“I’m going to go back to super disgusting. I mean, super disgusting stuff,” is how showrunner Scott M. Gimple described “Strangers” to our Dalton Ross in his post-premiere interview. “I used the rotisserie-chicken description–with the meat sliding off the bones,” is how executive producer, director, and effects maestro Greg Nicotero described it to Dalton in EW’s September Walking Dead cover story. Dalton noted that kind of talk makes Nicotero “giddy.”
And, finally, we have Bob’s description: “If a sewer could puke, this is what it’d smell like.”
Last week’s explosive (literally) episode piled on the gore, pyrotechnics, and emotion so relentlessly that what followed it couldn’t help but slow the pace considerably. But that doesn’t make “Strangers” slow or easy to watch: The gross-out scene Nicotero giddily anticipated delivered in suitably nasty fashion, and the ending pulled a nice fake-out with Bob before delivering him to the former Terminans, now all but officially known as the Hunters.
What happens after the initial joy of reconciliation passes and you have to return to the grim business of survival? “Strangers” opens with the group in the fading afterglow, still negotiating the painful past they share: Rick helps ease Tara’s guilt over siding with the Governor. Tyreese proactively defends Carol as the group learns about what she did (but he’s unable to tell them about Mika and Lizzie). Rick not quite apologizes to Carol for expelling her, but seeks her blessing to join forces again. Carol can’t tell Daryl what has happened to her.
“I just need to forget it”—those are the exact words spoken on separate occasions by Tyreese and Carol. Memory has been a prominent theme in these first two episodes back, beginning last week with Tiger Fan talking about how he “can’t picture” his old church-going, football-watching life anymore. While Michonne misses the people they’ve lost, she says she doesn’t miss her old life.
This isn’t a world that gives survivors the luxury of dwelling too much on the past. Daily survival requires too much intense focus for that, and the constant movement on to the next place means life never gets too settled and reflective. In that sense, there’s always a chance for renewal, that getting to the next place will make it easier to move past all that has happened. It’s a refrain Daryl keeps telling Carol in “Strangers”: “Hey, we ain’t dead. Whatever happened, happened. Let’s start over.”
The group meeting Gabriel feels like starting over: Here’s another new character whose motivations and past are inscrutable, who may provide refuge or yet another trap. He interrupts the group’s semi-merry journey (well, Bob and Sasha looked happy at least) through Georgia’s interminable forests with his screams for help, and it’s another test for Rick: help or not? You get the sense that he would be fine leaving Gabriel if not for Carl, just like he stopped Carl from helping that poor soul being set upon by a group of walkers last season.
Having long ago learned that no good deed goes unpunished, the group eyes Gabriel with aggressive skepticism. (And his name, presumably taken after the archangel who serves as God’s messenger, is almost certainly ironic in the world of The Walking Dead, where everyone is tainted.) Rick asks him the usual two questions, but Gabriel claims to have killed neither walker nor person; he somehow holed up in a church all this time and never strayed far until the group found him unarmed. It couldn’t sound or look more suspicious, even as part of his story checks out when he leads the group to his church, St. Sarah’s.
As they walk up to the front of the church, Rick shoots Carl and Daryl a tight nod to be ready—this is a battle-hardened group that moves like a single organism at this point. Inside, the church is tidy, and Gabriel’s quarters don’t seem to alarm anyone. I thought his room had a “Se7en opening credits” vibe, especially the journal where he’s apparently copying the Bible—but then again, this show has taught us to see the sinister in everything.
NEXT: A food bank feast