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The show gets even grislier while the metaphors get even more heavy-handed as The Walking Dead delivers another solid hour of apocalypse porn. But warning: people are starting to be stupid again. Obviously, heavy spoilers people.

Last week, I lavishly complimented The Walking Dead for finally managing to break free from the most infuriating cliche of the horror genre: the lazy reliance on having characters making the stupidest possible decisions in order to move the plot forward. It was both exciting and a serious relief to actually feel worry for Rick’s band of survivors, instead of incredible frustration that yet again, they’d gotten into trouble that could have been easily avoided, if only they’d pull their heads out of, er, the sand.

I come to you now a penitent man, humbled and taking it all back. After almost two full episodes in which our characters appeared to actually display an ability to not give in to the urge to do dumb random bullshit because the writers couldn’t think of a better way to get them into perilous situations, the last 5 minutes of “Strangers” saw the return of plot-required stupidity with a vengeance. Worse, the return of situational stupidity had the effect of undermining past good behavior by revealing that, as expected, the plot device never really went away.

Fortunately, it was preceded by an otherwise solid, if hilariously unsubtle, breather episode that gave us important character beats and some delicious carnage. And better still, the episode’s final moment was one for the history books, a full-on embrace of zombie apocalypse schlock that, even if readers of the comics saw it coming, still managed to leave you feeling kind of awed that the show actually went there. The Walking Dead may obstinately refuse to be good television, but it is very frequently kind of awesome.

Let’s get into it.

twd carol daryll

We begin, like last time, right where we left off in the previous episode. Having just escaped from Terminus after torching the place and killing a sizable number of the totally chill hipster cannibals who called it home, our survivors are once again roaming the land, looking for a safe spot to bed down for the night. Sure, maybe it was a bit daft of the group not to follow Rick’s advice – “They don’t get to live” – and eliminate the rest of the cannibals, but considering what they’d just been through, we’ll let that slide. In any event, their escape and reunion affords them the opportunity to reconnect with one another after having spent half of the previous season separated.

Some of the reunions are unambiguously joyful. Resident marrieds Maggie and Glenn can finally spend a few moments tenderly kissing, and Rick is just overcome with all the feels now that he knows his infant daughter Judith wasn’t killed by zombies. Others are more bittersweet. Tyrese and Carol come to an agreement not to talk about the things they were forced to do while wandering the land, and this leads to some distance between her and Daryl. Tara Chambler, meanwhile, is still unsure of her place in the new group (and probably has figured out by now that she’s the only lesbian), while Abraham, “Dr.” Porter and Rosalita remain bent on heading to Washington, D.C., but hold out for the right moment to try once again to convince Rick’s survivors to go with them.

But of course, prior to the fourth season breaking of the fellowship, lots of shit went down, plenty of which needs airing out. Right off the bat, Rick finally comes to terms with Carol. Recall he’s the one that banished her after learning she’d been euthanizing sick survivors back in the prison? Bygones. “I owe you everything. I still don’t know about what you did, but I know you knew some things I didn’t,” he tell her. So it is that he asks her if she’ll “have us”. Meanwhile, Maggie lets Tara know that she considers her responsible for saving Glenn, which means whatever happened before, they’re completely cool. Point: our survivors have apparently realized once and for all how dangerous the world really is, and how much they need one another, which provides more than enough incentive to let past transgressions slide in favor of keeping friends and family close together.

But forgiveness is a two way street, and many of the characters can’t let go of the horrid things they’ve done. It seems half the cast is bursting with a need to confess their sins, and lucky for them, the episode makes the theme of confession and redemption hilariously explicit as our survivors stumble upon a Catholic Priest who is but seconds away from being devoured by walkers.

twd father gabriel

Before we get there, the episode treats us to some surprisingly good character moments. Especially involving Bob Stookey, now bonding rather intensely with Tyrese’s sister Sasha. We get a real glimpse into his outlook as the two of them play a game in which she says something accurate about their miserable situation, and he puts the best possible spin on things. It’s nice to see the show finally doing something with Bob, who until very recently was simply a glorified extra with a lot more dialogue and WAIT HANG ON. Is this a black male cast member suddenly getting a lot of dialogue and serious character development? Uh oh, that’s a bad sign. Well, at least the show hasn’t introduced any new black male characters.

