Credit where it’s due: after the bleakness of the past few weeks, The Walking Dead’s writers know when it’s time to start wrangling with the horrible possibilities of hope. Last episode showed some stabs in this direction, as the group struggled to overcome the misery of two recent deaths, but this week deals with the problem head on, as an outsider makes contact and tries to convince Rick and the others to come join his totally safe and completely unsuspicious community. There are tense moments in “The Distance,” but a large part of the tension comes from an unexpected source; while Aaron the New Guy is an unknown quantity, what’s really nerve-wracking is seeing how Rick reacts to him, and how close Rick seems to be to having some sort of terrifying breakdown. Throughout the hour, there’s an uncomfortable (and compelling) sense of a situation just a few steps short of exploding into disaster, and seeing how the danger is coming largely from characters we’re supposed to trust makes it slightly more interesting than what we’ve seen before.
I’m going to speculate a bit here, but I think (and this is not based on anything from the comics) that Aaron is on the up and up. All we see in the episode more or less confirms this. While he doesn’t tell Rick and the others everything, his omissions are about trying to protect his own people rather than setting up his trap. In fact, Aaron’s patience, directness, and eagerness to make friends is so excessively polite it borders on comic, and yet he always comes across as genuinely sincere. Much of the suspense of the episode comes from wondering if another shoe is going to drop, and yet at this point, it would be such a dull narrative choice to see our heroes stumble over yet another evil survivor community that the suspense becomes more of a kind of meta game of wondering whether the writers are going to do the smart thing, or the easy thing.
Making Aaron and his offer a trap would create immediate plot, and give us some action and running around and screaming. But this is a scenario we’ve seen many times before on the show, and it’s one whose novelty has long since worn off. If The Walking Dead is going to be about anything more than sad people wandering around trying not to die, hoping they’ve made new friends, and then realizing they have to kill their friends, it has to find new stories to tell. And from what we see in “The Distance,” there’s a real possibility that we might be headed in a different direction. Admittedly, this isn’t a stunning shift in the status quo. At best, our heroes will make a new home, hang out for a while, and then something will go wrong and there will be zombies and it’s time to hit the yellow brick road once again. But given how much the series is locked into a very basic idea (it’s never not going to be the zombie apocalypse), any small change is welcome.
The emotional arc of the hour comes Rick, as he struggles to deal with the possibility that Aaron might be on the up and up. Rick has long been a problem character, a bland leading man whose role as the hero seems more a matter of authorial decision than any kind of innate worth. Here, though, while he’s very clearly taking charge of the situation, his efforts don’t go entirely unquestioned. By now, Michonne has effectively become co-leader of the group, and her authority has never been more blatant than it is here. As Rick fumes and rages to himself (the bit where he walks over and punches Aaron in the face with no provocation whatsoever is a good indicator of his state of mind), Michonne realizes the possibilities of the situation, and makes a rational decision to go forward. More importantly, while she works to convince Rick about what they need to do, she also doesn’t shy away from flat out telling the group, “This is what’s going to happen.” It’s another nice change of pace. There’s no pretence here that everyone is going to bow down to whatever Rick does just because of his Rickness.
Which isn’t to say that the others all agree with Michonne. There’s some differences of opinion throughout, but gratifyingly, those differences of opinion never break into outright argument. It’s a subtle, but effective way of reinforcing what Aaron himself points out: these are survivors, and they’ve learned how to work together to stay alive. So even though Daryl is suspicious, and Carol agrees with Rick’s doubts, and even though Maggie sides with Michonne in thinking that Aaron is on the up and up, there are no fights about the issue. Maybe some tense words, but everyone fundamentally realizes what they have to do, even if they disagree a bit about how they’re going to do it. It makes for a much more watchable hour of television when the drama comes not from forced conflict, but from people stuck in a difficult situation, working together as best they can.
This means that it’s possible to accept Rick’s problems with the situation without being irritated at him for getting in the way of story development. Despite his anger and fear, he’s not an obstacle for once; he insists on proving Aaron’s story, and is highly suspicious throughout, but the longer the episode goes on, the clearer it becomes that Rick’s concerns aren’t going to stop what needs to happen from happening. It’s a lot easier than to appreciate what he goes through on a character level, because it does make sense. After everything that’s happened, you’d have to be an idiot to assume the best out of a stranger. Worse, once you’ve suffered enough, the chance of good news becomes almost more painful than more bad news, because it makes you vulnerable. A horde of walkers isn’t much fun, but at least when you’re facing the monstrous undead, you know where you stand. Looking at a friendly face and trying to decide just how deep that friendliness goes presents an entirely different sort of challenge.
This is demonstrated in one of my favorite moments in the episode. A small group leaves the barn to try and confirm Aaron’s story. They find the two vehicles (a camper and a car), but just as they’re moving into investigate, there’s a noise in the woods. The whole group tenses up, raises their weapons, and looks about ready to snap. Then a zombie stumbles out into the open—and everyone relaxes. While walkers are still a threat (as a great late night sequence later in the episode reminds us), they’re a threat our heroes know how to handle. But people, especially people who might not want to kill them… that’s something else entirely.
- Aaron’s gay, and we meet his boyfriend Eric (can’t tell if they’re married or not) later in the episode. I can’t remember if this is the first openly gay character we’ve seen on the show, but I appreciate any efforts at diversity the series makes, even if there’s a certain “Oooo, two men are kissing” vibe to Eric’s introduction. Not in a mocking or prurient way, but it’s hard to shake the impression that this is supposed to be a big deal, even though it really isn’t.
- “It’s hard to trust anybody who smiles after getting punched in the face.” -the wisdom of Rick.
- Another point in the episode’s favor: Aaron is not an idiot. While the idea of two men making contact with passing groups is risky on a fair number of levels, Aaron’s actual approach—friendly, respectful, confident without being arrogant—is ideal. (Also, he’s occasionally funny, which is a nice change.)
- “I dunno, man. This barn smells like horseshit.” -Daryl, weighing in
- Rick hides a gun before going to the compound. Old habits, etc.