A new person joins the group as they wonder whether to make another camp or keep moving.
“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 feastOn the wall hangs a line from Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good / For in due season we will reap if we do not give up.” Other translations phrase it as “reap a harvest of blessing” or “reap a harvest,” but the point is that you have to continue helping others no matter how sick you are of doing it. That, too, has been a prominent theme these past two episodes. Glenn told Rick last week, “We gotta let those people out. That’s still who we are—it’s gotta be.” This week it’s Carl talking to Rick, who answers his father’s sobering “You’re never safe” speech with an affirmative rejoinder: “We’re strong enough that we can help people. And we can handle ourselves if things go wrong.”
The exchange between Rick and Carl precedes Rick taking members of the group—and Gabriel, because he isn’t to be trusted—to a food bank overrun with walkers. On the menu at the bank: Nicotero’s “rotisserie chicken,” the gray skin sloughing off walkers endlessly plodding around a flooded basement. Nicotero and Gimple have suitably played up the nastiness awaiting in the building’s fetid water, but I found the walkers to be more comical and less threatening than usual. That kind of thinking would likely get me bitten in The Walking Dead, but something about these wading dopes struck me as funny—until the submerged one pops up, Carrie style, and nearly takes out Bob. (But after the initial surprise, that walker looked especially puppet-esque to me.)
Bob isn’t the only one who has a close call: Gabriel freaks out when he sees a bespectacled female zombie among the others, clearly recognizing her. The first part of the mystery around Gabriel reveals itself, though we still don’t know the extent of it until later in the episode, when we see him looking sadly at a photo of him and the woman before everything happened. Being that Gabriel is Episcopal and allowed to marry, it’s almost certainly his wife, which would explain his panic in the basement. But he’s not going to talk about it with Rick or the group, at least not yet.
Although they have scored a good haul of food, the question hanging over “Strangers” is a familiar one for the itinerant group: Stay where they find shelter, or press on with Eugene’s mission? As Abraham notes, “We take a breath, we slow down, shit inevitably goes down,” so he’s pushing to fix up the shortbus Gabriel has and hit the road to D.C. as soon as possible. Rick remains non-committal, and the group follows his lead. “One way or another we’re doing what Rick does,” Glenn tells Abraham. “We’re not splitting up again.”
To what end, though? As far-fetched as Eugene’s story sounds, it does give them all a purpose beyond living through each day. No shelter ever lasts, be it Hershel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, or Terminus, so the church would inevitably fall as well. And then it’s back on the road to the next place, plus or minus a few people, and the cycle repeats—until the day comes when you don’t escape. It may not be a death sentence, but it’s not a life anyone would want to live, either. Why not complete their mission with Eugene, if for nothing else than to live in hope for a better tomorrow?
That’s the gist of the speech Abraham makes at the feast the group has in the church that night to celebrate their bountiful haul. His speech has a pronounced messianic theme: “We get Eugene to Washington, and he will make the dead die, and the living will have this world again.” How, exactly, Eugene will engineer this reverse-Jesus move remains to be seen, but beyond that, D.C. offers “infrastructure constructed to withstand pandemics even of this FUBAR magnitude,” Eugene says. Food, fuel, refuge, and—here it is again—restart.
NEXT: What about Bob?Skeptical Rick agrees to hit the road with Abraham, enlivened by cheap communion wine, a celebratory atmosphere, and probably concern over what Carl showed him behind the church when the group returned from the food bank: fresh scratches near a window, and, worse, “YOU’LL BURN FOR THIS” scratched into the exterior wall. He doesn’t know what Gabriel is hiding, but Rick warns him later, “You’re hiding something, and it’s pretty obvious it’s something you can’t hide from. That’s your business. But these people? These people are my family. And if what you’re hiding somehow hurts them in any way, I’ll kill you.” Farmer Rick of the beginning of season 4 has given way to a guy who threatens to kill ministers.