Just kidding. The priest I mentioned is Father Gabriel, played by new series regular Seth Gilliam. Screaming for help, Gabriel is saved by our survivors. His first act after being rescued is to puke his breakfast all over the ground. Clearly he’s not a violent, ruthless killer. He insists he hasn’t killed any walkers or people, telling Rick and co. that he trusts in God to provide for him. If that sounds crazy to you, good. Obviously, a nonviolent person with an inability to exercise basic survival tactics having survived a zombie apocalypse for this long is a bit fishy. Our survivors think so too, especially because, the night before, Daryl noticed that something, or someone, lurking about their campsite. They suspect that might have been their new priestly friend. He denies this of course.

Nailing home the episode’s theme, Gabriel, when asked at gunpoint what he has “done”, presumably meaning done to survive, tells Rick “I’m a sinner. I sin almost every day. But those sins I confess to god, not strangers.” Good to know, especially as Rick and co. ‘escort’ Gabriel back to his church. Hey wait, isn’t that where confessions traditionally happen? Why yes, but don’t worry, we don’t get to that until later. For now, with the group never once hiding the fact that they are hardened killers, we get a great demonstration of how they have transformed. While we know they’re as close to the good guys as it gets in this nightmare world, to Gabriel they’re just a bunch of random, well-armed strangers. Finally, we see how terrifying they must appear.

twd grou walk

The church looks weirdly upkept despite having one occupant with, as we’ve noted, no advanced survival skills. Inside, it looks hardly different from before things went south, and the camera takes a moment to linger on the mementos Gabriel has been keeping. We see photos of him with parishioners, Sunday school drawings made with crayons, and other signs that this was once the center of a small community. So where did that community go, and why is Gabriel the only one left? The answer probably isn’t good.

The survivors learn that Gabriel is out of food, having recently reached the end of supplies from a canned-food drive completed, so he says, literally just before civilization collapsed. However, he knows of a pantry in the nearby small town where there might still be some food. Rick, Maggie, Tara, Glenn, Bob, Sasha and Michonne decide to head into town with an extremely reluctant Gabriel to show them the way, while the others stay behind to scope out the scene and make sure things are secure. But before leaving, Rick stops to give Carl some excellent advice. “You are not safe, no matter how many people are around, no matter how clear the area looks,” Rick says. “No matter what anyone says no matter what you think, you are not safe. It only takes one second and it’s over. Never let your guard down, ever.”

Carl agrees, but like Glenn in last week’s episode, he implores Rick that despite that, they can still do good, they can still help people. They don’t have to be monsters. Rick appears to agree. Even so, he’s not taking any chances. It’s made clear to Gabriel that he doesn’t have a choice but to do whatever he’s told. Yikes.

twd michonne zombie

In town, our survivors discover that the pantry’s floor has collapsed, allowing all rainwater and, probably, sewage, to collect in a disgusting bath full of canned goods and zombies. Bob gets a funny joke – “if a sewer could puke, this is what it would smell like” – which reminds the viewer that he seems to be getting a lot of lines this season. That’s never a good sign for underused characters on this show, is it? Anyway, they need that food, so they go in as a group, using metal shelves still upright to keep the zombies at bay. Gabriel, unfortunately, once again demonstrates how little equipped he is to deal with the situation when he sees a female walker with glasses. He panics, tries to get away, forcing Rick and co. to move from behind their cover to save him.

