This review contains spoilers for The Walking Dead season 11, episode 5, “Out of the Ashes.”
I take notes during every episode of The Walking Dead, but never before have I taken as many notes for a single episode as I did with “Out of the Ashes,” this week’s three-pronged episode that overall did well to juggle its A, B, and C plots. It’s rare for the show to attempt three plots and even rarer still for it to do it successfully like this.
While last week’s episode focused completely on Daryl, “Out of the Ashes” does a lot of heavy lifting to advance the plot in several areas. The main storyline follows Aaron, Carol, and more Alexandrians who return to the ashes of Hilltop with the intent to rummage for food scraps. Instead, they find directionless Whisperers, which of course causes a rift in our heroes’ group since Lydia is present and insists these seemingly downtrodden former cultists are just trying to move on from their past abuses.
Like last week, these scenes allow for some interesting introspection of cult dynamics. What do followers do when their leader is gone? For the Whisperers, it means herding zombies in a circle and sleeping in the ruins of Hilltop with nowhere to go. It means lying when you’re caught even though it digs you a deeper proverbial hole with the Alexandrians. They go into full-on survival mode, forgetting how to really do that without Alpha to steer them.
Aaron and Carol butt heads over how to treat the Whisperers — let them go or interrogate them for the whereabouts of more Whisperers? While I find Carol’s stance to be a bit absurd — she demands Aaron cease his unilateral torture of the lead Whisperer despite her own storied history of unilateral decisions — I do think it works in the context of what we’ve seen from other groups this season.
The Reapers torture using “extraordinary rendition,” a fancy government word for waterboarding. The Commonwealth, as best we’ve seen, merely interrogates. The Alexandrians fall much closer to the Reapers than the civilized Commonwealth on the human rights scale.
Speaking of the Commonwealth, we get our first tour of the inside in “Out of the Ashes,” and it does not disappoint. While the set looks a lot like a fake town you’d see in a section of Disney World, I think that’s on purpose. To our heroes, things must look almost artificial or too good to be true. Unless the show has a big trick up its sleeve, though, I don’t think that’s the case. It seems like this settlement really is the most advanced and prosperous in the story’s history, and soon the focus may shift to pondering whether our Alexandrians, molded by savagery, can assimilate to the Commonwealth way.
Seeing their onboarding video had an air of the Dharma Initiative videos in Lost, and as much as I enjoyed these scenes, it also invoked in me a sense of retroactive disappointment, remembering that so much of this series has just taken place in nondescript woods. The Commonwealth is the coolest place we’ve ever visited in The Walking Dead, and I hope the writers have properly remixed the comic in a way that will still satisfy on screen.
Across the board, “Out of the Ashes” is dripping with nostalgia for the history of The Walking Dead. Again, this is something I wish the show had been doing for years, but it’s better late than never. Things like Carl’s artwork he made for Judith before he died, Aaron having a nightmare about past haunts like the Wolves, and the establishing shots of what was once Hilltop all feel so awesomely reflective. This is the first episode of the season that feels like the train is coming into the station, but I’m sure we still have a lot more tragedy and gunfire to witness before things really settle down.
So often, the best part of a zombie story is the early days after “the fall.” On the mainline The Walking Dead, we never really saw that — only glimpses of it from Rick’s eyes following his coma. But because the show is so long in the tooth, now we’re getting to see something else that virtually no zombie series gets the chance to depict: “the return.” At the Commonwealth, I’m excited to see what rebuilding a broken world looks like from a group that may just prove capable of completing the project.