaron’s instructions for where to drive, and insisting that they drive at night – he wants to be able to check the settlement out before walking into yet another trap.

Apart from the others, Michonne confronts Rick and asks him if he really meant that he would go. He tells her he will, but that he’s still necessarily cautious. He asks her, “When you first went to Woodbury, what did you hear?” “Nothing,” she says. “And Terminus?” “Nothing,” she says again. He’s bringing up the two deadliest groups/locations they’ve had to deal with, as a means to remind her that he’s not just being paranoid: common sense and past experience are dictating his actions, even if his traumas are clouding his judgement.

That night, in the car, Michonne is sitting with Aaron in the backseat, Glenn and Rick in the front while everyone else follows in the RV. Rick, is checking out what’s in the vehicle, and finds a pile of license plates. Apparently, Aaron is trying to collect copies from all fifty States in order to put them up on a wall in his house. Michonne is surprised that he has a house, and he tells her that there are pictures in the envelope he brought. She looks, flipping through several that show walls, houses, solar panels…but no people. She realizes this, and asks him where they are. He starts to tell her that he took one of the entire group, but that it didn’t develop properly. She turns to Rick, suddenly cold. “Did you ask him the questions?”

They ask him. He’s killed too many walkers to count, and says he’s killed two people. His reason: they were trying to kill him. To make matters worse, Rick finds a directional mic stored under the dash. Aaron points out that he told them he had been following them for some time, but Rick is angry. However, before they can delve any further into this line of questioning, they run into a horde of walkers on the road. This comes down to Rick’s mistrust again. Aaron had told him to take Route 16 North, as his group had already cleared that route, but Rick insisted on taking an alternate path in order to avoid predictability. So here’s the end result of this: dozens of walkers smashing into the front of the vehicle, smearing blood and gore over the windshield to the point where they can’t see at thing. Through the horde, Glenn stops the vehicle. They get out to see if they can spot the RV, but it’s no longer behind them, presumably avoiding running into the large mass of walking dead.

Dozens more are approaching the Cadillac, and, of course, Glenn can’t get it started. Michonne runs outside, and starts removing arms from the grill, when a flare goes up beside a nearby water tower. Rick’s suspicion goes through the roof – he thinks that they may be under imminent attack from Aaron’s group which, combined with the sudden disappearance of the RV, puts him into psycho-warrior mode. Aaron shouts, “That’s it, I’m done” and kicks open the door (his hands are still bound behind him), knocking down Michonne, who was just trying to get back into the car. Aaron takes off, and Glenn, Rick, and Michonne end up in a pitched battle against walkers.

Glenn ends up on his own, and is almost taken down by a walker that comes up on him from behind. Instead, he’s able to smash its skull against a rock. As he returns to the road, he sees Aaron, hands still tied, trying to kick a walker away, but being largely ineffectual. Glenn looks like he’s going to keep walking, but shakes his head and rolls his eyes, walking over to deal with the walker. He then cuts Aaron’s ties, and tells him he can run if he wants to. But Aaron, ever the optimist, tells Glenn that they can survive if they work together.

Rick and Michonne are being overwhelmed. Rick runs out of bullets, while Michonne does her best to keep the katana swinging. Reaching for whatever he has on hand, Rick grabs the flare gun. He shoots the nearest walker right in the eye, and his entire skull lights up from inside by the burning flare, like some kind of macabre walking jack-o-lantern. Michonne does what she can, Rick now using his machete; still, it looks like there’s more than the can handle – until gunfire rings out, and the walkers begin to drop. Glenn and Aaron are there – the latter now holding his handgun again. Aaron immediately offers the gun to Rick, and tells him he can tie him up again if he wishes. Rick takes the gun, but lets Aaron walk free.

They walk into the nearby town with the water tower. Rick whistles, and Daryl answers – they’re all holed up in a small warehouse. We get to see who shot off the flare – it was Aaron’s partner, Eric, who has surrounded by walkers and had broken his ankle. In a panic, he’d shot off the flare; Aaron, knowing it had to be Eric, was frantic to get to him, hence his actions back at the car, kicking the door open and running.

Aaron and Eric have a very sweet moment, when Aaron basically tells Eric that he thought he’d lost him. Rick, lurking in the shadows, sees this exchange. This is very important, because it shows Rick that Aaron is actually a good guy, that his motivations have been coming from a good direction. Anyone that can show the kind of honest love that Aaron is showing can’t be all bad.

Aaron sees Rick, and speaks with him. He opens up a bit more, telling Rick and the group that the location they’re going to is Alexandria. Still, Rick doesn’t want Aaron and Eric together that night, fearing that they’ll plan something. Aaron tells him that the only way he’ll stop him from being with Eric is to shoot him, and Rick actually looks like he’s ready to do so. Remember, this is the same guy that shot constable Bob Lamson back in Atlanta, telling him to “Shut up” in the process. Glenn, who knows who Rick is becoming even if Aaron does not, steps in to point out the obvious: they’re unarmed, and Eric’s ankle is broken. This is not to mention the even more obvious: that they vastly outnumber the two recruiters. They aren’t going to be able to get up to any mischief. Rick acquiesces.