This allows an incredible-looking prune-skinned zombie that had been completely submerged to attack Bob, but he’s (apparently) saved at the last minute by Sasha, and insists he wasn’t bitten. If you think he’s lying, then you’ve probably read the comic and thus remember what finally happened to Dale. Anyway, our heroes return to the church with a new stash of food, where we learn that while they were gone, Carl made an interesting discovery: someone scratched “You’ll burn for this” on the outside of the church. Minutes earlier, Gabriel confirmed to Rick that he’d known the zombie wearing glasses, so I think we can guess what happened.

But Rick and co. won’t, not for now anyway. While the episode’s theme of confession and redemption has prompted several characters to unburden themselves of their sins to one another, other characters are keeping their thoughts to themselves. Rick therefore allows Gabriel to do the same, though that night, while the survivors are having a cookout inside the church, Rick tells Gabriel that while he respects Gabriel’s wish to keep his secrets to himself, if Rick discovers those secrets can hurt his friends, he’ll kill Gabriel without question.

The larger atmosphere of camaraderie prompts Abraham to give a rousing speech in favor of the group traveling with him, Rosalita, and “Dr.” Porter to Washington, where they believe they can finally put an end to the zombie menace once and for all. Earlier in the episode, multiple characters told Abraham that while they supported his mission and wanted to go with his group, they were never splitting up with their friends again – if Rick and the rest didn’t agree, they wouldn’t leave. That won’t be an issue now however, as Rick ultimately decides he wants to make the trip. Cue much rejoicing.

twd abraham by any means

Except, that is, for Carol and for Bob. Carol has slipped off to grab supplies from a stash she’d setup earlier in the episode in the trunk of a car she and Daryl had fixed up. It looks like she’s still planning to go off on her own again, though this time Daryl follows her out and tries to convince her to stay. Their conversation is interrupted, however, by the sound of a vehicle driving on a nearby road. We see the back of the vehicle and lo and behold, it’s the mysterious cross car Daryl last saw when Beth disappeared. He and Carol immediately hop in their car and go chasing after cross car.

Meanwhile, remember how much character development Bob was getting? Remember how he was attacked by the waterlogged zombie? Yeah, he’s doomed. During the church cookout, he is obviously covering up some tremendous unhappiness, and while everyone else celebrates their decision to head north to DC, he slips outside and wanders out into the woods nearby, where he begins to weep. It would appear he was bitten and is preparing to die, but as those of us in the audience steel ourselves for his inevitable suicide, a hooded figure pops up from the darkness and bashes him in the face. Cut to commercial.

Yep, Bob’s been captured by the remnants of the totally chill hipster cannibals of Terminus. As he comes to, we see glimpses of his captors, including – I fucking knew it! – Baseball Cap Cannibal, who Tyrese claimed he’d killed at the end of last week’s episode. But forget for a second how infuriating it is that Tyrese’s stupidity remains unchanged, we see that Bob is bound, but sitting up, and his vision comes into focus on Gareth, leader of the totally chill hipster cannibals, casually snacking on a huge chunk of cooked meat.

rick walking

Bob knows he’s fucked, but that isn’t enough for Gareth. Gareth, despite his amiable demeanor, is clearly furious about the destruction of Terminus, and so he delivers a truly excellent speech to Bob, explaining to him that “everything that’s going to happen” to him is basically their fault. “You and your people took away our home. That’s fair play,” Gareth says. “Now we’re out here like everybody else, trying to survive. And in order to do that we have to hunt. We didn’t start out that way, eating people. It evolved into that. We evolved. Now we’ve devolved. Into hunters.”

It gets worse of course. “I just hope you understand that nothing happening to you is personal,” Gareth continues. “We would’ve done this to anybody. We will.” Then we pull back and see that Bob’s leg has been removed from the knee down. What remains of his lower leg is currently roasting on an open fire. They’re keeping him alive because they can’t preserve the meat anymore, which makes the moment even more delicious. Gareth leans in, takes a giant bite out of what clearly used to be Bob’s calf, and says “you know what? You taste a lot better than we thought you would.”

