When first we saw Suspiciously Clean Aaron emerge from the woods and bid Maggie and Sasha to take him to their leader, we all had the same thought: we’ve been here before. We’ve been burned more than once by suspiciously clean false messiahs claiming to have established utopian sanctuaries in this apocalyptic ruin. We’ve been told that it’s safe, that there will be food and water, that it’s not a camp but a “community.” We’ve been to Woodbury. We hung out at Terminus and the hospital, however briefly. We know the jig and the jig is just about up.
The funny thing about suffering and surviving (and, inevitably, destroying) these smiley-faced police states is that the experience leads the survivors to adopt the state’s philosophy. These states carried the Stalinist, “everything’s cool” façade while practicing a similarly Stalinist policy toward dissent—i.e., any and all dissent is suspicious and no one is to be trusted. Because the group was betrayed each time, they’ve now become jaded and hold the same policy toward trust as their forbears, only without the sunny disposition of a Governor or a Gareth. Nothing is cool, and every outsider is guilty until proven innocent.
On the flip side of that, we’ve also been through the outsider-held-as-prisoner narrative, with our old buddy Randall from season 2. One of the show’s finest episodes, “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” found the group voting almost unanimously to kill poor Randall, who Rick ironically rescued when Randall’s group left him behind. (Only our dear, departed Dale voted to save Randall, which shows how far compassion gets you in this world.) This was our first lesson in how governments (d)evolve into their own kind of civilized barbarism. Though Rick issued an 11th hour pardon in this situation, the groundwork for his philosophy was laid. It’s symbolic that, after season 2, the group found themselves in jail.
Now the captive and the prophet have become one. Aaron (Ross Marquand) carries pictures of a well-fortified Xanadu in Alexandria, VA. (He also carries a flare gun and non-poisonous applesauce, which he hates.) Only now, Rick is completely alone in his paranoia. Aaron is so obviously harmless that even Daryl doesn’t bother to speak up on Rick’s behalf. Of course, if not given impetus, Daryl can hardly be asked to speak up at all, so well-worn is his “lone wolf” armor. In this situation, it’s Michonne who gathers up the balls to overrule Rick’s snap judgments. Always one of the toughest cast members, Michonne must now also play the voice of reason, in the absence of a Dale or a Hershel to set Rick straight. Carol and Glenn are fine, levelheaded thinkers, but they could never stand up to Rick in such a straightforward manner. Michonne’s request that the group go to Alexandria isn’t a request at all, but an order. She might not have usurped Rick as group leader full stop, but now we know for sure that she could if it came to it.
For once, the strength and forthrightness of the leader (in this case, Michonne) is in the service of restoring a positive quality to the group: trust. It isn’t about defeating a rival commune or holding down a shaky fort. It’s about believing in the goodness of outsiders’ intentions, something that has never been fashionable in The Walking Dead. It’s about allowing for a small dose of vulnerability if it means the possibility of (at least temporary) salvation. To Rick, vulnerability is toxic; he’s become so ostentatiously hardened that it’s impossible not to see the deep well of fear brimming behind his bushy gray beard. He speaks to Aaron as if he’s looking for an excuse to kill him. Aaron owns up to his own murders, testifying that they were executed in self-defense. Rick would probably say the same about his own body count, and it might even be true, but he now sees human existence as a kill-or-be-killed affair, and killing is so much easier than trusting strangers. He’d rather shoot first and leave the questions to Michonne.
As the gates open on the People’s Republic of Alexandria, it looks like we’re in for some more suspiciously clean stuff in a suspiciously clean place. Visions of Woodbury are already flooding my memory. But what if it’s not so suspicious this time? What if this town really does have its shit together and our guys are suddenly the weird, scary ones? Every yellow brick road in this show leads to some very fucked-up shit behind the curtain. I’d be disappointed if Alexandria proved to be yet another doomed police state waiting to be destroyed by our weathered friends from Georgia. But I also can’t envision any scenario in which that doesn’t happen. We’ve been down this road before, but it’s the only road this show has ever known.