The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 10 – Them

“We do what we need to do. And then we get to live… We are the walking dead.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After the previous rather experimental season opener, the follow up was a much more conventional affair. That didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to enjoy – depending on what it is you enjoy about The Walking Dead. If what you’re after is zombie action, violence and gore, but you don’t care much for character development, you were probably shit out of luck with this one.

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In light of recent form, I’d expected this to be an ep taking place concurrently with the last, catching us up on the doings of the rest of the group. In fact, it followed on consecutively, with the whole gang reunited and trekking on towards Washington DC. While last week’s was very much tightly focused on one character (Tyreese), this was a real ensemble affair, possibly the first time in ages we’ve seen the whole gang together. That can be a risky move; with so many regular characters, there’s always the risk that some will end up short changed. OK, maybe Rosita and Tara didn’t get much to do, but everyone else got a surprisingly fair crack of the whip.

At the expense, however, of the usual Walker mayhem. Sure, there were plenty of Walkers about, and there were a couple of scenes where they were even a threat; but most of the time, they were used to comment on and counterpoint the character drama taking place. Maggie’s resigned determination to wearily destroy them was her reaction to losing the sister she’d only just realised was alive, while Sasha’s reckless, irrational fury towards them reflected her deflecting the blame for her brother’s death onto these causes of the apocalypse they’re all living through.

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Indeed, grief was a strong theme throughout – not surprising given that the gang have lost two beloved comrades in as many episodes. Sasha, of course, has the additional burden that she still hadn’t got over the death of Bob before having to face the death of her brother. Unsurprisingly, she and Maggie bonded very strongly as writer Heather Bellson’s script progressed.

While the grief was compounded by increasing despair as the gang trudged wearily on foot through a sweltering heatwave, with no water to be found, the flipside of the show’s usual nihilism was to be found in just that bonding. Despite the group’s desperate circumstances, there was a lot of fence-mending going on here.

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There was a very touching scene between Carol and Daryl, in which she urged her surrogate son to at least deal with his grief over Beth by letting it out. For those who still wondered if their attachment was romantic, it was notable that the tender kiss she gave him was not on the lips but the forehead; the sort of kiss a mother would give a child. As recent eps seem to have made clear, that’s their relationship – not one of potential lovers. And when Daryl finally, inevitably, did crumple into tears, it was a little bit heartbreaking – gotta love that Norman Reedus.

More subtle was the revelation that Abraham has seemingly forgiven Eugene for his deception over the Walker ‘cure’. As Eugene decided to try the potentially poisoned water left by “a friend”, it was Abraham who pointedly knocked it out of his hand. That might mean that Abraham has begun to forgive him, or has realised he’s a very useful member of the group that they can’t afford to lose. Either way, it was a quick but revealing moment nicely played by Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt.

The theme of bonding was nicely demonstrated by the two encounters with Walkers in the ep. The first, the slightly incomprehensible plan to throw them off a bridge, was derailed by Sasha’s fury and the group’s inability to work together. But later, as they sheltered from the storm in the barn and the Walkers began to pound on the door, all of the gang had to work together to keep them from getting in – and they succeeded. It was a good metaphor, although I have to say it felt a tad contrived that, the next day, we discovered every single Walker had been disabled by trees struck by lightning.

There again, that also fed into another recurring theme embodied by Gabriel. Maggie’s fierce defiance of his attempt to comfort her having appeared to prompt his final, total loss of faith, it looked like an act of God; a prayed for salvation that may have restored the shattered preacher’s belief. Contrived, yes, but it fed effectively into the themes of the ep.

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For a show that has been so relentlessly bleak and nihilistic, it was a surprisingly optimistic and hopeful script. These guys have been teetering on the edge of total despair for ages now, which was neatly summed up by Rick’s musing (taken verbatim from the comic) that “we are the walking dead”. Michonne and Daryl refused to accept that; and with the unexpected manna of the rain, then the revelation that the thunderstorm had spared them from the Walkers, it felt like a stroke of good luck that these characters were long overdue. While I like the characters and find them easy to sympathise with, I’m not sure I could have coped with much more of their spiral into utter hopelessness. It was about time they got a break.

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And with the surprise arrival of (presumably) their mysterious “friend” Aaron, maybe things are turning their way (if you remember him from the comics). Or maybe not – after all, the show has a habit of wrongfooting comic readers’ expectations.

Still, speculatively speaking, if Aaron is true to his comic counterpart, he’ll be the first openly gay man in the show. Which could play interestingly into the oft-theorised notion that Daryl’s lack of romantic interest is due to his preferring other guys. Just a thought, of course, but that could be interesting.

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Gore of the week

As, basically, an ensemble character drama, there was little gore to be seen this ep. Sure, there were Walkers aplenty, with the requisite staples of head stabbing galore; but little really stood out. Still, there was some novelty to be gained from the horde of Walkers pinned under the fallen trees in the dawn after the thunderstorm:

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The Walkers this ep were less of a threat and more imbued with pathos and poignancy – perhaps none more so than the old lady Maggie found entombed in the trunk of an abandoned car:

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And while it’s not strictly gore, I certainly went “eww!” when Daryl ate that worm. Looks like Norman Reedus did that for real:

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So, a narratively conventional episode, but one I enjoyed for its focus on the characters rather than action or plot twists. I know some disparage the dramatic writing of this show, though I’m not one of them; however, as I said, your enjoyment of this ep probably hinged on what it is about the show you like. For me, as I’ve commented a few times recently, after what amounts to the running time of more than 20 zombie movies, the premise is in danger of becoming stale, its every possibility explored. To keep it fresh, it has to have real value as drama. And I thought this episode pulled that off rather well. Despite Rick’s bleak assertion that “we are the walking dead”, it was best summed up by a sentiment from Glenn: “we can make it together. But only if we make it together”.