A tight, brisk episode with some of the most brutal violence yet seen, season 5, episode 3 of The Walking Dead is a gory standout, even if it remains as overwrought as always with the theme-building.
Wellp, so much for the totally chill hipster cannibals.
After two episodes that appeared to set up the Terminus group as this season’s primary villains, last night’s “Four Walls and a Roof” pulled off a laudable reversal of expectations. There will not be any laborious, drawing-out of those predators for 10 episodes’ worth of drama, nor will there be any artificial, Cobra Commander-style escapes that depend on the protagonists being stupid enough to let them live. Instead, the Terminus cannibals were brutally and quite suddenly dispatched in one of the most violent scenes I think I’ve ever seen on non-premium cable television.
Angela Kang & Corey Reed, the episode’s writers, deserve specific high-fives for putting yet another pithy, slightly awesome one-liner in Rick’s mouth and managing to pull off an extremely fun call and response in the same scene. But the real highlight was seeing a house of worship desecrated as its walls were splattered with blood and viscera in service to a merciless form of justice that resembled human sacrifice and pagan ritual as much as it did “what if Rambo or Dirty Harry were shoved into a zombie apocalypse?”.
And the weird thing? It wasn’t just fun and eye-poppingly brutal, it actually worked as a means of advancing this season’s themes. Sure, the episode saw the restoration of the “split the group up to create tension” dynamic that has already been mined to exhaustion. But the last seconds seem to confirm that The Walking Dead’s grimly fast paced tonal shift – a much better fit for the heavy handed thematic building and banging-you-over-the-head metaphors it runs on – may just stick.
Let’s jump into it.
Despite a rare (for this show) instance of every moment being necessary and crammed with important details, “Four Walls and a Roof” was a refreshingly streamlined episode.
Per usual, we pick up right where we left off the previous week, with poor Bob Stookey having been captured by the totally chill hipster cannibals. While his leg is slow-roasted over an open flame, cannibal leader Gareth continues the creepy lecture we ended last week’s episode with. It’s an eerie scene, images of the cannibals snacking on Bob’s leg juxtaposed against nearby zombies moaning and clawing to get to fresh prey. Yes, we get it, TWD, humans are the real monsters.
This time however, it becomes clear that Gareth’s sociopathic indifference to zombies or Bob’s pain is almost certainly a pose. His group’s adoption of a humanitarian diet is fueled by incredible bitterness; they’re punishing the world for going to shit rather than simply rolling with it. How do we know? Remember the older woman killed by Carol in the season premier? The one who was likely raped by the assholes who first attacked Terminus and sparked their transformation? Turns out she was Gareth’s mom. We also learn that one of the people our heroes (rightfully) killed during their escape from Terminus was Gareth’s brother. These people were a family. Gareth isn’t just trying to survive by hunting down Rick’s group (and anyone who won’t join them, he reveals), they’re getting revenge.
That’s probably why they failed to do a spot check on Bob before cutting him up. As predicted last week (and of course, as was obvious to all of us who read the comics), Bob had indeed been bitten during last week’s trip into the zombie sewer. He starts laughing uncontrollably before telling the suitably freaked out totally chill hipster cannibals that they’ve been eating infected meat.
Back at church, Rick and co. realize that Bob, Daryl and Carol have all disappeared at the same time, and in yet another uncharacteristic moment of actually thinking critically, they become deeply suspicious of father Gabriel. As it turns out, however, Gabriel isn’t in league with anyone else, but he does confess what everyone guessed last week: he’s a coward who locked his parishioners out of the church as they were being attacked by the walking dead. No time to digest that news however, because it’s at that moment that the totally chill hipster cannibals dump an unconscious Bob outside the church, along with several zombies they corralled there to cover their retreat.
Making short work of the zombies, Rick and co. bring Bob back inside, learn in short order that he was captured by the Terminus group, where the Terminus group is holed up, and the unfortunate fact that he’s been bitten. That last thing is sad, but the news that the totally chill hipster cannibals are back and causing more trouble is more pressing. It’s quickly decided that they need to deal with them immediately.
