by Thom Yee
The very first point I ever made in assessing The Walking Dead on a weekly basis (and by extension heavily serialized fiction in general) concerned whether or not you can skip an episode and not miss anything. Especially with a show where the season’s aren’t stretched to fill out more than twenty weeks of television, it’s important (and should be a given) that every episode is vital in achieving the season’s goals. The first half of season five, which has been widely praised as a fairly drastic improvement over previous seasons, is a strong example of this as each episode had an important role in moving the needle forward in our hero’s quest for post-zombie apocalypse existence, and I’ll admit that even episodes that I didn’t like at least informed us on what’s going on or what we’re supposed to be feeling.
I’m going to say upfront that you may as well have skipped “Them”.
The back half of season five has thus far been comprised of two pretty slow-burning episodes, last week an arty pastiche featuring the death of Tyreese that, in my view, largely failed but was at least going for something, and this week a study in despair that falls to tell us anything we didn’t already know. We get a little bit more into the mind of Maggie, most importantly a reason for why she’d seemed so unconcerned with Beth’s fate prior to confirming her death (she’d assumed Beth was dead already I guess), a little more into Sasha’s head, a criminally underserved character considering that she’s still around Post-Bob and post-Tyreese, and a little more into Daryl’s head because everybody loves Daryl (unlike Chris Noah).
Wrapped up in an episode exploring the desperation of our heroes’ dry, desolate, desultory trudge to Washington, D.C., we find out that… everybody’s hot and tired and thirsty and nobody’s in a good headspace. Shocking.
The real problem with “Them” and last week’s “What’s Happening and What’s Going On” is their placement on the schedule and the compounding effect of their slower storytelling when placed back to back. I don’t know about you, but this season’s midpoint break felt a lot longer than usual, and there’s a big part of me that’s moved on from the show since last November. Opening in such a contemplative manner is not the way to break us in to a midseason premiere where some of us are halfway out the door already, especially not where one episode disposes of a character whose schtick we’ve grown tired of and another where the great revelation is that everybody’s about as depressed as we thought.
The episode also brought forth a lot of nagging concerns I’ve had but not fully considered until this point. Father Gabriel’s enigmatic nature is more maddening than provocative, and at this point I worry his character is becoming little more than a punching bag for anyone who, for very good and straightforward reasons, has lost their faith. As I touched on earlier, Sasha is another character who, at this point, serves no apparent purpose, and really never did beyond background distraction. Now that those distractions (Bob and Tyreese) are gone, we’re left with a character whose voice seems informed by little more than her recent losses, and it’s a voice that we don’t recognize because we’ve still never really met her. Any scene she’s in, I feel like I don’t know what she’s going to say, but in a bad way; she’s not interestingly unpredictable, she’s just hollow. The episode also deals heavily in exceedingly on-the-nose symbolism, whether it’s the pack of wild dogs mirroring our (and any other) group, the rain as obvious and immediate salvation that quickly gives way to danger, everyone in the group coming together when the barn doors started to cave in, or the music box that sprang to life in the end.
While the episode’s conclusion offers a relatively unique take on a potential newcomer to the group (i.e., a non-threatening, but not overly inviting, and seemingly realistic person), comicbook readers already know where this is going, which isn’t anywhere immediately exciting. Everything feels really underwhelming right now, and I’m starting to feel like it’s a show I don’t have time for.
The Walking Dead “Them” final score: 6
Items of Note:
- Ooh, he said the name of the show!
- I’m probably the only person in the world who thought this, but seeing everyone pushing against the barn doors reminded me of the new-gen Transformers (and Daniel) pushing the missile launcher into place during the siege of Autobot City. “C’mon Arcee Maggie, we’ve gotta get this launcher into place keep these doors in place. Megatron’s making his The zombies are making their big push, and we’ve gotta push back!”