I believe it was that great musical philosopher Annie who once opined in song that “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”
In which case, in this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, mysteriously titled “Them” (there are a couple of contenders), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) are damn near naked and giving the Emperor and his non-existent new clothes a run for his money.
Battling the all too recent loss of those close to them – in Daryl and Maggie’s case, Beth (although Maggie’s wounds from her dad Hershel are still understandably raw) and in Sasha’s, her brother Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman); their grief manifested on divergent ways with Daryl going off alone a lot, Maggie needing to put walkers out of their misery and Sasha a surly, trigger-happy, killing machine – they spent the episode grim-faced, non-responsive for the most part, grieving automatons only capable of putting one exhausted foot in front of the other and little else.
Not that there was much else to do with almost no water, no food, no petrol and thus no car and lots and lots of walking – at this point they are still 60 miles out from Washington D.C. and possible, hypothetical sanctuary – and a herd of walkers shuffling right along behind them.
So spent of everything physical and existential were they that I think it’s fair to say that the walkers were looking more chipper and right with the world that Maggie, Daryl , Sasha and the rest of the group were.
Every foraging expedition kept turning up nothing but worms dug from the ground (Daryl snacked on one in a sign that’s anything fair game right now), dead frogs in a dried up stream, and a bottle of scotch which Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) kept resolutely drinking despite everyone from Tara (Alanna Masterson) to Rosita (Christian Serratos) and even Sasha, who frankly didn’t seem to care about much else, knowing, and in Sasha’s case telling him, it wouldn’t do him much good.
“Them”, all sparse, lingering shots of the group on the open road, and stark close-ups of looks of failing determination and unending loss, brought home with graphic intensity the reality of life in the zombie apocalypse.
A life that some people, and you can likely guess who, wondered if it was still worth living.
“I never thought she was alive. I just didn’t. After daddy, don’t know … [but then] and after what Daryl said I hoped she was out there alive. Then I find out that she was alive and then she wasn’t on the same day, seeing her like that, it made me feel … I don’t know if I want to fight it anymore.” Maggie (talking about Beth and how her loss has her wondering if carrying on is worth all the effort)
This is a group, well part of a group, on the verge of giving up, their wounds too raw to allow rational thought of any kind – after Sasha goes all walker-killing ninja on the herd following them, after Rick has arranged for them to simply push them all off a high bridge to conserve their strength, and costs them a great deal, Abraham warns her that she could ruin everything for them – and getting close to the point where they’re not really thinking things through.
Things are dire and writer Heather Bellson and director Julius Ramsay do a brilliantly evocative job of bringing this reality home in a slow-moving episode that unflinchingly lays out the grim, and we’re talking really, really grim, reality of life in the apocalypse.
We have seen the group reach their wit’s end before, but never quite like this and not with the morale-sucking convergence of physical, emotional and existential needs going unmet.
There are no handily un-ransacked houses or general stores, no free-flowing streams full to the (literal) gills with fish – there are however wild dogs, once someone’s pets, who find themselves on the menu after unwisely ambushing the wrong group; bad dogs, BAD whose deaths made Noah (Tyler James Williams) sad, very SAD, well sadder – and no assurance that Washington DC will give them what they need.
And even when it finally rains, an event that sends looks of delight onto everyone’s face but the Dismal Three, the group has to scramble to find shelter in a barn that Daryl found earlier when the grieving that Carol (Melissa McBride) said he needed to do but wasn’t, finally happened when the stoic archer was “off finding water” (liar, liar, walkers on fire).
“Every day he woke up, told himself, ‘Rest in peace, now get up and go to war’. Then after a few years of pretending he was dead, he made it out alive. That’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then we get to live. But no matter what we find in D.C. I know we’ll be okay. Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.” (Rick trying to rally the group in the barn)
The storm, naturally given the group’s recurrent bad luck, becomes a fearsomely destructive cacophony of thunder and lightning and torrential downpours, which the barn goes a long to making them safe from until Daryl, more than a little downcast after Rick (Andrew Lincoln) referred to them as “the walking dead” (which I gotta say didn’t quite have the inspiring effect he no doubt intended), notices a loitering herd of walkers seeking shelter, and more than their pound of human flesh, just outside the loosely-tethered barn doors.
It takes a group effort of everyone pushing back on the doors, and Mother Nature’s vengeful fury – Sasha and Maggie find the herd the next morning, pinned under a mound of trees felled during the worst of the storm, which miraculously spared the barn, proof that karma ain’t a total bitch at the end of the world – to save the day but saved it is and everyone, whether they like it or not, and whether they think it’ll get worse or not (Eugene: “I truly do not know if things can get worse” / Tara: “They can”), lives to breathe another day.
A day, incidentally, and not so incidentally given its import, that brings with it the first real sign, barn not being destroyed nowithstanding, that the Bluebird of Happiness hasn’t forsaken them and left its erstwhile enemy, the Mutton Bird of Much Misery, in its place.
This much-needed sign of all potentially being well, comes in the form of Aaron (Ross Marquand), the first gay character in The Walking Dead, and the lead scout and suitability checker for the walled-off, non-Woodbury-like Alexandria Safe Zone (ASZ), which in the comic books at least becomes the group’s home for a number of years.
He is well-fed, well-dressed and clean, and possessed of, can that really be, a sense of humour that finds expression as he comes upon Maggie and Sasha enjoying a sunrise, both symbolic and literal – at Maggie’s behest it must be said who admits that surviving is “the hard part” – with the line “I know – stranger danger”.
They don’t quite lay out the welcome mat, of course, with guns at the ready even as Aaron tries to assure he is really a Nice Guy, who interestingly knows Rick’s name and what the group’s been up to ( the ASZ watches possible additions to their number until their certain they are worth making an invitation to join to)
A sign that Aaron could be the real deal is that the music box that Carl gave Maggie and which Daryl repaired (and gave back to Maggie after he told her how tough Beth was, the first time they’d talked about her together) springs gloriously back to life with immaculate timing.
Perhaps things are looking up after all but we’ll have to wait till next week’s episode “The Distance” to see just how Pollyanna-ish things are going to get ( but don’t hold your breath though cause the trailer ain’t a barrel of Mom, Pop and apple pie happiness writ large) …