But before they do, the show grinds to a narrative halt so that the spirit of comity reached just minutes before (in-universe) between Rick’s group and the trio headed to Washington, D.C. can be destroyed. Abe announces that shit has become way to real, and because “Dr.” Porter’s life is too valuable (since, supposedly, he has the key to curing the living dead plague), he, Rosalita and Porter are going to take the Church’s bus and peace out. He and Rick lock horns over this – in particular, Rick refuses to leave until they find out what happened to Daryl and Carol – and almost come to blows. But the matter is quickly (thank god) diffused when Glen, Maggie, and Tara promise that they’ll join Abe’s trek to D.C. if he’ll just stick around for another 12 hours and help them deal with the totally chill hipster cannibals.
The group quickly gears up to hunt the cannibals down, particularly Sasha, who had just formed a budding romance with Bob and is clearly devastated by his impending demise. Tyrese attempts to convince her not to join the massacre. He makes the case that the cannibals might have to die, but she doesn’t have to pull the trigger. He also urges her to spend what’s left of Bob’s life with him, reminding her that it’s all she’ll have once he’s gone. However, she’s determined to see the bloody deed through. We’ll revisit this momentarily.
Rick, Abraham, Rosalita, Glenn, Maggie, Michonne and Sasha depart for the Terminus cannibals’ camp, leaving Gabriel, Bob, Carl, Tyrese, Tara and “Dr.” Porter behind. However, shortly after they leave, we see the whole thing was a ploy. The Cannibals ‘correctly’ guessed that Rick and co. would do just that, and once that happens, they march right into the church where they intend to get rid of the weaker survivors first. It’s a creepy scene, with Gareth once again delivering a stern, but dispassionate lecture while he and his group try to determine where the survivors are hiding.
Then the camera focuses briefly on a crocheted inspirational message displayed on Gabriel’s pulpit – “stupidity is a gift from god, but one musn’t misuse it” – and we know they’ve walked into a trap. Without warning, two of Gareth’s henchmen’s heads explode in bloody chunks as we hear the sound of a silenced firearm (remember those silencers Glenn found? Nice to see them get used.) Rick and the others emerge from the shadows and Rick shoots the gun out of Gareth’s hand, taking his fingers with it.
Then we see how far our survivors have come. Gareth tries desperately to talk Rick out of finishing his people off, attempting to justify what they did (“I can tell you people don’t know what it’s like to be hungry”), and appealing to his humanity by pointing out that Rick could have finished them off right then, but there’s got to be a reason they haven’t shot them all yet. And there is. “We didn’t want to waste the bullets,” Rick says.
Gareth tries again to sweet talk Rick, promising him that if he lives, he’ll disappear and Rick will never see him again. Rick points out that he might see other people. “And besides,” Rick says, “I made you a promise.” At this point he pulls out that red-handled machete he mentioned back in the season’s first episode, and slices into Gareth’s face so hard he’s literally showered in blood.
The act of slaughtering – and there’s no other way to describe it – the cannibals deeply divides the group. Michonne, Rick and Abe are old hands at this. Sasha, who participated in the slaughter, is clearly not prepared for how it would feel. Meanwhile, Glenn and Maggie stand back and do nothing, appalled by how brutal things got even as they don’t disagree that at least in principle it had to be done. Gabriel rushes from hiding and laments that this happened “in a house of god.” “No,” Maggie retorts. “It’s just four walls and a roof.” Yes, it’s a blindingly obvious title drop, but I’ll let is slide. It perfectly sums up the fact that for our heroes, the world they knew is, in fact, over.
From here out it’s all aftermath. Sasha is able to say goodbye to Bob, but can’t bring herself to kill him once he passes. Tyrese takes the knife from her and does it himself, demonstrating that he is willing to get his hands dirty when needed, if it saves someone he cares about from greater pain. Perhaps he’s not as stupid as we thought. Meanwhile, the next morning, as promised, Glenn, Tara and Maggie go with Abe’s group, though Abe leaves a map with Rick, and a written apology for having been so aggro the night before. It’s bittersweet but at least there’s a measure of hope.
