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In its fifth — and best — season, The Walking Dead tackles what it is to live after trauma

Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is pretty sure everybody should listen to him right about now. You guys.
Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is pretty sure everybody should listen to him right about now. You guys.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Walking Dead, AMC's — pardon the pun — monster-hit zombie drama, found its fifth and best season sharply divided between its two most prominent storytelling styles.

The first eight episodes of the season, which aired in the fall of 2014, saw the series digging deep and telling character-based short stories about its sprawling ensemble cast. Each episode explored a new facet of the zombie apocalypse, with a different character at the center. It was the best the show has ever been. Yet when I wrote about that half season, I opined that the show's problem was still long-term storytelling.

In the last eight episodes of the season, then, which concluded Sunday night with "Conquer," the season finale, the show for the most part aimed to tell one big story. Our characters happened upon a peaceable commune that had sprung up in Alexandria, Virginia, run by a former congresswoman from Ohio. They were welcomed in, but they couldn't entirely leave their days of wandering through a zombie-infested hellscape behind them.

Slowly but surely, they realized the inherent weaknesses of the Alexandrians — even as our heroes themselves seemed to be slowly unraveling. It was like a great Twilight Zone installment where the protagonists slowly came to realize they had been the monsters all along, except in this scenario everyone was a monster in one way or another.

It all culminated in group leader Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the former small-town sheriff, collapsing into a titanic black hole of raging certainty. This town was weak, and he aimed to prove it to them, through any means necessary.

And Rick? Rick was right. You can't keep the monsters out forever.

Everybody is a hero; everybody is suspicious

The Walking Dead

Carol (Melissa McBride) goes deep undercover in Alexandria. (AMC)

The most intriguing thing about the last half of season five — which was not as consistently strong as the first half — was the way that the show seesawed between finding Rick's group's certainty that the Alexandria compound was weak either well-founded or completely ridiculous, based on whatever scene was airing at that very moment.

Throughout the Alexandria arc, Rick and his followers were defined by how spending so long in a world now dominated by zombies had come to completely rule their existence and way of thinking. The people of Alexandria had gotten off relatively easily, thanks to their solar power, cisterns, and giant steel walls. Zombies were a problem, sure, but in the sense of dangerous wild animals or something. They weren't an omnipresent existential threat, as they had been for Rick and company.

Thus, the characters that viewers had spent the entire series following seemed increasingly unhinged. They weren't just weird prophets of doom. They seemed utterly defined by the horrible things they had seen out in the wilderness. They all —especially Rick — seemed as if they had been overtaken by PTSD, which was overruling their best judgment.

Except the half season's seesaw act kept shifting viewers' sympathies. Not everyone in Rick's group necessarily thought the Alexandria compound was as weak as Rick did (though everyone was a bit surprised by how they weren't combat-ready). And there were certainly things about the Alexandrians that seemed less than ideal — like the way they simply left fallen comrades to be zombie chow, even if a rescue mission seemed likely to succeed.

Yet the defining experience for Rick and company was the fact that they had spent so much time outside those tall steel walls. It allowed, say, Carol (Melissa McBride) to go deep undercover as a sweet, unassuming middle-aged woman, all the better to sniff out the worst elements within the community. And it allows Rick to destroy a zombie that's gotten inside the community with his bare hands.

Rick might be too alert. He might be unable to communicate with normal human beings in normal fashion anymore. But he's ready, dammit.

He's defined by his trauma. But he also lives in a world where being defined by trauma is the only rational response to existence.

Living in a suburban prison

The show itself underlines this near the end of the season's 13th episode, "Forget." Rick, sealed in by the steel walls, hears a zombie mindlessly banging away on the other side. Director David Boyd pulls into an overhead shot that suggests Rick and the zombie are both trapped by the wall, just on opposite sides:

The Walking Dead


Then he cuts to a mid-shot that slowly zooms into a close-up of Rick, his hand in the foreground. It's marked by an A placed there by one of the town's children, meant to suggest that Rick belongs. (It's also a red A, which nods toward The Scarlet Letter and Rick's less-than-proper interest in the child's married mother.)

The Walking Dead


That's before Boyd pulls back to show Rick imprisoned by the houses on either side, like bars in a jail cell. He doesn't belong here. He's trapped:

The Walking Dead


Alexandria seems like the best possible solution for the people who live there. But it's not the best possible solution for Rick and the characters we've gotten to know all series long. Rick's group will inevitably seize control, because they have become the kind of zealots they spent much of the series struggling against. But at every nagging moment, the Alexandria arc invites you to think that maybe, just maybe, Rick and company are right.

In its own, zombie-infested way, this half-season of The Walking Dead is dealing with the inherent weaknesses of collectivism. Alexandria is set up in such a way as to emphasize the health of the community above all else. Individuals are slotted into assigned roles. Those who fall are left behind. Even if the community's leader seems mostly benevolent, power tends to gravitate toward her, and it's not hard to imagine her abusing it somewhere down the line. (Now that Rick seems to be more in charge, it's pretty easy to assume he will abuse that power.)

The Alexandria arc had its problems. In particular, it became obvious fairly early on how things were going to fall apart, which led to a number of episodes in which the audience waited for the characters to catch up to what it already knew. (This has been a consistent problem on the show.)

For another, it's obvious that Alexandria cannot be a permanent solution, because the show can't suddenly turn into a small-town series with occasional zombie-hunting field trips. That's not what brings in viewers.

Eventually, Alexandria, like every other community on the show, must fall. And already, the series is trying to make up for the relative paucity of recent zombie attacks by upping the amount of gore, which has worked only fitfully.

But there's still this wonderful idea at the center of things. How do those defined by trauma and those who haven't seen such trauma live together? How can someone always looking toward the future possibly live next door to someone constantly checking over his shoulder? The Alexandria arc has yet to offer easy answers, and heading into season six, that's where The Walking Dead needs to be.

The Walking Dead will return in fall 2015. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.

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