The Walking Dead Review: 'The Distance'
After the writers spent a couple of episodes breaking their promise to inject more levity into the proceedings, the survivors finally make it to the Alexandria Safe Zone, in an installment that was far superior to anything we've seen in the back half of this season thus far. The plot was exciting and tense without resorting to shock value, the character beats were much more subtle than usual, and the addition of Aaron and a potential safe haven was a refreshing change of pace that the show desperately needs.
In this episode, the beloved comics character Aaron is introduced in a manner reminiscent of Ben Linus/the Others, in the best possible way. A friendly stranger is introduced, and he seems so genuine that it feels paranoid and even cruel to doubt his intentions, but after all their experiences they know he could easily be a fox in the henhouse. This conflict drove all of the characters' actions, and the writers did a fairly good job of keeping the viewer in suspense regarding Aaron's true intentions. It also reminded me of the Randall plotline all the way back in season two, but in this episode, the characters did most of their navel-gazing internally rather than putting on a full-fledged morality play for us.
The viewer is encouraged to sympathize more with Michonne's camp from the start, as Rick is clearly losing his grip a little. His movements are jumpy, his eyes darting, his breathing heavy, like a cornered animal. Michonne immediately seems more rational and level-headed, as Aaron appears to be truly innocuous. It was canny on the writers' part to choose Michonne and Glenn to assert themselves as co-leaders of the group, as they are both better leaders and generally better-adjusted to the zombie apocalypse than Rick. Rick became the group's de facto leader years ago, almost out of default, as the only other person who wanted to step up was an emotionally unstable murderer and would-be rapist. And as a sheriff, he may very well have been the best leader of anyone in the group in the pre-apocalyptic world. But times have changed, and of all the characters, Rick is not the most suited to this brave new world.
It's been well-documented that Daryl is better suited for this world than the old one, and possibly Carol as well, but characters like Michonne, Glenn, and maybe Maggie are the ones who have quietly grown into themselves in the last few years. They have emotions, humanity, and compassion, but they also know that pragmatism has to take precedence in certain situations. They're flexibly negotiating with this world, while Rick is a black-and-white thinker who doesn't know how to strike a balance. He's a stand-up cop, then he's a ruthless dictator. He's a pacifist farmer, then he's a stone-cold zombie/Termite killer. This episode aptly demonstrated that the best leaders are the ones who can adapt to different situations, and are self-aware enough to take their emotions into account without letting them get out of control. Because Rick can pretend that his decisions are only unpopular because they're brutally pragmatic, but Aaron rightly pointed out that he was actually putting the group in more danger by letting his fear get the best of him and venturing out in the zombie apocalypse at night.
But that being said, the viewers weren't led to believe that Rick was strictly in the wrong, which made the episode a little more complex. It's true that Rick has the most to lose if Alexandria is a trap, since he has two children to think of, but some of his reactions make sense regardless. He takes it too far, and is too controlled by his emotions, but he's absolutely correct that they should be wary of strangers. The last time they trusted strangers, they were almost eaten. Beth trusted strangers and was nearly made into a sex slave. Andrea desperately wanted to believe in a safe haven (and Michonne was the detractor back then, interestingly enough), and she met an easily avoidable demise. To paraphrase Carol's line at the end of the episode, Rick may not have been in the right, but he wasn't exactly in the wrong, either.
And it contributed to the realism of the storyline that none of the survivors were completely opposed to Rick's viewpoints; Glenn only came around to Aaron when his relationship with Eric humanized him, the scene in which Michonne asks Aaron "the questions" was the most wonderfully tense sequence of the episode. If The Walking Dead decides that its promised "shake-up" should be a zombie apocalypse spy thriller a la Homeland season one, I definitely wouldn't complain.
-Eric casually mentions Pete, a surgeon who might be able to help Noah with his bum leg. Even though Aaron and Eric both seem to have good intentions so far, fans of the comics know that the presence of Pete does not bode well.
-I know we already had an openly gay character in Tara, but it's still great to see a gay character on this show, especially one in a seemingly healthy, normal relationship.
-I loved that Judith immediately started crying when she saw Aaron. Like father, like daughter.
-I enjoyed the moment in which Michonne and Rick hear the sound of children playing in Alexandria. Although it was a little too neat, and might fall under the classic Walking Dead "ask a big question about philosophy and offer a pat answer at the end of the episode" trope, it reminded me a lot of Children of Men, which can only be a good thing.
-If anyone is going to say f*ck it and air an episode during the Oscars, of course it's The Walking Dead. That being said, I wonder if that hubris hurt them in the ratings, if just a little.