The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 2–Strangers

“People are just as dangerous as the dead, don’t you think?”
“No. People are worse.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s slam bang season opener, this week’s Walking Dead was, as I expected, a slower-paced affair, allowing the characters room to breathe. After last week’s slate-wiping exercise, it also had to set up a new bunch of ongoing plots, along with a new major character – that’s a lot for an ep2 to do. Not that it was bereft of shocks and horror; having learned from the dreariness of season 2, the show never forgets to chuck in some gruesome Walker action at least once an episode. Sometimes it’s gratuitous, but sometimes, as it was here, it’s actually relevant to the plot.

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With the gang once more wandering aimlessly round the duller parts of rural Georgia, I was getting worried we’d see a repeat of the aimless wandering and philosophising that characterised the second half of the previous season. I needn’t have been though; despite the slower pace and some character exploration, by the end of the ep the plot was clearly going somewhere. Several somewheres in fact, with at least three, possibly four plot threads set in motion by close of play.

The show tends to delight in wrongfooting readers of the comics, by introducing plot threads or set pieces that are well-remembered from the original then taking them in a different direction. Here, though, we got the beginnings of a plot from the comics seemingly played straight (albeit with a few minor alterations). Original comic creator Robert Kirkman, scripting this week, seemed a logical choice for that kind of adaptation. Like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead follows a trend of using the original author to write at least one ep a season, and both seem to adapt well to the changes the TV adaptations made from the source material.

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There weren’t many changes here though, as we got the introduction of notable comics character Reverend Gabriel Stokes, and the new sanctuary of his isolated church. Gabriel, played by Seth Gilliam, looked a little well-fed for a man in desperate need of food; it also strained credulity somewhat that he should be so inept at dealing with Walkers nearly two years after the apocalypse. Still, that’s much the way he was introduced in the comics too, and I could just about swallow that he’d been barricaded in his church the whole time.

Gabriel was shifty from the start, and it’s obvious that he has a Big Secret which will play into the plot in the coming weeks; something connected with the graffito on his church wall informing him “you’ll burn for this”, presumably. He’s being played as a basically decent man whose secret is shameful rather than harmful, but the show has misled us with that kind of character before. He’ll be worth keeping an eye on in coming weeks.

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With the group back together (mostly), a lot of time was spent confessing sins this week; appropriate, given the setting, and I wonder whether religion is a theme the show will find itself returning to this year. Certainly Gabriel was much given to musing on the will of God, much to Rick’s derision. Rick seemed to have made his peace with Carol, but Tyreese was urging her to come clean to the others about her killings at the prison, while at the same time deciding it was best not to tell them about Lizzie and Myka. Which is it to be Tyreese, honesty or sparing feelings? Tara confessed her involvement with the Governor to Maggie, whose father he’d killed – and received a hug in response. Rigghht. “I miss Andrea,” Michonne confessed at one point. Well I don’t, she was a self-righteous idiot.

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Much time was spent this week dwelling on Eugene’s purported “cure” for the Walker virus, and several of the characters continued to display a profoundly unrealistic expectation that, should it work, life will somehow return to pre-apocalypse normal. Abraham seems to have held that view all along, but now Bob was joining him in proclaiming that “this is a nightmare, and nightmares end”. This during a philosophical discussion with the increasingly more pragmatic Rick, who stuck to his guns in saying, “this is the real world”.

It’s hard to disagree with him. Most of humanity is dead, civilisation has collapsed, and society has returned to near-medieval standards. Abraham and Bob seem insanely optimistic about the cure; even if it makes every Walker in the world drop over instantly, there’s still the few remaining people to deal with, who’ve organised themselves into scavengers, armies and isolationist communities. And as this ep hammered home for what felt like the thousandth time, while Walkers are a hazard, it’s the living who are the real danger.

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Abraham’s inspiring speech exhorting the group to find a purpose beyond day to day survival seems to have convinced them that getting Eugene to Washington DC and its research facilities should be their goal. It’s a potentially interesting avenue for the plot; though given the show’s relentless bleakness and nihilism, I’d expect one of two things to be the result. Either they’ll get there and Eugene’s cure won’t work; or they’ll get there and find no workable labs to produce and distribute it (or both). And really, given the complete collapse of social infrastructure, even if it does work, it seems hopelessly optimistic that a ‘counter-virus’ will spread rapidly enough among the vast Walker population to make much immediate difference.

