So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war
(Bob Dylan, “With God On Our Side,” 1963)
On Super Bowl Sunday, some friends and I wondered aloud which remaining Walking Dead characters were “unkillable.” The show’s setup obviously demands that it deliver the occasional body of a core cast member, but so far, apart from the loss of Lori in season three, the body count has largely consisted of side players (Dale, Merle, et al) and late bloomers (Bob, Hershel, the Governor). (An argument can be made for Andrea, but her importance was mostly tied to Woodbury, and anyone who puts their trust in the Governor is unlikely to last long.) By the time of our conversation, we’d just recently lost Beth, a side player who mercifully got some well-earned screen time before sacrificing herself for the greater good—ironically, just what her Darwinist overlord Dawn (also RIP) had been training her for.
With the numbers dwindling and hope for the future coming in increasingly short supply, who in the current bound-for-Washington crew is—at least from a narrative perspective—untouchable?
We eventually settled on Rick and Daryl, with Carl and Judith as maybes.
Season five, part deux showed us right off the bat that it wasn’t fucking around by offering as its midseason premiere a requiem for the doomed, wool-hatted Tyreese. That Tyreese and Beth fell so quickly, one after the other, is not random. All of our heroes by now have been forced to fight and to shed walker blood for their lives as a matter of course (even the self-acknowledged coward Eugene eventually showed up to do some damage, albeit quickly before admitting that T. Brooks Ellis never did compliment his Tennessee Top Hat). But Tyreese and Beth were arguably the last beacons of optimism and morality to grace the bloodied streets of the post-apocalyptic colonies—or at least the last whose combination of those two qualities produced a gentleness of spirit unmatched among remaining cast members. Tyreese and Beth could get down on themselves, could lament in exhaustion the cruel circumstances under which they carried forth what was left of their lives, but their weariness never manifested itself as cynicism or anger or denial. They were the last survivors of whom we knew no bad qualities. While that may not say much for their depth of character as scripted entities, it was something the remaining crew of hunter-gatherers needed without knowing it. Now, plodding the endless road to Washington in dehydrated dread, they could really use the twin suns of Tyreese and Beth. Without them, there is only the darkness of the truth.
Episode ten of season five—titled simply “Them”—begins with a weeping Maggie standing up to kill an oncoming walker. This kill, unlike the thousands of others we’ve seen, comes not out of panic or some warped version of catharsis (shout out to Sasha), but out of reluctant necessity. The group is foraging not just for food, but for water, the lifeblood of living things that has mysteriously never really been an issue before on this show. Even before Rick issues his anti-inspirational anecdote about his grandfather, where the lesson is that “we are the walking dead,” the group looks almost indistinguishable from the herds of zombies that surely await them at every turn. In the words of the drunken but well-meaning Abraham, they are stressed and depressed, and morale is at an all-time low. Even the faint voices of hope that remain—Glenn, Gabriel, Carol—sound weak and not at all confident. At this point, everybody knows this is nowhere.
In light of what preceded it and the hey-stranger moment that ended it, we might easily call “Them” a transition episode—a break between the recent chaos and the unknown troubles that are sure to await us. Indeed, Sasha’s acting-out in response to her brother’s death was predictable, and I’m pretty sure we’re averaging about one Carol-wants-to-talk-but-Daryl-doesn’t-really-want-to-talk scene per 2.5 episodes at this point. But there’s something in the air here, a hopelessness as unfathomable as any we’ve encountered on the long slog since Atlanta. This isn’t like the trek to Terminus, where the group was splintered only to face an inevitable battle once they reconvened. Now, the whole group is together for what seems like the first time in ages, only to find that there is no strength in numbers without water and food. It’s fitting that the only viable sustenance found in “Them” comes from the elements of what would’ve been everyday life, before the fall: the rain from the sky and the dogs that would’ve been domesticated pets. Surely the gang has feasted on questionable meat before, but never from animals that would’ve lived side-by-side with man, presumably as his “best friend.” Domesticated creatures constitute just about the only uneatable meats in the contemporary canon (apart from endangered species, and I doubt you’ll find much of those wandering up and down the eastern seaboard). The message is clear: this is the last stop before cannibalism.
As for the rain, it’s a gift from a God in whom nobody in the group believes. Even Gabriel, the priest who used weakness as a pathway to divine meekness, enkindles his priestly collar when the group takes shelter from a thunderstorm. (As is often the case with the biblical God, wrath follows swift upon the bootheels of charity.) His act is partly an atonement for his attempts at optimism-as-motivational-tool, partly an honest lapse of faith in the sort of God who would leave his children to wander hungry and destitute, fearing the dead, aka those who should have been taken care of by the almighty, for better or for worse. As such, the closest we come to a “we can do this” speech comes from, of course, Rick—but it isn’t the rousing call to arms of the Rick who said of those ne’er-do-wells at Terminus: They’re screwing with the wrong people. No, this Rick is neither Henry V nor Willie Stark; his only piece of advice is for the group to treat their every waking moment in this pre-Washington hell as if they’ve already died and gone wherever walkers go after their brains get splattered all over I-95. It’s about as reassuring as Tammy Metzger’s speech in Election, without all the anarcho-individualist symbolism.
The final scene of “Them” is a masterpiece in a series whose middle name may as well be “misdirection.” The storm has destroyed the woods surrounding the group’s fragile camp—knocking down trees and disabling the walkers who would have otherwise had Georgia natives for breakfast—but has left the camp itself untouched. A picturesque sunrise suggests that maybe God is on our side; that even through all the blood, sweat and tears, some mystical protectorate is doing its damnedest to see our friends to safety. Maggie and Sasha share a lighthearted moment over a non-working music box. The world is not absent of levity after all.
Then comes the stranger. Strange because he’s a stranger; strange because he’s friendly; strange because he looks so damn clean. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but godliness is pretty suspicious these days.
Will this stranger lead us into a redux of the Randall situation? Is he a wandering neo-Gareth, a preacher of peace with an evil, man-eating heart? Is he on our side, and can we trust him even if he is?
No. There’s no trust in this world, nor is there a God. Just strangers without a home. No one here gets out alive. Except Rick and Daryl. And maybe Carl and Judith. Maybe.