Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
I’ve taken the liberty of writing a scene from season 35 of The Walking Dead, 20 years from now:
SETTING: Alexandria, a beautiful, well-lit community
Rick stands behind Aaron, holding a gun at his head.
Aaron: Rick, I led you to Alexandria 20 years ago, and since that time you’ve been perfectly safe, watched your daughter grow up into a healthy young woman, and your son is now our vice president. The food has been plentiful, the water has been clean, and we even let you spread your weird lettuce farm into neighborhoods that were, frankly, not your own. I don’t ask much, but I feel like it’s time for you to trust me.
Rick stares at him menacingly
Aaron: Goddamit. You’re about to hit me, aren’t you?
Rick hits him in the head with the gun.
What do you think? Should I copyright that dialogue? Save this email in case Greg Nicotero plagiarizes me.
In fairness to Rick, there are a few good reasons why he shouldn’t trust a stranger, and I can’t say I blame him for his caution. It just made me laugh to see him refuse to give an inch even after it became pretty clear that Aaron at least wasn’t going to try to kill them—at least at that exact moment. Also, the punch seemed like an unnecessary step.
But suspicion is the name of the game in the apocalypse, and even though they played the push-and-pull dynamic between hope and fear to the breaking point, I think it succeeded. “The Distance” hooked me right from the start, and I think it resembled the quintessential Walking Dead episodes that worked so well in the very early seasons. A few terrifying zombie-related catastrophes, a power struggle among the leadership, and a bit of optimism thrown in like a tiny ray of light in the cellar of dread that makes up their lives.
“The Distance” was about Rick and Aaron on the surface, but at its core, it was really about Rick and Michonne. What made that set-to so interesting was that unlike 90 percent of conflicts on this show, they managed to find a middle ground on which to meet. Rick did most of the moving—the hope that Aaron represented seduced most of the group, and he had to let the deep, ingrained fear inside him ebb away and make room for the possibility that Alexandria might be a legitimate safe haven in a world that has only provided tragedy and betrayal. He’ll never give himself over completely—at least not until season 47—but he can sense the deep fatigue of the group, along with their need to pursue what might be a saving grace.
What makes the show great, though, is that even after watching scenes from the next episode, I’m not entirely sure that Aaron and his gang are on the up-and-up. There’s literally nothing to make me feel this way, besides the same ominous music that’s led me astray in the past, but that nagging doubt is there—it’s like my own little Rick demon, making sure that I tune in next week. I can’t wait.
As a last thought before I flip it your way, Josh, have you ever seen anyone look more confused than Rick after he saw Aaron and Eric kiss? It’s like he had reached the point of too much input, and his brain wires were finally frying.
This episode was all about Rick’s distrust, and you’re right. You really can’t blame the guy. There’s no amount of recon they could to look inside those walls and be assured peace. As Rick says, did anything look out of place in Woodbury? Or Terminus? He’s the protector, and in the zombie apocalypse, the protector can’t afford faith in humanity when that faith has proved false so many times. It doesn’t matter if that representative of the species was a humanitarian aid worker who leaves you gifts of bottled water, voluntarily puts himself at your mercy and shows you photos of a safe haven.
The set-up here is like the anti-Terminus. Before, the gang harbored hope from the outset and got burned. Now, it would seem like Aaron and Eric are good, caring people, but Rick isn’t about to be fooled again. And as we talked about earlier this season, it’s Michonne who’s the moral compass. She lost her humanity once, and it was a hard fight to get it back. She needs to be able to trust, but she’s no Tyreese. Her trust means something to Rick, and all he can do is prepare as best he can for whatever is coming next.
But enough with the touchy feely. Did you see Glen wiping the zombie blood and guts off the windshield with his bare arm? The camera work, with everything tinted red as their vision became more and more blurred inside that car was intense. Solo zombies may no longer be threatening, but getting trapped in a big herd in the middle of the night still brings back some of the zombie terror. If indeed we’re about to go behind steel-reinforced walls for an extended period of time, it was good to get overrun by walkers one last time.
So Carl is vice president while dad is a lettuce farmer, huh? I can’t wait to watch that on my device that’s directly linked to my brain.
So on to Alexandria. So far this looks fairly similar to the comic books, but I’ll smugly keep all that to myself. How much do you trust Aaron and Eric? What do you think is waiting on the other side of that wall?
You’re right, the zombie attack (well, to be fair, Glen started it) was truly one of the classics, and even 62 episodes in, The Walking Dead manages to kill off enough people to keep me a little bit petrified. Also, how cool was the flare gun kill? The zombie’s hollow skull lit up like a jack-o-lantern, and it immediately became one of my top three walker deaths of all time.
I have to admit that I read some of the comments from last week, including a number by smug comic book readers like yourself who seemed to be hinting that Aaron was a force for good. So I guess in my heart of hearts I’m expecting Alexandria to be a legitimate safe haven, although something has to screw it up sooner or later. What I really hope, though, is that the show is purposefully fucking with all of you, and Aaron turns out to be a dude who makes Hitler sculptures with the bones of murdered strangers.
Okay, maybe that’s going a little far. What I’m actually thinking is that Alexandria is legitimate, but there’s some kind of catch. Aaron keeps mentioning that humans are the most valuable commodity, so my shot-in-the-dark guess is that maybe they’re fighting a war against another group in the D.C. area, and are in desperate need of soldiers? Because from Aaron’s perspective, even if Rick and the gang seemed nice from his surveillance, it’s still risky as hell to bring them into your nice peaceful neighborhood. If they could subsist on their own behind the steel-reinforced walls, you have to think they would have. So I still say their motives are mostly good, but with a dash of selfishness—they need Rick et al. for something, though I know not what.
I can just picture you and all the other smudgy mcsmuggerson comic-book readers smiling right now and saying something like “hmmm…very interesting” or “getting warmer.”
I need to read the comics, don’t I? I want to be smug too, Josh! It’s right in my wheelhouse!
Back to you with one last question—how long do you think this show could give its characters a measure of stability before things got boring? We know it can’t last forever (at least until the series finale in 2052, which we’ll experience as a pleasing electric thought-flash in our cerebrums), but could the writers spare some tranquility for, say, the rest of this season? Or is that impossible in a show that demands new catastrophes at every juncture?
Hmmm…very interesting. The show has proven itself completely willing to change things up from the comic books to keep us all on our toes—and has even hinted that they’ll be killing someone off who’s still alive in the comics—but ever since the battle with The Governor, we’ve been [insert smugness] anticipating Alexandria.
But in answer to your question, how long can the show go without some central conflict? I think we found out in Season 2. The stay on Hershel’s farm was great for character development and thoughtful philosophizing, but it can never slow down for too long without reminding us of some of its flaws. The TV show needs the stakes to be high, but fortunately a quickly moving plot is right in the wheelhouse of comic books.
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon.
Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.