The Walking Dead, S5 E2: “Strangers”

To the surprise of no one, The Walking Dead continues to shatter its own ratings records, with more than 17 million people tuning in for the premiere, or over 22 million counting the live + same day. But to the surprise of at least this reviewer, the show continued its great quality streak. While the premiere was its usual action and gore-packed self, the second episode was a little quieter, a little calmer, and a little more pensive.

TWD really has only two speeds: EVERYTHING HAPPENS ALL AT ONCE or not much happens at all. The key to making the show work is not letting busy episodes overflow to the point where none of it means anything since the audience doesn’t have time to digest any of it, and having interesting enough characters to prevent the slow pace from dulling into a snooze fest of cliched dialogue and nonsense. The premiere and last night’s “Strangers” successfully avoided the pitfalls their predecessors succumbed to, which has me hopeful for the future while simultaneously waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The episode opens with Rick and co. on the move, but to nowhere in particular. Abraham tries to steer them back north, but newly reappointed leader Rick isn’t especially interested in a field trip to Washington D.C. There are more pressing matters at hand, and vague, long term goals are too abstract to focus on when you have mouths to feed and children to protect. They rescue a yellow-bellied pastor from a pack of walkers, and he brings them to his personal sanctuary in the woods. Father Gabriel has spent the last few years hiding in his little white church obsessing over the Bible and staring at kids’ drawings of burning bushes. He seems harmless enough, but No Trust Rick senses something dark lurking beneath the dog collar.

Gabriel takes them to town to scavenge for supplies. Rick, Michonne, Sasha, Bob, and Gabriel take on a pack of water-logged lurkers, and the preacher nearly loses it when a woman he used to know tries to eat his face. Glenn, Tara, and Maggie scavenge up some silencers at a gun store, and Sasha and Bob continue to be even more adorable than Maggie and Glenn ever were. Carol and Daryl plan for future chaos, but when he spots a similar car to the one that stole Beth they take off after it.

Unlike previous seasons, this time around the show has opted to barrel straight into the main arc, rather than drag out the plot in dribs and drabs. Gareth and his acolytes aren’t in control of the episode, nor do any of Rick’s group even really know they’re there, save poor Bob. But as long as the writers can figure out how to keep Gareth around without over or underplaying their hand, he should make for a cracking Big Bad. Keeping him mostly off camera until the final scene worked to his advantage, making him an ominous and omnipresent threat. The survivors don’t have to know that Gareth in particular is there, but they know someone is, just like how they don’t know if there are a pack of walkers waiting just around the bend, but it’s best to assume there probably is. Rick’s about to learn (again) the hard way that in the zombie apocalypse it may be less humane to slaughter your enemies even after you’ve already won, but it’s certainly safer.

Truthfully, I was a little disappointed to have Bob get turned into piecemeal Gareth noms. I was kinda hoping he’d been bitten at the food bank and was going out to the woods to make peace with his fate. I mean, something bad was obviously going to happen to him—whenever a character becomes too cheery or hopeful, it’s always a setup for something awful—but I wasn’t expecting to end the episode with Bob getting his leg barbequed. At least it gave Gareth a chance to be creepy as all get out. This is the villain we’ve all been waiting for. He’s too cuckoo to negotiate with, his adherents too devout to Benedict Arnold.

Over the weekend I rewatched Stephen King’s The Mist, and Gareth’s followers reminded me a lot of Sister Carmody’s converts. It’s amazing and terrifying what people will do to each other when they’re scared out of their wits, especially if the designated “leader” tells them something horrific is the only thing standing between them and death. Their panicked, blind following doesn’t make them evil per se, but it does make them virtually unstoppable. Mix in a dude like Martin, a douchebag who would probably fit in pretty well with guys like Joe or would’ve been the Governor’s right hand man, and you’ve got a potent mix of instability and irrationality.

On the topic of zealotry, let’s talk about Father Gabriel. It’s telling that he is not only too cowardly to stray too far from his church, but that he is also so consumed with guilt about his post-apocalyptic choices that he left the claw marks and hate note as reminders. He is a shepherd who failed to protect his flock, and who’s too weak to make up for it. His predicament is made even worse by his very name. Gabriel was the angel who stood at the left hand of God (Jesus sat at His right), and often functions as a messenger of the Lord. More importantly, Gabriel blows his horn to signify the second coming of Christ by resurrecting the dead. Well, technically the Bible never specifies the horn as Gabriel’s or that homeboy is even involved it the resurrection, but it’s become the dominant mythology over the centuries. (All those years of Bible school finally paid off!) None of this would be lost to a man of the cloth, particularly one of a religion so turgid with symbolism as Christianity. Hell, “Gabriel” has seven letters, and seven is a massively important number in Christianity. In other words, it’s no surprise Preacher Man has gone a little nutty with his Bible studies in the last few years. He probably thinks he’s in the middle of Revelations gone awry.

“Strangers” could refer to Father Gabriel from Rick’s perspective, Rick’s gang from the preacher’s perspective, or the crazy Christian cult who took Beth from Daryl and Carol’s perspective. It could even be Rick’s group in and of itself, since they’re all still learning important things about each other: Maggie learns about Tara’s history with the Governor; Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene are plotting behind Rick’s back; Carol and Tyreese refuse to speak about what happened to the girls; Bob keeps his emotions from Sasha, etc. At this point, the only characters who don’t seem to have some deep, dark secret eating them from the inside out are Carl and Li’l Asskicker. Trust is the name of the game, and a lack of it guarantees even the closest of associates will always be strangers. Rick’s fellow survivors may be his family, but he only trusts a few of them, and if it came down to saving either Michonne or Carl, he wouldn’t even hesitate to pick his son, no matter how close he and his samurai are right now.

Final Thoughts

  • “I sent you away, and now we’re joining you. Will you have us?”
  • “I am a sinner. I sin almost every day. But those sins I confess them to God, not strangers.”
  • “Everybody can’t be bad.”
  • Really digging the character development this season. The honest moments between Tara and Maggie, Sasha and Bob, Rick and Michonne, Rick and Carl, and Carol and Daryl manage to further the plot while also adding more depth to the characters. Tara and Bob were mostly piles of personality quirks last season, but they’re growing into themselves now.
  • Not sure how I feel about the group making Rick the de facto leader again. He’s proven over and over that he is a crappy leader, but I guess you can’t have your star play second fiddle.
  • Remember back in the early seasons when there could never be more than 1 Black person in the cast at any point in time? That excursion to the food bank was a long-overdue rejection of that rule.
  • Speaking of The Mist, Laurie Holden and Melissa McBride were both ported over from the movie, quite possibly on the word of Frank Darabont, who wrote and directed the movie and almost all of the first season of TWD.
  • TWD isn’t just an unofficial reunion of The Wire actors; it’s also collected two from Teen Wolf. Hey Scott Gimple, Keahu Kahuanui isn’t doing much right now…

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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