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First though, I’d guess we’d better get used to that church, because I think we’re going to be spending a few weeks there. The plotline set in motion at the end of the ep, which probably came as quite a shock to non-comic readers, was quite familiar. It was a clever touch to have the roving cannibal group from the comics actually be refugees from the destruction of the much better organised Terminus community; I can’t say I was surprised to see Gareth again (the actor’s name was in the credits for a start), but I was surprised to see Martin, who we’d been led to believe Tyreese had killed. More sleight of hand there from a show that can still spring surprises.

For those who do read the comics, the lack of departure from the original plotline probably robbed that final shot of its impact. In the comics, it was Dale who woke up to the not entirely pleasant revelation that a gang of nutters had eaten his leg; with Dale long dead in the TV show, his role was transferred to the ever-unlucky Bob, but in every other way the scene played out as it had in the comic. Nonetheless, it was played out well, with blurry, woozy visuals as Bob returned to consciousness, a genial “nothing personal” speech from Andrew J West as Gareth, and finally that nasty shot of Bob’s foot on the fire. Even if you knew what to expect, it was well-done (in every sense).

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The Walking Dead decidedly does not do happy endings, and plainly something nasty was on the cards for Bob from the moment we saw his unalloyed happiness at being reunited with Sasha. When this show allows its characters to have moments of joy, as with the loving couple’s ‘kissing game’, you can guarantee something nasty is on the horizon for them. Bob’s not dead (yet), but even before Gareth’s group took him, he was off sobbing in the forest. Why would that be, I wonder? Could it be something to do with what happened in the flooded cellar of the local food bank?

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Despite the earlier Walker encounters in the forest, including the rescue of Gabriel from that handily placed rock, that sequence was this week’s Big Horror Set Piece, and another attempt to do something new with the Walkers after four seasons of gruesomeness. However well done, there’s only so many times you can run through the basic scenario of fighting through an overrunning herd that’s chowing down on your friends.

The show’s touched on Walkers in the water before, notably with the sodden fat one that tore in two when dragged from Hershel’s well. This time though, the premise was better explored, with a small group of sodden shambling corpses realistically showing the signs of putrefaction in stagnant floodwater. Since Glenn’s barfing in season one, the show’s rarely mentioned how bad they must smell; here though that was unpleasantly evoked with Bob’s remark, “this is what sewers would smell like if they could puke”. Which made it even more of a mystery that none of them changed clothes afterwards; Gabriel may have more than one reverend outfit, but I doubt any of them would look this clean after two years without dry cleaners.

It was a tense scene, and obviously the Walker that was made recognisable with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses is important to Gabriel’s Big Secret. We saw a picture of her at the church when she looked rather healthier; what’s the betting she was his secret girlfriend, and he condemned her to Walkerdom by locking everyone else out of the church? Actually that seems so obvious I’m surprised I’m even asking, and if so I shall heave a sigh at such clumsy signposting.

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Also, having knocked several Walkers under the murky surface of the water, it seemed monumentally stupid for the gang to be so unwary of one suddenly popping up to grab them. They don’t need to breathe, after all; a fact which seemed to escape the prematurely celebrating Bob when one grabbed him and wouldn’t let go. He seemed to get away with it, but still, why the sobbing later? Did one bite him? If so, Gareth’s gang might have some food quality problems…

Gore of the week

It’s a measure of how inured you get to this show’s regular head-squelching shenanigans that the slaying of the woodland Walkers failed to make much of an impression. Still, Michonne’s despatch of one by repeatedly slamming its face with a rifle butt was moderately memorable.

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More eerie though were the blackly sodden, putrefied Walkers in the flooded cellar. Soggy flesh hanging off them, when their heads were squelched they didn’t ooze blood but a sort of greyish slime. Eww.

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A serviceable episode this, though not what I’d call a classic. Given what it had to accomplish, that’s not really surprising. Aside from introducing a major new character and a new setting, it had to set in motion some new plotlines for this year. So, we’ve got the quest to get Eugene to DC; but first there’s the problem of a gang of cannibals picking off the group one by one from the cover of the forest.

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Meanwhile, in the episode’s most contrived moment, the handily distinctive car that kidnapped Beth just happened to drive past Daryl and Carol, just as Carol happened to have charged up the battery on a nearby car so they could give chase. How mightily convenient. So the group’s split up again, and we have some plots up and running, some of which work better than others. That’ll do to be going on with, I guess.