It seems like The Walking Dead is really pulling it all together. That’s a fun thing to say in a show’s fifth season, but it seems like it is true. Generally a show may be reaching for new ideas and fading as it gets older, but not only has this series continued to break ratings records with each new season, the show also seems to becoming stronger as it has gone on. A lot of this comes from having a solid foundation. Having had the chance to cut some of the fat, build the characters last season, and having a lack of showrunner changes, The Walking Dead seems like it is finally in a position to pay off on being both a solid zombie-themed series, as well as a strong character drama. “Strangers” may not be the exciting spectacle witnessed in last week’s season premiere, but it does do a lot to put the focus back on those who really matter currently… and disgust us with a wicked closer to the episode.
Fittingly enough, those who matter each get slow motion intros this week, as we see a collection of scenes that basically recap the standings and relationships that Rick and the gang have with one another. In a way, I do like how The Walking Dead was fine with showcasing a lot of big action for a season premiere to really dive into what works best on this show, only to now get back to who everyone is. That said, if there is a flaw in this episode, it is these opening moments. “Strangers” was written by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, but what he is able to accomplish in the comics so effectively feels the opposite here, when it comes to straight exposition. A series of scenes that basically remind the viewer of where everyone is ends up feeling quite obvious, given that later scenes essentially repeat a lot of what is covered, but has the actors doing more with a lot less. That in mind, once we get past the initial scene, this is an episode that pretty much fires on all cylinders.
I have had my ups and downs with Rick throughout this series, and while I believe Andrew Lincoln has been doing some pretty terrific work (especially last season and onward), I am very happy to be embracing the Rick we see now. At this point he is all about ‘no nonsense.’ Not ready to trust strangers, especially ones as shifty as the man we meet in this episode, Rick is careful to do what he thinks is best for his people. He is also upfront and smart about these positions that people put him in. Watching Rick listen to what Abraham has to say earlier in the episode, only to see him later listen to Abraham’s grand speech is a fine way to understand how much Rick cares about assessing his situation and making a careful decision when he needs to, no matter how cute he makes the delivery, given the sight of Judith on his lap. Of course, it is fun to mention Judith, but it is a lot more fun to mention slime zombies.
To step away from my appreciation of the character drama at play this week for a bit, the work done to make a creepy and disgusting zombie-related sequence this week certainly paid off. A supply run leads to this scenario where our heroes have to make their way into a flooded basement, with a number of very emaciated walkers lurking in the slimy waters. This leads to a big battle, where Rick and crew use their well-established walker eliminating skills to take care of the situation. Minus one weird-looking puppet, this scene is very well handled, creepy in the right ways, and another example of how good Rick is at handling these sorts of issues.
There is of course more than just Rick, who has to deal with varying sorts of issues. We spotlight a few characters this week. Tara gets a small chance to basically admit that she was running with a bad crowd to the daughter of the man who lost his head in all of this. We have not had much to deal with, as far as Maggie and Tara goes lately, aside from the Glenn thread shared by both, so seeing this scene not only worked, but felt beneficial for these characters. I only wish Maggie would perhaps mention her sister Beth, since the show clearly has not forgotten about her. Speaking of which, Daryl and Carol have plenty of time to hang around quietly with each other. This eventually leads to the two of them going after the vehicle that Beth was last seen in, but the build to that point meant seeing solid work between two of the most consistently good actors on the show, which I was quite happy with.
Some short, but effective scenes are given to a few other characters as well. Chandler Riggs continues to be given some interesting material, as we see Carl advancing in age and understanding the world he is in. Getting to talk to his father about whether or not it is okay to not trust anyone is interesting, but seeing Carl quickly root out possible trouble and tell his father adds on to building up audience respect for the kid who used to just get lost all the time. Michonne has a chance to establish herself as more than just a badass with a sword, as she talks with Rick about how she does not miss not having her katana. Given that Michonne has gone from cool-looking, but very shallow, into one of the more compelling characters on the show, I can easily applaud this series’ attempt to further bring out who she is, after taking away one of her easiest identifiers.
We did get a new character this week. His name is Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), and clearly something is wrong with him. His demeanor is just all off, no matter how hard he tries, and Rick picks this up immediately. Still, this supposed preacher does have shelter to provide for our heroes for at least the next couple episodes, so it will be curious to learn about the secrets Gabriel has in this time. We have some hints, given his reaction to a certain walker, but clearly something major is to come. Seth Gilliam does fine work in the role, though. Regardless of what he may be hiding, Gilliam puts on a face that suggests warm and welcoming, along with cold and detached, which is something The Walking Dead easily benefits from.
And now we get to Bob. It is a tough spot for Bob to be in, that’s for sure. While this episode did not exactly do itself any favors by showing so much happiness in the eyes of one of the more expendable characters, I am certainly upset at what has come of him. Fortunately for the show, Bob’s leg roasting on an open fire means we are not waiting around for something to happen. Rather than drag out the threat of the Termites, they are here, willing to explain themselves, and ready to cause more harm. Sure, Bob was dealing with his own issues, and it may have been nice to learn more about him, but Andrew J. West’s Gareth is the kind of threat that the Governor wishes he could have been. No worries about land this time around, Gareth and his hunters are out to get back at the people who took away their home. To do that, they are going to eat them. It is a crazy kind of threat that is only matched by Gareth eating some of Bob’s leg in front of Bob.
Seeing a Bob-B-Q is certainly a gruesome scene to end on, but it is one that is just as important for the conversation being had, as it is for the visuals. “Strangers” is an episode mostly focused on conversation. The Walking Dead can do the zombie stuff very well, we know that, but the character work has been a mixed bag. Opening aside, this episode does a fine job of putting these characters together and letting them interact effectively enough. It also manages to do so while keeping things moving. I have no idea how long we may be at this church location, but having a number of outsider characters involved and presumably quite close leads me to believe forward momentum will be a strong suit for the series in the coming weeks. Regardless, as it stands now, The Walking Dead is taking the right steps in being a show that can match up to its potential, which is great for a popular show looking to better itself five years in.
- Zombie Kill of the Week: That walker that attacked Bob may have looked really silly, but Sasha sure did a number on its skeletal face.
- Chad Coleman, Lawrence Gillard, Jr., and Seth Gilliam were all in a scene together, so there must be some kind of discount for actors from The Wire.
- “Everybody can’t be bad.” – Carl is speaking his mind and not coming off as too naïve. Good for you, son.
- This week in Glenn: He tripped on a mop.
- Whatever Gabriel did, it is not going to end well…
- Give it up to Abraham for providing a good speech.
- “You taste much better than we thought you would.” – I hope that’s the Hunter’s creed.
- Lots of fun comic references this week for fans of both the series and the books.
- (I still want Michonne to get her sword back.)
- Thanks for reading and feel free to hear what I and a few other fans of the show have to say about the series on the The Walking Dead TV Podcast.