Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five, episode ten, titled “Them.”
“The Walking Dead” has returned from its midseason hiatus in a philosophical mood. Last week’s episode said farewell to Tyreese in delirious fashion, crafting an hour both weighty and insubstantial as it discarded another underutilized character arguably long before his time. In this week’s installment, our survivors were finally given a chance to mourn their recent causalities, focusing primarily on Maggie, Daryl and Sasha as they tried to come to terms with losing Beth and Tyreese, leading to a contemplative but emotionally satisfying hour.
Aesthetically, Julius Ramsay’s direction followed the template laid down by Greg Nicotero last week (although thankfully eschewing Nicotero’s more abstract flourishes, since no one was hallucinating their way towards the light), handsomely lensing the desolate landscape to highlight the wildness and unpredictability of our group’s surroundings, from which all manner of threats continued to emerge — from walkers to wild dogs.
As the survivors continued their long trudge towards Washington, the episode was once again more concerned with charting their emotional odyssey than their physical journey. Long before Rick ever drew an outright comparison between their dwindling group and the walking dead that surround them, the visuals hammered that point home pretty overtly, framing the group ambling wearily along the road with just the same mindless persistence as the zombies behind them, more out of habit than from any real desire to carry on.
The hour belonged to Lauren Cohan’s Maggie — who has been denied many on-screen opportunities to mourn the loss of both her father and her sister and did so with a raw, aching intensity this week — and Norman Reedus’ Daryl, who visibly struggled with his inability to articulate his grief within the group, taking every opportunity to disappear into the woods to avoid the scrutiny of his fellow survivors. Once again, Carol continued to push her emotionally-stunted friend out of his comfort zone, needling him to grieve instead of trying to shove his pain aside, and it was heartening to see her both refusing to abandon him when he tried to distance himself, and also recognizing when she needed to give him space. The agony on Reedus’ face when Daryl crept off to smoke and cry was gut-wrenching, his penchant for self-harm evoking memories of Beth’s own self-destructive tendencies as he burned himself with his cigarette to offset his emotional pain with a more familiar, physical kind of hurt.
The group’s deteriorating mental state was further exacerbated by a water shortage (with Abraham choosing to make matters worse by chugging alcohol instead), and their dire situation was thrown into stark relief when they were cornered by a group of feral dogs, which Sasha wasted no time shooting in order to give them their first taste of fresh meat in forever. The blankness in our survivors’ eyes as they mechanically chewed at the dog meat was chilling, but it was Noah’s traumatized glance towards a discarded dog collar that delivered the real punch to the gut.
No matter how desperate the group becomes, it’s clear they’re no longer as trusting as they once were, and when a mysterious supply of water inexplicably appeared in their midst with the note “from a friend,” their cynicism outweighed their thirst, and they were more willing to remain parched than to believe in the kindness of strangers after everything they’ve encountered of late.
While the show continues to drive our group deeper into purgatory, with many characters questioning whether they have the strength or motivation to endure the cruelty of the world for much longer (something a number of audience members may be asking themselves too, as the narrative grows ever bleaker), writer Heather Bellson wisely attempted to inject small signs of hope into “Them.” First came Maggie’s acquisition of a child’s music box from Carl — a symbol of innocence and source of music (both of which were stolen from the group with Beth’s death) — that Daryl helped her fix; then the implication that some higher power might still be watching over them despite the hopelessness of their situation, initially with a well-timed burst of rain just when it seemed like they might die of dehydration, then with that brutal storm managing to bring down dozens of trees to trap and impale a horde of walkers right outside the group’s shelter, while somehow miraculously leaving their stable unscathed, allowing them to sleep safely through the night.
Later, as Maggie and Sasha took the opportunity to count their meager blessings and marvel at the beauty of the sunrise in the company of their music box, another potential savior appeared — a stranger called Aaron (Ross Marquand), the “friend” who delivered their suspicious water supply, who may hold the key to their continued survival. But will the group be able to trust him — and is he worthy of their trust?
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.