The Walking Dead Season 5 Episode 10 Review: “Them”

The Walking Dead

There are a myriad of familiar moments and images to be found in “Them” – for all intents and purposes, The Walking Dead has done every beat of this story before. Daryl smoking a depressed cigarette, Maggie reeling from the death of a family member, Rick sweating a lot… there’s nothing in “Them” we haven’t seen multiple times before; yet few episodes of The Walking Dead are as evocative as “Them,” despite it being another episode that exposes the show’s ultimate limitations.

The Walking Dead is really a procedural show at heart; all the visual inventiveness and cumulative serialization in the world can’t escape the fact that The Walking Dead operates on two simple formulas: weekly formula and half-season formula. The former is easy: one zombie encounter (this week, a zombie horde provides a source of trouble twice), plus at least three scenes beginning with characters staring off in the distance, usually reflecting on some variation of how things were previous to today. The specifics change, obviously, but the broad constructs remain the same; this also applies to seasonal arcs, which feature short periods on the road interrupted by longer journeys into the realm of Psychopath of the Year, people who force our wandering crew of survivors to put their humanity aside once again, and embody the persona explained to Rick by his grandfather about fighting in World War II.

Despite how quiet and somber “Them” is, all of these familiar notes can be found within this hour, spread out among some of the most passively-shot sequences in the show’s history. Director Julius Ramsay’s camera lingers from a distance in many scenes, pushing characters into distant foregrounds against the muted colors of the road to Richmond and the barn the crew hunker down in, contemplating what “making it” even means in this world anymore. Even though those long shots aren’t to convey anything particularly unique or earth shattering, they work well in re-establishing just how harrowing it is to be on the road (again, something that The Walking Dead has done frequently, but never so quietly poignant).

Really, it’s just nice to see an episode of The Walking Dead that doesn’t talk its way into being a bad episode, mostly because the story/character informing dialogue is kept to a minimum. There’s an immediacy to interactions, when they do happen, that is also refreshing; characters get to the point quickly, and move on. Part of this is due to how dehydrated and worn out everyone is – but it also works well to convey how far apart these people are emotionally, even as they protect and help each other get through the tragedies bound to befall an of them.

However,  I stop short of calling “Them” a ‘great’ episode; there’s just not enough material here, no matter how well its shot, or how poetic its final images of a hurricane’s warpath and a suddenly-functional toy box are, or the cycle of hope and confusion that everyone experiences. The camera lingers on the distraught faces of every survivor, pushing siblings together for semi-cathartic conversations, the shared guilt of Beth and Tyreese’s deaths hanging over them all as their trip to Washington slowly grinds to a sweaty, dirty, starving halt.

Yet there’s nothing more to all this beyond survival, grief, and shared depression; while I like the sentiment of sticking together and persevering, framing “Them” as arguably the show’s most spiritual episode, the episode eventually reveals itself to be part of The Walking Dead Cycle: someone dies, everyone grieves, runs for a bit, then meets someone who seems nice, but is most likely psychotic (or will end up the victim of a psycho). Comic book fans will argue against this with the debut of Aaron – but any period of settlement is bound to be short-lived, which means there’s only one way this ends, be it this season or the next: in a hail of bullets, with everyone who is still alive running while shedding tears over those they lost trying to leave. Rinse, wash, repeat, and you’ve got five seasons of The Walking Dead.

Maybe that’s all there ever will be to The Walking Dead – but these elements can still provide evocative images, like the tired, weary prison group pushing back against the horde of zombies trying to break through the barn fence. The storytelling may remain familiar, but “Them” allows actors to breathe life and texture into the journey of mourning we’ve seen so many times, leading to one of the show’s most moving (and Biblical) moments, when an approaching tornado puts a smile on the faces of the starving, delirious survivors, soaking up the rain and letting the guilt and sadness slowly wash away. For images like those, “Them” is worth watching, despite the larger limitations of the series being laid bare by the episode itself.

[Photo via AMC]

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