Or is there? The episode ends later that night as Michonne, on patrol, stumbles upon Daryl. Daryl is relieved and happy to see her, but a shadow falls across his face. “Where’s Carol?”, Michonne asks. Daryl glances back into the thicket of trees from whence he came and says “come on out.” We hear movement but the scene cuts to black before we know who he was talking to.
- The season’s theme of maintaining one’s humanity in spite of horrific experiences was practically shouted every other scene. This was particularly evident at the start, when the cannibals were barely distinguishable from zombies, and in how we realize that revenge and punishment are motivating both groups of survivors. While the well-meaning refusal by certain characters to do what arguably needs to be done is infuriating, it was a necessary counterweight to Rick, Michonne and now Sasha, all of whom are getting closer and closer to the line between human and monster. Ramming the point home is Bob’s final conversation with Rick. Bob reminds Rick that he (Rick) was the one making sure to take people in, to help them, despite everything, and he urges Rick not to lose sight of who he is.
How this develops is up in the air but I’m hoping the topic is explored as interestingly as it was last night throughout the rest of the season. I’d like to think that people can come back from the edge, that people can still be civilized even when having to do awful things to survive. Robert Kirkman is of a different opinion, as the comic makes clear, but the show could go in a different way.
- So the thing about action movie style one-liners. They’re somewhat of a rather recent phenomenon, only becoming a staple during the 1980s. That isn’t a coincidence. There’s a curious element of L’esprit de l’escalier to them of course, since they function as the extremely cool thing we all wish we’d be able to say when shit is getting really, really real. But the convention was also perfected, and to this day is most frequently used, by damaged masculine archetypes as they’re committing incredibly violent deeds. Frankly, the convention is inextricably rooted in the aging male angst that has been ratcheted up and exploited for political reasons as well as for the kind of pandering that leads to higher ticket sales. It’s interesting then that Rick has become so proficient in their use.
Bear in mind that with the exception of “This ain’t a democracy anymore” back in season 2, the show has not previously allowed its characters to inhabit specific archetypes. It has instead attempted, with mixed results, to be a quasi-realistic character study. That has clearly changed, evidenced in no small part by how contrived action movie one-liners feel, especially here. (Honestly, they always sound like something the character came up with well in advance, waiting for the perfect time to drop the perfect line.) This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s an interesting tonal shift and one I hope we see more fully explored as the season goes on.
- One thing I’m really enjoying about this season is the way the writers, whether they’ll admit it or not, are clearly paying attention to the most common complaints about the show. During his attempt to talk Sasha out of joining the hunting party, Tyrese actually suggests she try forgiveness instead. Sasha’s response? “What the hell is wrong with you? You think we have a choice?” Thank you, Sasha, for saying what needed to be said like 4 seasons ago.
- Once again, the group has been split up. It’s infuriating to see the show relying on the breaking of the fellowship, AGAIN, and so soon after I praised it for finally getting away from that lazy plot device. On the bright side, at least this time it’s a choice, and the parties are parting as (mostly) friends.
- By the way, it’s obvious that the next character arc the show will explore is “Dr.” Porter’s claims about stopping the apocalypse. Comic readers, again, know where this is going, but the show is taking great pains to make it clear just how shady he is. I look forward to seeing how he’ll sabotage the church bus in order to force Abe and company to walk, not run, to D.C.
- Lastly, anyone care to speculate just who was in the woods with Daryl? Also, sidenote: Carol and Daryl being a potential couple, why isn’t there a couple portmanteu? Oh, because the rhyming. What should we call them? Caryl? Darrol? Please chime in on this important issue.
Bottom Line: An excellently violent episode that advances the story through actions rather than pretentious exposition, the show continues to show remarkable improvement over the excruciating previous seasons. The heavy-handedness is unintentionally funny, but the deliberateness of that heavy-handedness mostly makes up for it.
Recommendation: This season remains by far the most consistently enjoyable. I can’t believe I’m actually liking it this much.[rating=4.0]