Tara takes the opportunity to confess to Maggie that she was part of the Governor’s crew, and Maggie continues the starting-over theme by replying, “You’re here with us now.” The spirit seems lost on Carol, whom Daryl finds packing up a car they found earlier and apparently about to bail—until the mysterious car that took Beth goes flying by.
And the real action of “Strangers” kicks in: Dread hangs over Bob’s kiss with Sasha, and his chipper exterior gives way to despair as he cries by himself outside the church. What’s wrong with him? Why is he—WHAP.
The first night the group had reunited, Daryl and Carol took watch. They heard something in the bushes, but didn’t see anything, and Daryl couldn’t find any tracks the next morning. It’s not what Daryl could or couldn’t see, though: “It’s more what I felt,” he tells Rick. Was Morgan watching them? Was it Gabriel? No, it was the cannibals. And as Bob comes to, Gareth spells out the whole awful scene for him.
“We didn’t want to hurt you… before. We didn’t want to pull you away from your group or scare you. These aren’t things we want to do. They’re things we gotta do. You and your people took away our home. That’s fair play. Now we’re out here like everybody else, trying to survive, and in order to do that, we have to hunt. It didn’t start that way, eating people. It evolved into that—we evolved. We had to. And now we’ve devolved into hunters.”
Just in case there was any doubt, these psychos are the Hunters from the comic, and they’ve taken the loss of their home base as an excuse to go even more feral. (And hello there, Tiger Fan. Dammit, Tyreese.) “But at the end of the day, no matter how much we hate this ugly business, a man’s gotta eat,” he tells a terrified Bob. “If it makes you feel any better, you taste much better than we thought you would.”
Pony Boy taught us nothing gold can stay, and on The Walking Dead, things barely have a chance to turn gold in the first place. Evil always seems to lurk in the shadows of joy, biding its time. It’s only a matter of minutes that the smiles on everyone’s faces at the church fade as they realize Bob, Carol, and Daryl are missing. Bob’s other leg is probably next on the menu, so he doesn’t have much time.
We take a breath, we slow down, shit inevitably goes down.
–Check EW.com tomorrow for Dalton’s interviews with Steven Yeun and Michael Cudlitz.
–There is no Saint Sarah in the Episcopalian faith. In Catholicism, Saint Sarah was Abraham’s wife and is known as the patron saint of laughter. Perhaps more relevant to the wandering group we follow in The Walking Dead, a different Saint Sarah is the patron saint of the Romani people. She should not be confused with a character on Hannah Montana.
–Bob is the Ned Flanders of the group, if only because he basically quoted the Simpsons character in his pro-mosquito “itching reminds you that you’re alive” comment. Said Flanders in “Hurricane Neddy”: “Mmm-mmm, sure are fun to scratch! Mmm, satisfying!”
–Per Dalton’s interview with Gimple last week, that wasn’t Negan in the boxcar in “No Sanctuary.” (The guy who hit Gareth in the boxcar was the same guy the group released from the container when Terminus fell.) Nicotero confirmed what some eagle-eyed viewers saw: Robin Lord Taylor (Gotham’s Oswald Cobblepot) was one of the guys at the trough. More trivia: Taylor was college roommates with Billy Eichner and appeared on the stage show that preceded Billy on the Street.
–With the addition of Seth Gilliam as Gabriel, we’re three people deep into a Wire reunion, along with Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. Boardwalk Empire ends this season, so Michael Kenneth Williams and Domenick Lombardozzi should have some free time. And Treme is done, so bring on Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters.
–Gabriel: “The word of God is the only protection I need.” Daryl: “Sure didn’t look like it.”
–Rick to Carl: “Now I need you to hear what I’m about to say: You are not safe, no matter people are around, or how clear the area looks, no matter what anyone says, no matter what you think. You are not safe. It only takes one second—one second—and it’s over. Never let your guard down, ever. I want you to promise me.” People who know the comic well: He gave Carl that speech fairly early on, did he not?
–Glenn’s Rule No. 1 of Scavenging: There’s nothing left in this world that isn’t hidden.
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