It’s an incredible moment and, for my money, up there with the show’s greatest. I’m frustrated that it had to come after the reveal that our survivors will continue to be stupid whenever the plot demands it. After all, why did Bob wander off by himself? More importantly, why the hell didn’t Tyrese make certain that Baseball Cap Cannibal was dead? Why did Carol take his word for it? But those questions, and the shaking of fists at the lazy way we’re expected to believe people can survive despite being so goddamned dumb, will have to wait. Because Gareth and the surviving cannibals have just emerged as the first truly terrifying villains since before we knew how horrendously this show planned to waste The Governor.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • If you’ve read the comic, then you already know A) that Bob is going out like Dale did on the page. That’s fine, especially since Bob was barely more than a background character in the comics. Still, it’s sad how obvious it was that Bob was doomed simply because he suddenly got so much character development. At least he’ll be kept around as the cannibals slowly chop away his body. I’m looking forward, in a most grisly way, to seeing how much longer he lasts.
  • Naturally, it won’t be for very long of course. And speaking of, it must really suck to be a black male actor on The Walking Dead. Sure, you get to draw a nice check co-starring on a fantastically popular TV series, which is great for your visibility. And meanwhile, your job is basically just “sit around waiting for the writers to finally bother to develop your character”. Easy! But it comes with a dark price: there’s a 60% chance that when your character development finally comes, it will coincide with the addition of a new black male character to the cast. And unfortunately, if there’s already more than one, that means you’re about to be removed from the show.

    Just ask T-Dog actor IronE Singleton. Or better, ask Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., who plays Bob Stookey. Bob, as you can see, is the latest victim of the show’s strictly enforced equilibrium. It’s frustrating as hell, particularly since it’s so obvious and predictable, but on the bright side, that setup came as part of a re-purposed version of one of the comic series’ best moments. If Bob has to go, at least he’s going to get some incredible final moments before he does.

  • Speaking of, what is Father Gabriel’s deal? Well, even though everyone on the show is going to refuse to connect the dots, we won’t, right? Clearly, he panicked when the apocalypse happened and locked himself in the church with all of the canned food drive food, leaving his former parishioners to be devoured by the living dead. I mean, what else could “you’ll burn for this,” scratched on the outside of the building, actually mean? Unless…
  • Surely, you saw the way the camera lingered on that marking on the tree, right? Obviously this is significant. Is that marking a sign the hunters themselves use? Maybe, but Father Gabriel has a demonstrated tendency to completely lose his shit in a tough situation. Maybe the reason he survived for so long by himself is that he worked out some kind of deal with those creeps. That’d explain why the marking is so close to the church. Either way, obviously Rick’s right. He’s hiding something.
  • In addition to the theme of confession and redemption, something else sticks out. The crayon drawings depicted scenes from the Bible, and one in particular specifically referenced the Israelites 40-years of wandering in the wilderness. I wonder if that’s significant.
  • By the way, nice misdirection, The Walking Dead. I felt sure that Father Gabriel would be revealed to have something to do with Beth’s abduction. And yes people, she was definitely abducted. But nope, it looks like whomever is driving the mysterious cross-car has nothing to do with Gabriel. But now of course we’ve split Daryl and Carol off from the group, which means two of their most effective killers are absent right when they’re about to have more run-ins with the totally chill hipster cannibals. Whoops.

Bottom Line: I’m disappointed that The Walking Dead is once again relying on stupid decision-making to move the plot forward, especially because some of it, like Tyrese failing to kill Baseball Cap Cannibal last week, was so awkwardly telegraphed. But the show at least managed some decent character development that didn’t have me reaching for the nearest bottle of scotch, the stupidity seems, for now at least, to be localized to only a few characters, and that final scene, especially Gareth’s creepy-rational lecture to Bob, was one of the show’s all-time best.

Recommendation: Keep watching. Despite some last minute flaws, “Strangers” is a solid episode that didn’t waste the audience’s time (even taking the return of stupid behavior into account).

NEXT WEEK: “Four Walls and a Roof” written by Angela Kang, in which more drama and more cannibal hi-jinx happen.

[rating=4]

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