The Walking Dead: Season 4, Episode 15 – Us

“There ain’t no ‘us’”.

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After the very dark territory of last week’s little side trip, this week’s penultimate ep of The Walking Dead’s fourth season gave us a much more conventional bit of storytelling. You couldn’t exactly say it was light relief, not in this show; but there were no shock twists, and nobody we cared about died. More importantly, after weeks and weeks of angst-ridden soul-baring, this ep suddenly seemed to (finally) get the plot moving again. Question is, where to?

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After many weeks of alternating between showing us a couple of the groups en route to the mysterious ‘Terminus’, this week caught us up with practically all the surviving major characters. Tyreese and Carol weren’t in evidence, but then we only caught up with them last week. And Beth is still MIA, though I daresay next week’s season finale will reveal what happened to her.

Everyone else, though, was present and correct, though Rick, Michonne and Carl got only one brief scene as if to remind us that they’re still trudging on down the rail tracks. It was tokenistic, sure, though it’s nice to see Michonne and Carl having some fun, and lightening up a bit. More to the point, it paid off later in the ep, as we found out that genial thug Joe was leading his gang of marauders after the “piece of fecal matter” who killed their friend and left him to turn; this was, of course, Rick. As they too trudged down the tracks, we were clued in to how close behind they were when they passed Carl’s discarded chocolate wrapper. What’s the betting Daryl, with his tracking skills, noticed that surprisingly fresh bit of litter?

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. There were two major plot strands in this ep, and one of them was indeed following Daryl and his new ’friends’. It turns out they’re not just lawless thugs – they have rules. Rules of which Daryl was unaware, but he learned as the story progressed. Anything can be ‘claimed’ simply by saying “claimed” (which explains the title of a previous episode), stealing’s a no-no, and woe betide anyone who gets caught lying.

This part of the plot was focused mainly on Daryl’s uneasy alliance with these outlaws. Leader Joe (the prolific Jeff Kober) seems oddly friendly to their new member. Even at the cost of sacrificing an old hand; the bullheaded Len, so keen to get Daryl out of the way, was hoist on his own petard when he was caught lying and beaten to death, shot by an arrow for good measure.

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The question was, would the basically decent Daryl really team up with such a bunch of psychopaths? Of course, he really didn’t have any choice, the alternative being that they just killed him and took his stuff. And Joe offered such persuasive arguments as, “ain’t nothin’ sadder than an outdoor cat who thinks he’s an indoor cat”, apparently seeing the taciturn Daryl as some kind of kindred spirit. But if you were worried that, in the aftermath of Beth’s disappearance, Daryl’s disillusionment would turn him to the Dark Side, you needn’t have been. He still had enough decency to cover up the corpse of the man who tried to get him killed.

To be honest, there’s not much suspense to be gleaned from playing with our expectations of whether Daryl would turn nasty – not only would it be totally at odds with his established character, but he’s also pretty much the fans’ favourite. This show might be prepared to shockingly kill little girls, but turning its nominal hero into a baddie is probably going too far.

If I’m honest, I found the territorial pissing between Daryl and the marauders to be the least interesting part of Nichole Beattie and Seth Hoffman’s script. There was a certain amount of tension to be gleaned from whether or not he’d convince them he was on their side, to be sure. But it was workmanlike drama, and nothing we haven’t seen before in this kind of show. Besides, does anyone really have any doubt that when the inevitable confrontation occurs Daryl will side with his friends over this gang of thugs?

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There were more thrills to be had with the other major plot thread, as we caught up with the moment at the end of two weeks’ ago’s episode when Glenn finally saw Maggie’s blood-scrawled messages to him. Glenn and Tara were still with Abraham, Eugene and Rosita, with Abraham still determined to carry out his ‘mission’. Any confidence you might have had in Eugene’s “answer to the outbreak” was probably dissipating as we got to know him a little better. To be sure, he’s smart; but he’s also apparently utterly lacking in social skills, completely unaware that he’s boring his companions to death, and freely chooses to wear the worst mullet this side of Billy Ray Cyrus. I know the show’s been teaching us not to judge by appearances, but I’d have to doubt the scientific credentials of a man with a hairstyle like that.

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Of course, for Glenn all thoughts of ‘the mission’ went out the window when faced with evidence that his beloved Maggie was still alive and kicking. I suppose it’s very much in character for him to lose all common sense where Maggie’s concerned; nonetheless, you couldn’t help thinking he was exhibiting an astonishing degree of stupidity in recklessly charging after her while ignoring the very real dangers of exhaustion, injury, and an unlit railway tunnel full of Walkers.

