Of the many impressive things about the first two episodes of The Walking Dead‘s fifth season, the show’s new commitment to making character and plot coalesce is easily the biggest stand out. It’s really a process that began during the back half of season four, which took a more experimental approach to storytelling, delivering some of the most compelling character work the show’s ever seen in the process (ok, and “The Grove”, but we don’t have to talk about that right now). Out under the weight of The Governor and all the nonsense that went along with him, The Walking Dead‘s basically hit the reset button, turning its focus inward, even as it introduces new locations and possible story lines to follow. It may not be a formula the show follows forever, but the improvements it’s made to the show can be felt in every darkened corner of “Strangers”.
Besides being the introductory episode for the tortured Father Gabriel Stokes (who basically let his wife die, as Carl and Rick’s conversation and Gabriel’s photo allude to), “Strangers” is the first episode in over a season that featured the entire prison group together again. And it feels like it; the show occasionally plays up the audience’s connection to the group with a few too many slow-motion shots of hugs and smiles, but “Strngers” is the first time in a long time there’s been any aura of optimism on The Walking Dead. Unfortunately, the show’s conditioned us to believe that a few good moments only mean something horrid lurks around the corner, but there are still a lot of cathartic moments in “Strangers” that shine through the dour nature of what happened at the prison and Terminus, and the show’s relentless cynicism about humanity is lifted, if only for the moments it shows the group sharing dinner and communion wine (which wasn’t blessed, but c’mon… for Bob, this really was The Last Supper).
It speaks to how quickly those warm feelings crash to the ground at the end of the episode when we get the infamous shot of Bob ’round the cannibal fire (in the comics, it was Dale… RIP MC Bucket Hatz): without witnessing the other members of the group helping each other heal, the shock of Bob’s amputation (and subsequent serving of said removed limb as a meal) wouldn’t be nearly as effective and terrifying (even as someone who’s read the comic books and knew what was coming, the scene with Gareth is horrifying). We get all these great scenes constructed around great character pairings (the scene with Maggie and Tara is a particular highlight), only to end with our focus on one man alone, crying in the woods (*), a devastating reminder of how punishing emotionally it can be to keep our secrets inside (right, Father?).
(* the only reason Bob would be crying in the woods alone would be because he got bit, right? His last “one more kiss” was quite sad-sounding, and I can’t think of any other reason he’d be crying, except if maybe he relapsed and drank a bottle of communion wine when nobody was looking).
All these little moments and tweaks to the show’s normal style add up to the most entertaining “come down” episode of The Walking Dead ever: usually, the plot-light episodes of the show are slogs through “remember when” stories and people standing around sweating a lot, or dealing with randomly assorted piles of zombies. Even tonight’s set-piece has meaning: it serves both as a reminder to how functioning a team unit the prison survivors have become, and as a way to inform us quietly about what has Gabriel so upset through the episode (something the show would’ve done much more overtly previously: remember Rick’s phone?). Plus, it’s a wall-to-wall love fest, with Carol and Rick reconciling, Tara and Maggie coming to terms with each other, or Rick and Abraham getting on the same page with their plan to go to D.C.: except for the part that nobody cares about Beth except Daryl (… yes, it’s a major convenience Beth’s kidnappers drove by right as Carol was running away from the group – I’m ok, if it gets Emily Kinney back on the show sooner rather than later), “Strangers” works hard at reinforcing our emotional bonds to these characters (and them to each other), in ways that don’t feel cheap or unearned, for once.
Of course, “Strangers” then pulls the rug out from under our feet in the final minutes when leg o’ Bob gets served to the survivors. And boy, is it effective: there’s nothing more unsettling than watching Gareth chew on a piece of Bob while he talks to him about evolution (coming full circle to when Gabriel pointed out people are more dangerous, now that the weak have died of). And with more “little” stories to tell while the group prepares themselves for a journey north to DC, it appears The Walking Dead‘s not only been able to harness what worked so well last season (notice the heavy focus on pairing characters off: smaller groups allows for more depth to be found between characters), but improve on it – don’t look now, but The Walking Dead is slowly becoming a good show, right in front of our eyes.
[Photo via AMC]