Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season 5, episode 11, titled “The Distance.”
For viewers who’ve grown bored with “The Walking Dead’s” navel-gazing tendencies in recent weeks, “The Distance” represented a marked change of pace, as our cynical survivors grappled with the decision of whether or not to trust Aaron, the stranger who arrived at their door in the final moments of last week’s episode.
Naturally, given the false promises of Woodbury and Terminus, the group went into lockdown mode as soon as Aaron made his pitch, his idyllic photos of his “camp” and promises of safety sounding far too good to be true in light of everything they’ve been through in recent weeks. (His chipper demeanor didn’t help matters much either, with Rick instantly suspicious of “a guy who smiles after getting punched.”) Once again, it was Michonne who pressed Rick to take a chance on the prospect of hope, understanding his mistrust but refusing to share it: “You know what you know and you’re sure of it, but I’m not,” she insisted.
Before long, Maggie, Glenn, Michonne, Abraham and Rosita were venturing outside to investigate Aaron’s claim that he’d brought cars to transport them all to his base, with Glenn uneasily trying to step into Rick’s leadership role on the road, demanding that they shoot anyone who approached them. Once again, Michonne stood her ground in pointing out the major flaw in that plan, reasoning that if the group hadn’t bothered giving strangers the benefit of the doubt before, they wouldn’t have saved Tara, Gabriel or herself — since they were all strangers to each other at one point.
Back at the stable, Aaron was attempting to earn Rick’s trust, having brought apple sauce for Judith — which Rick, naturally, wanted him to test first to check for poison. While Aaron’s contortions to try and get out of tasting the apple sauce seemed a little contrived just for the sake of heightening tension (if you’re in a hostile environment and want to prove that you’re trustworthy, would you really refuse to take a bite on the grounds that you don’t like the taste?) the moment served to hammer home just how paranoid Rick has become, and Andrew Lincoln looked eerily like a cornered animal in many scenes this week, darting towards Aaron to snatch up supplies and then retreating to a safe distance, his wild eyes and ragged beard making him seem more beast than man.
The discovery of supplies and transport made Aaron’s offer too alluring to resist, and it was refreshing to see Michonne not only being vocal about her desires after spending much of the first half of the season sidelined, but also stepping into a leadership role when it seemed like Rick’s fears might cost everyone a chance at survival. While Michonne was assertive in insisting that they needed to follow Aaron, she wasn’t dictatorial as Rick has often been — offering the others a chance to weigh in on the decision. Over the past few episodes, she’s proven that she can handle power a lot more comfortably than Rick in some ways, and although Glenn and Daryl are clearly Rick’s right-hand men, it’s nice to see her being given a chance to demonstrate her capability again, especially when Rick’s paranoia threatened to send the group into even more perilous circumstances.
Unlike the past two episodes, “The Distance” offered a more utilitarian style of writing (Seth Hoffman) and direction (Larysa Kondracki), efficiently getting the group from point A to point B with only a brief detour through zombie-infested highway and woodland to get our adrenaline pumping. While the hour was purposefully coy about revealing much about Aaron’s motivations, the script gave away small slivers of information — that his mother was a deeply troubled woman who tried to make him tougher by feeding him foods he didn’t like as a child (including apple sauce); that he worked for an NGO before the zombie apocalypse and thus knows how to keep his head in a crisis; that, despite his hardship, he’s managed to retain a sense of humor even in the face of danger; and that he’s in a loving, committed relationship with a fellow survivor named Eric, who the group soon came across (complete with a broken ankle) on their ill-advised nighttime jaunt towards Aaron’s base. The demonstration of Aaron’s love for Eric humanized him far more than any photos of sanctuary could, and when Rick’s paranoia prompted him to try and make Aaron sleep apart from Eric to prevent any plotting, Glenn finally stepped up to admit that he was unwilling to completely give up his faith in humanity, even after so many betrayals, clearly seeing his relationship with Maggie reflected in Aaron and Eric’s dynamic.
At daybreak, the group was back on the road together with a newfound sense of optimism (how refreshing!), heading towards Aaron and Eric’s camp, Alexandria, with Washington, D.C., blissfully visible on the horizon — much to the delight of Abraham and Rosita. Rick had earlier noted to Michonne that while approaching Woodbury and Terminus, they’d heard nothing but silence — an indicator of the darkness lurking just beneath their appealing facades. But upon reaching the gates of Alexandria, the unmistakable sounds of activity and children’s laughter echoed enticingly from within, allowing Rick and Michonne to share a poignant, wordless moment of relief that for once, something good might actually have happened to them. It’s certainly long overdue.
Have our survivors finally found a home, or is there another Governor lurking inside? Either way, the discovery of Alexandria has shifted the paradigm of the show yet again, taking our group off the road and offering the possibility of new characters (either as redshirts or allies) — and if the new safe zone offers them a brief respite from the unrelenting bleakness that has plagued the show this season, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.