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The Walking Dead season 6, episode 5: The season unveils its first real dud

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When people say they hate this show, they're thinking of episodes like "Now."

I love Merritt Wever. It's hard to suss out what she's doing on this show.
I love Merritt Wever. It's hard to suss out what she's doing on this show.
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.

When people say they don't like The Walking Dead, episodes like "Now" are the reason. This episode is desperate — desperate! — to get viewers to care about a bunch of characters we barely know, and it largely eschews forward momentum for endless scenes in which the characters talk about Leadership and Who's Going to Be in Charge and The Way the World Is Now.

I think The Walking Dead believes these scenes are a part of what makes it profound (assuming it considers itself profound). They come up all the time, and the show is obsessed with what makes a Great Leader, while remaining pathologically averse to actually discussing what leadership entails beyond looking the part.

So, yeah, "Now" is a bit of a dud. But it's at least a dud that's trying to lay some groundwork for future episodes. That makes it not wholly worthless, if still a disappointment. Let's break down some of its weirdest choices.

1) Is this show seriously going to make Rick the leader again?

Deanna might ask Rick to lead on The Walking Dead.
Deanna doesn't seem too thrilled to be covered in zombie blood.

Setting aside my personal opinion of Rick Grimes — he must be stopped! — the in-power/out-of-power vacillation The Walking Dead has performed with the character has been endless, and is easily the show's least interesting continuing element. Now it appears Rick is once again on the up and up, as Deanna, covered in zombie blood after failing to kill one she happened upon, asks Rick if maybe he shouldn't just be the leader.

There are a bunch of stupid things about this. For one thing, how is it possible that Deanna didn't realize she needed to take out a zombie's brain to kill it? Obviously she's sheltered, but she can't be that sheltered. The zombie apocalypse has been going on for a while. You'd think someone would have casually mentioned this in conversation. (Tovah Feldshuh, however, plays the hell out of the moment.)

But what's even stupider is that, so far as the people of Alexandria can tell, Rick is a dangerous lunatic who's put them in greater and greater danger from the word go. I'm not saying that's true, but it's really hard for me to imagine an average Alexandrian looking at Rick's actions and saying, "You know, he has some good points." The Walking Dead needs these people to trust Rick, so it's just going to have them trust Rick, because it's not sure how else to get there. Granted, he hasn't taken over by episode's end, but you can see where this is going.

Why this is too bad: Honestly, when the Alexandria story arc began, one of the most interesting things about it was the possibility that it might offer up a scenario where Rick was in a leadership position but had to answer to somebody else. And since Rick's philosophy is to just eliminate all potential dangers immediately, while Deanna is really trying to build something, there's a nice push and pull there. Maybe the show will keep that push and pull around. Maybe I'm overreacting. But The Walking Dead is always leaning toward Rick being the leader, and that stopped being interesting a long time ago.

2) Yeah, Glenn is probably alive

Maggie on The Walking Dead
Maggie rubs away Glenn's name from the list of the dead. Maybe she's setting herself up for disappointment, but we're betting not.

Let us count the reasons why:

  1. Maggie is pretty sure he is.
  2. Maggie is apparently pregnant.
  3. Rick is hoping he'll turn up.
  4. Maggie has erased Glenn's name from the wall of the dead.
  5. Most importantly, the show wouldn't be casting doubt on his death within the context of the show itself if he weren't alive.

This, too, could be an elaborate fake-out. It could be a situation where we're being set up to believe the character is alive, then find him dead — as when Sophia staggered out of that barn back in season two (still one of The Walking Dead's most effective moments). There could be something nicely brutal about that — and the presence of a baby could be a way to tell a few more Glenn stories (in flashback) that would ease the character's passing.

But c'mon. Glenn is alive.

Why this is too bad: See here. Also...

An important prediction: I won't be surprised if the last shot of episode eight (the midseason finale) reveals Glenn staggering into Alexandria — exhausted but otherwise none the worse for wear.

3) "Now" contains way, way, way too many interpersonal scenes between characters we barely know

The Walking Dead Alexandria.
Far too much of this episode is spent on Alexandrians we barely know or care about.

One of the smartest things showrunner Scott M. Gimple did when he took over The Walking Dead was toss aside the series' existing status quo and turn the characters loose within a series of short stories about trying to find peace in the post-apocalypse. This immediately made the show more interesting structurally, but it also did the heavy lifting of transforming several nothing characters (like, say, Beth) into important pieces of the show's ensemble. Before Gimple took over, Beth seemed like obvious zombie chow. But by the time she actually died, her demise had some real feeling to it.