The next day, we see Abraham driving the RV, while Eugene plays poker behind him. In the back of the RV, Eric is asleep on the bed, while Aaron watches over him. Noah shows up and offers some pain pills, telling Aaron they’re actually for him, because he knows how much having your wrists bound hurts – echoes of Grady Memorial. They come up over a rise, and the Washington DC skyline comes into view. Rosita looks at the capitol, and tells Abraham to look. He looks satisfied – his mission all along, although derailed recently, was to get here – and even a “Low Voltage” light on the dash can’t dim his spirits, as he says, “We can make it.”

Of course, they don’t, as the next scene smash cuts to the RV broken down on the side of the road, Abraham smashing his fists against the stubborn vehicle. They need a new battery, and he figures they’re not going to find one easily – until Glenn shows him a hidden panel with several batteries inside. Abraham asks him where he learned about that, and although Glenn doesn’t answer, we all know – from Dale, who taught Glenn about RV repair back in the days after the CDC. Nice little shout out to one of our favorite passed characters.

Michonne takes Rick aside – he’s all jumpy and ready to fight at the merest hint of something amiss. She tells him that the “fight’s over – you’ve got to let it go.” She tells him that if he holds onto his anger, onto the fight, that it’ll eat him up from inside. He nods, but doesn’t give in just yet. He tells her that he needs to take a moment before they get going again. He walks to a nearby house and, finding a discarded blender on the ground, hides a pistol inside it. Watch for this pistol to make an appearance at some later date. While The Walking Dead does occasionally dip below excellent, the writers are always on their game, and there’s no way that the gun is being placed there as a red-herring. To paraphrase the great Russian playwright Anton Checkov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”

The episode ends with the group driving up to the gate at Alexandria. Rick sits in the car, the engine idling, seemingly unable to take the next step. Michonne looks at him with concern, and asks him if they’re going to go in. He nods slightly, and turns off the engine. Children. He hears the sound of children playing. We get a close shot on Rick’s eyes as they begin to widen in surprise, and not a little wonder. Have they finally found a place where children can safely play outside?

I cannot overstate how powerful this moment is. Rick hears the children, a clear contrast to what Michonne failed to hear at either Woodbury or Terminus. He seems to deflate a little, but not in a bad way – it’s the tension that he’s been holding inside his chest ever since he awoke in the hospital all alone. He goes to the backseat and takes Judith. This is a beautiful shot, taken from below and in front of Judith, showing her blonde hair glowing in the background light. He picks her up, and they head toward the gate.

After last week’s massive low-point, here we see the group apparently on the verge of reward. Rick still doesn’t trust fully, and so he shouldn’t. Carol puts it most succinctly when she comes up to him beside the car, saying, “Even though you were wrong, you’re still right.” Even though Aaron wasn’t BSing them about Alexandria, even though it doesn’t appear to be a trap, Rick was right in being suspicious, in putting the welfare of the group ahead of trusting strangers. I agree with Carol insofar as Rick should be suspicious; where I part ways with her is in that I feel he didn’t have to be such an asshole about it. Hitting Aaron seemed gratuitous, and Rick’s inability to trust nearly got them killed on the way to the town.

For Rick, the world is purely Manichean – there is only black and white with no shades of grey between them. This might serve to keep them alive in the short run, but as Michonne so rightly points out several times tonight, it might also cause them to miss an opportunity to be doing more than merely surviving.

Do I believe that Alexandria is exactly what Aaron has portrayed it as? For the most part, yes. He and Eric just don’t smack of the urbane cannibals of Terminus, or the forced politeness of the Governor. This is not to say that there won’t be a dark side to all of this. This is, after all, The Walking Dead. In that this is not the series finale (or even the season finale, for that matter), we know that it’s only a matter of time before things to go massively awry.

That said, I’m looking forward to next week’s episode with a great deal of anticipation, as we learn exactly what this community is all about. We should get to see how a well-established group has found ways to compromise and survive in this new world, and hopefully we’ll get a hint of the inevitable darkness to come. After all, Rick’s paranoia is bound to be, like the gun Rick hid, something more than a red-herring.

Steve’s Grade: A
An excellent episode that keeps viewers off balance as the tempo changes throughout, giving us a lot more action than last week while still giving us plenty of new knowledge. We got to learn a little more about Aaron, and met his partner Eric. Get ready for a whole slew of new people as the group enters Alexandria next week.

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  1. dave says:

    Thanks for another excellent review. It was interesting that they ended the episode, as you put it, by deflating the tension unlike so many (most?) that end with some sort of “cliffhanger” moment, that hints at a bad turn about to come. Of course, that unusual “relieved” feeling only makes you question even more, “what’s going to go wrong here?” Good episode!

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