“What do I want? I want you to help us survive. I know you can help us to do that.”
After a predictable Twitter backlash about last week’s fairly chaste kiss between two men, The Walking Dead’s new tone of hope continued to develop this week, in a thought-provoking, character-driven episode as the gang (and the audience) got to know more about their new refuge. After several years of having all their suspicions about such communities justified, their (and our) scepticism was understandable. But this ep seemed to show that Alexandria really was everything Aaron had claimed it would be; leaving us to wonder where the danger would come from this time. And in a final bombshell, we found out.
As it has for the last three episodes, the show seems to be very faithfully adapting the corresponding storyline from the comics, even down to many of the same lines. That’s not to say it won’t take some radical new direction; the show’s done that with comic storylines plenty of times. But this particular one feeds very nicely into the themes the show has been lingering over repeatedly in the last two seasons – that of how far removed our ‘heroes’ have become from their previous, ‘civilised’ selves, and that of how different from the ‘bad guys’ they really are now.
Alexandria really does seem to be a haven, a last bastion of pre-apocalypse civilisation built on a self-sustaining luxury community. It has power, hot running water, and an architecturally sound wall keeping the Walkers out. As well as this ep showing us Rick’s gang and the Alexandrians tentatively getting to know each other, Channing Powell’s script effectively gave us a guided tour of the place, along with a backstory and an introduction to some of its customs. All this suggests that the gang’s stay here is going to be a long one, and that Alexandria is being established as the show’s main setting for the foreseeable future. One where, thankfully, Rick can shave.
That’s a welcome change of format from what we’ve been used to, but I feel a note of caution over it. The gang have established communities before, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they got kind of… well, boring. The first was Hershel’s farm in the draggy, budget-starved second season, the second (rather better handled and more interesting) was the prison, in which they stayed for a season and a half. Even that got a bit claustrophobic after a while.
The danger for a post-apocalypse show is that once the characters get settled, the narrative becomes more about the detailed mechanics of rebuilding society; and while that’s intellectually interesting, it tends to be dramatically dull. Look at the second season of 70s BBC drama Survivors, in which the agricultural commune our characters settled into became a backdrop for endless debates about farming and alternative energy supplies.
Still, the denizens of Survivors didn’t have to cope with the constant threat of hungry walking corpses, so in that respect The Walking Dead still has a jeopardy unique to this particular brand of apocalypse. Nevertheless, the Walkers were very much in the background this week, barely appearing in an ep that concerned itself with establishing a new setting and new characters.
That could have been boring, but Greg Nicotero, back on directing duties this week, once again flexed his recently displayed flair for character drama with some clever structuring and cutting; that kept what could have been a fairly static and talky episode visually interesting. Particularly effective were the regularly interspersed video clips of the newcomers being ‘interviewed’ by the Alexandrians.
Those little snippets were also cleverly revealing; not just about who the characters really are, but about how they want the Alexandrians to see them. Rick, Glenn and Carl came across as believably shell-shocked and hardened by their experiences, while Daryl was visibly uncomfortable in what would have been opulent surroundings for him even before the apocalypse. But the most eyebrow-raising testimony came from Carol, eulogising her “stupid, wonderful” husband and portraying herself as a helpless “den mother” the gang took under their wing. This was far from the previously battered woman who pre-emptively murdered infected prison residents and pragmatically shot a little girl in the head – leading us to wonder as to her motivations. Does she want to make a clean start, or is she deliberately misleading the Alexandrians as to what she’s really capable of?
The latter, in my opinion. A recurring theme throughout was whether the gang had indeed “been out there too long”, and whether they could really settle down without losing their edge. Carl (who seems to be gaining a love interest in the mysterious Enid), expressed his opinion that the Alexandrians were weak, “and I don’t want us to get weak too”, a feeling reiterated by Carol later on. Rick was less worried, opining that “we don’t have that in us any more”.
That was amply demonstrated when Glenn, Noah and Tara accompanied gung ho, cocksure Aiden on a supply run, to find that he liked to string Walkers up and play games with them, rather than the more sensible approach of just knifing them in the head. The folly of this was made clear with the Walker that had worked its way off its chain nearly killing Tara, and Aiden’s subsequent fury when Glenn neatly dispatched it while there were still “pre-game rituals” to use it for.
It was a useful demonstration that even the apparent utopia of Alexandria was far from perfect, and of just why Rick and the gang could genuinely be useful here. This was spelled out by the most impactful new character, community leader (and Aiden’s mother) Deanna Monroe. The most notable change to the original comic storyline was that previously she was Douglas Monroe (though the rest of her backstory is identical). Changing the gender of the character makes for a more interesting dynamic, and respected actress Tovah Feldschuh brings just the right combination of gravitas and warmth to the role.
Despite its apparently genuine nature as a civilised haven then, Alexandria is far from perfect. Aside from self-described “douchebag” Aiden, there’s Jessie’s rather offish sounding husband, still barely seen, sheltered kids who still play video games, and Enid’s mysterious sorties beyond the wall. Plenty of room for future storylines there.
But perhaps the most shocking one was that bombshell dropped by Rick in the ep’s final line – “We’ll make it work. And if they can’t make it – then we’ll just take this place”. I’ve ruminated before on his growing similarity, in action and motivation, to the likes of the Governor; now it looks like our sympathy for him is about to be more severely tested than ever before.
Gore of the week
Surprisingly for an ep directed by make-up effects guru Nicotero, there was almost no gore at all this week. Given that the ep was more about reinventing the show’s setting, that was understandable. Still, it never forgets (as it often seemed to in the second season) that it’s first and foremost a zombie show; so even in an ep as talky as this, there was still time for that gruesome scene with the Walker attacking the foragers on their supply run. It was a pretty gruesome one to begin with, courtesy of Nicotero’s excellent makeup, but got even more gross as Tara grappled with it and its skin literally began to peel off:
Despite the near-absence of Walker action, this was a thought-provoking, clever script that continues the effective reformatting of the show. The direction kept it from being too stagey, and it introduced a new setting along with a variety of new characters and potential future conflicts. And the implication of that ending is that, when such conflicts arise, we might find ourselves looking at our former heroes as the villains. Given that the showrunners wouldn’t want to entirely alienate the audience from the main characters, I’m just waiting for them to have that moment of self-realisation so memorably expressed by a suddenly concerned SS trooper in a classic Mitchell and Webb sketch – “Hans, are we the baddies?”