Stupidity aside though, that last did give us a marvellous heart-in-mouth set piece. Dark tunnels are very much a staple of horror fiction; I couldn’t help recalling the sequence in the darkened Lincoln Tunnel in Stephen King’s similarly apocalyptic The Stand. However, what this was most reminiscent of was Frodo Baggins and the gang making the equally ill-advised choice to go through the Mines of Moria rather than over the mountain in The Fellowship of the Ring.

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Just like the Fellowship, Glenn and Tara encountered Nasty Things in the Darkness; Walkers, specifically. It wasn’t like it was a surprise, having heard them moaning from the entrance. But the scene gave us the inventive spectacle of a roof collapse that had trapped several of them, pinned under concrete and grasping helplessly. And, inevitably, a whole bunch more in the darkness behind the debris. At this point, any sane person would probably have given up and tried the alternative – but as ever, Glenn had taken leave of any sense and thought it would be a better idea to take them all on with only about five bullets.

Well, love can make you stupid, I suppose – just ask Romeo Montague. At least Abraham, in his eagerness to keep Eugene safe, was sensible enough to try the alternate route. And he was also the only one in the last seven episodes to have the equally sensible idea of starting one of the many abandoned cars littering the landscape. I mean, really – they can’t all have had the gas siphoned out, surely?

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And there was the added bonus of seeing him deal with a Walker trapped inside the minivan they took. In keeping with the tone of the show recently, there was a heart-rending hint as to how she’d got there – “Let Momma Be” was scraped into the dust on the windscreen. Which Abraham promptly wiped off. As we’ve seen, there’s no mileage in being sympathetic to humanity any more.

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A point Eugene plainly hadn’t picked up, and he earned brownie points for tricking Rosita into driving right back to the other end of the tunnel so as to help Glenn and Tara. And as machine gun-wielding figures chopped down the Walkers in the tunnel just as they were about to get chow time, it became clear that, on the way, they’d also picked up Sasha, Bob – and Maggie. And, predictably, there was much rejoicing.

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As I said a few weeks ago, all the angst the characters have been emoting about will become largely redundant when they realise the friends they’ve been grieving over are actually just fine. This week we saw the first of that, as Glenn and Maggie were reunited. Now all we need is to get Sasha together with Tyreese, and Rick and Carl with Judith, and everyone will be happy. Well, as happy as anyone gets on this show, anyway.

But it’s notable that we’ve got the seeds of future conflict sown already, as Glenn introduced Tara to Maggie as, “someone I met on the road”. Plainly, he and Tara have forged a real bond; as the earlier scene where she agonised about her part on the prison assault made clear, she’s wracked with guilt and wants to make amends. But still, she had the good sense to go along with it when Glenn chose not to reveal that she’d been part of the Governor’s army and indirectly involved with the brutal killing of Maggie’s father. I sense that there’s trouble ahead – for all parties.

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More immediately though, the now rather bigger gang were the first to actually reach Terminus. It looks lovely – flowers, crops, welcoming messages, and not even any guards. In fact, not much of anyone; which makes me suspicious. I half expected the mysterious figure we finally saw to turn and reveal she was a Walker, the ‘sanctuary’ having already been overrun.

But no – it was a fairly normal looking middle aged lady who introduced herself as ‘Mary’ – and was played by Star Trek’s Denise Crosby. Still, there’s something about her beatific smile, and the too-good-to-be-true setting, that would make me distinctly uneasy. And let’s put it this way – I didn’t see any livestock, but she seemed to be grilling an awful lot of steak. I might be leaping to genre-savvy conclusions here, but I wonder if those invitations were actually a way of enticing in the Terminus community’s next meals…

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Gore of the week

Some quite inventive stuff this week, as you’d expect in an episode directed by effects honcho Greg Nicotero. He got started early, with a detailed look at what happens when a Walker’s cheek gets scraped across barbed wire:

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Later, the Walker who tumbled from the tower in the general direction of Eugene was another that seemed to just explode on impact. I’ve said it before, but these things are getting increasingly fragile – all the survivors really need to do is keep safe for another year or so, and they’ll likely be too decomposed to move.

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There was another example in the horde filling the darkened railway tunnel. Nicotero’s clever use of torchlight to illuminate the scene allowed us to see a Walker that was literally riddled with holes. Nice.

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And it was fun to see the return of the Classic Tribute Zombie. In a blink-and-you’ll miss-it cameo, one of the tunnel Walkers was unmistakably done up to look like ‘Bub’, the undead hero of Day of the Dead – a movie Greg Nicotero was actually in.

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It was good to have a bit of excitement back in the show after so many weeks of the characters wandering round and exploring their feelings; but still, this ep was more efficient than inspired. It certainly didn’t live up the dark chills of last week. But then, this is a penultimate episode, and it’s all about moving the pieces into place for next week’s Big Season Finale. Let’s see if the show can pull something unexpected out of the bag to redeem the rather uneven second half of the season…