The Walking Dead, as it turns out, works best in a tight focus, not when it's more diffuse. By narrowing its gaze to one or two characters at a time, the show can deepen them and have time for the zombie action that keeps us watching. When it's trying to develop a whole host of characters at once, it feels scattered, and it simply leads to the characters telling each other things they should already know. It's clumsy exposition and clumsy character writing.

And that's a pretty good description of "Now," which is chock full of scenes featuring the Alexandrians musing about their lives and struggles, while rarely giving us a real organic sense of them as people. As long as we've known them, they've been collections of problems who would hopefully come together into characters, and it's not working. I don't care about any of these people even a slight iota more than I did last week, and that's a bad sign for a relatively large group of characters who will probably begin dying immediately.

Why this is too bad: Well, there's the fact that they'll probably begin dying immediately, as mentioned, thus robbing the show of the tension it gains when the main characters are put in danger. (The battle with the skeletal zombies in the drainage tunnels looked cool, but there wasn't much real terror to it.) There's also the fact that the show came up with a cool way to highlight a new character back in the second episode of this season, with that extended flashback to the pre-Alexandria life of Enid, but it hasn't bothered trying anything similar since. It's like the series suddenly lost confidence in itself.

4) The zombie horde threat sure has dissipated, hasn't it?

Rick goes for a run on The Walking Dead
Rick can just run through a giant horde of zombies? Sure.

Look, I get that individual zombies kept peeling off from the horde, thus reducing their overall threat. I get that by the time the stragglers make it to Alexandria, there are still a lot of them, but not enough to really take down the walls (at least right away).

But it still feels like the opening of season six set up this epic visual of the biggest horde the series has ever presented, then slowly let it fizzle as the episodes passed. By the time the Walkers make their way to the compound, there are only enough of them to bang on the walls and slaver for flesh.

And that's to say nothing of Rick's RV about to be surrounded by zombies back in "Thank You," only for this episode to open with him simply outrunning all of them. It's totally plausible, but it continues the sensation that this season is setting up situations with Big! Dramatic! Stakes! only to immediately undo them in the very next episode, because the story needs to continue. It's irritating and, again, suggests a loss of confidence.

Why this is too bad: There are some interesting ideas here! A town surrounded by a zombie horde that could break through but hasn't is an interesting dilemma, especially once Rick insists that everybody has to stay quiet. What if this were a silent episode? What if it were one where noise kept fluttering up? What if it were anything but what it actually is?

5) Alexandria still doesn't seem all that worth saving

Deanna on The Walking Dead.
But Deanna seems super-psyched about her plans for the greatest SimCity yet.

This is a problem. I like the idea of this arc, but it really requires The Walking Dead's writers to come up with tangible senses of character and place — something they're not always great at doing. Alexandria needs to feel like something worth fighting for, more than any other location the characters have fought for. But I'm just waiting for the walls to fall, so that everybody has to move on to the next place.

What makes Alexandria different? What sets it apart? What makes its residents unique or interesting? I'm not saying these things have to have hard-and-fast answers. Indeed, the idea that Alexandria is different primarily because of dumb luck is another interesting one the show hasn't done much with.

I suggested back in the first week of the season that The Walking Dead is a Western. And while I still think that's its main influence, the Alexandria arc is also cribbing readily from small-town shows, like Everwood and Northern Exposure and even Gilmore Girls. And on a small-town show, it's imperative that the audience wishes to live in the small town, no matter how kooky or full of oddballs it is. I couldn't tell you anything about Alexandria, other than it's the latest crucible for Rick Grimes's soul. And that's a problem.

Why this is too bad: A small-town show set in the zombie apocalypse? Sign me up!

Join me at noon Eastern for the weekly culture chat. Ask me questions — and answer mine — in comments!

The Walking Dead
Waterlogged zombies are the best zombies.

You can start leaving them right now. In the meantime, I'll ask you my question of the week: If you could pick any TV character to be mayor of your small town, who would it be? Me, I'm going with Tyrion Lannister, who, if nothing else, has his head on straight. He'd make sure the harvest festival went off without a hitch, and he'd keep the zombies from gatecrashing.

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