A grieving, de facto mayor throws on some tunes from her dead son’s Run Mix and out come the Shazam apps, up goes the hit count for this Genius page and nod go the heads of the Walking Dead faithful. “Somewhat Damaged” is the song because of course, yes, we’re all somewhat damaged in Alexandria, aren’t we? If we weren’t before we certainly are now, with the deaths of Aiden and Noah floating over our suburban façade like a cryptic-ass red balloon. Was Aiden somewhat damaged, too? How somewhat is somewhat when your postmodern world still hasn’t figured out a way to make the victims of spousal and child abuse feel safe, feel like they can come forward without repercussion, feel that the community will stand up for them and will bestow a fair, humane punishment upon the perpetrator? Either you wear the damage on your face like Daryl or pre-Alexandria Rick, or you keep it under your hat like Jessie, but sooner or later it rises to the surface and that’s when windows start breaking.
In truth, “Somewhat Damaged” is a track off Nine Inch Nails’s 1999 double-album The Fragile, and its eighth-grade lyrics describe a fraught relationship between the narrator and a role model, the latter of whom has betrayed the former’s admiration, leaving the narrator’s world in an upside-down mess. This is one of those musical cues that has to mean something; there’s no substance to the opening scene of this week’s episode (“Try”) without that something. But the something is so vague that it could apply to almost anybody in The Walking Dead if you tweak your mind hard enough. The obvious reference is to Aiden himself, since he’s the one who provided the soundtrack. Was there some warped dimension to his relationship with Deanna (or Reg) that was kept on the DL when our friends from Georgia showed up? Is it about Rick letting down all the people who’ve looked to him for guidance? Is it about Alexandria and its illusory comforts being exposed as a pale imitation? There are many roads to follow, but they all lead to the same conclusion, the one we’ve likely accepted by now: Things are not working out the way everyone hoped. Or, to quote from Trent Reznor’s lyrics: “This machine is obsolete.”
“Try” is the inevitable in-between episode. It’s the fallout from the Noah/Aiden fiasco, the time of tension and suspicion before shit really goes bananas. We got a strong whiff of those bananas in the episode’s closing moments (more on that later, obvs) but most of the hour was spent catching up with our side players and dropping hints about what’s to come. Carl had a brief bonding session with Enid, the other kid who came from the outside, ending in a shot that lays the seeds of a possible romance that I couldn’t be less interested in. Daryl and Aaron encountered more dismembered bodies and walkers with Ws scrawled on their foreheads. (On Sunday night’s Talking Dead, Yvette Nicole Brown offered that the Ws may be upside-down Ms—as in Morgan, perhaps—a theory I wish I’d been imaginative enough to think of.) Whoever is behind the Ws (or Ms) is killing people, not walkers, for an as-yet unclear purpose, but there’s undoubtedly a strong element of sadism involved. One woman was tied to a tree with her intestines hanging out, and it was clear to Daryl that she hadn’t been there long. Either some sick bastard(s) is luring Daryl and Aaron (intentionally or not) to wherever the W’s home base of horrors resides (possible) or the walkers have learned English and are mockingly leaving their namesake initial on victims’ heads before they eat their insides (possible, but not likely).
The mystery continues, and there’s only one episode left to either shed some light on this W business or leave a big, juicy, tantalizing hint for season six. There will be a lot to wrap up next week, and though the season five finale will have an extra half hour to do it in, I have a feeling we’ll be waiting several months to see if these Ws are Ms or whatever the hell’s going on.
Since the arrival in Alexandria, the show has been spending more time than usual on Sasha, who’s in the midst of the least subtle unraveling we’ve seen since Rick accepted the charges for Lori’s phone calls from beyond. The false comforts of Alexandria are insulting to a person in mourning; it’s easy to forget because of AMC’s dastardly split-season nonsense, but Bob and Tyrese died within only a few episodes of each other. The Grimes group is a family in itself, so these deaths (and Beth’s, and Noah’s, and all the others we’ve seen) are mourned by all, but it can’t be ignored that Sasha’s been hit particularly hard in season five. She’d been with Tyrese from the beginning and now her old connections are all gone. She isn’t the only “lone wolf” in the crew, exactly, but she’s still in the early stages of a profound trauma. Many group members have no blood relations to speak of (Michonne, Tara, Carol, Daryl) but they’ve all had plenty of time to assimilate into the group with that understanding already in place. Sasha never imagined what her life in this world would look like without her brother, and the cushy digs of Alexandria are surreal, ironic reminders that, no matter the idols you erect or the roles you play, death is always close by.
Killing walkers has become such a routine business on The Walking Dead—the equivalent of smoking and day-drinking on Mad Men—that our heroes have, perhaps without realizing it, come to accept violence as their chief means of catharsis. When Michonne and Rosita take off to rescue Sasha from herself, they find their friend absorbed in the act of killing as if it’s a ritual. Michonne’s flashback to her sword-wielding days is telling; she misses the violence, the killing, the excuse to let fly the demon of aggression. When the ammo runs out, Michonne takes it as a sign that, as tempting as it is to engage in violence without consequence, it isn’t a healthy way to deal with the troubles. But if, as the final shot of the episode hints, Michonne is to supersede Rick as the caller of shots, she’s got to decide if Sasha’s senseless (but technically harmless) outbursts are any less healthy than the repressive playacting going on behind Alexandria’s closed doors.
Rick’s lust for Pete’s blood arises for all the wrong reasons, and he knows it. The terrified Jessie asks Rick if he’d do this for just anybody and thank Hershel’s ghost he doesn’t bother lying to her. His mission to save Jessie is akin to Travis Bickle’s warped sense of justice in Taxi Driver. In the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek proposed that the hero journeys in Taxi Driver and its thematic inspiration, John Ford’s The Searchers, are not driven simply by the altruistic desire to save the damsel in distress—from a rival tribe, from a slimy pimp, from an abusive husband—but instead are inspired by the suspicion of the White Knight (John Wayne, Travis Bickle, Rick Grimes) that the perceived victim does not want to be saved. The White Knight’s chivalry is, in effect, a manifestation of his sexual desire, or his want for sexual domination, and though the enemy may indeed be doing harm to the damsel, the Knight’s mission is not an indictment of the violence but rather a reaction to the fear that the damsel enjoys (or at least willingly participates in) her captivity. The Knight’s sexual attraction coupled with his need to assert his masculinity result in an outburst of violence—ostensibly on behalf of the victim, but really to satisfy the Knight’s alpha-male urges.
That doesn’t negate Rick’s mission, of course. Pete must be dealt with, and the Alexandrian political establishment isn’t going to help. Deanna reminds Rick that Pete is a surgeon, implying that Jessie’s life and wellbeing are not worth as much as her husband’s medical skills. Jessie’s predicament is an echo of that borne by the abused child in Ursula K. Le Guin’s great short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” In that story, Omelas is an impossibly perfect, pleasure-drenched utopia whose perpetuity nonetheless depends upon the unending suffering of a single child. Le Guin’s story was a parable—the child endures violence, sadness, filth, and pain so that the others don’t have to—but “Try” shows the story’s practical application. Deanna considers Jessie to be taking one for the team, as it were, recalling the old politician’s conundrum: how many people must be harmed so that the populace can live in peace?
Though she doesn’t say it out loud, it’s likely that Deanna is an even bigger proponent of the broken windows theory than Rick. She knows that violence is happening in her town, but as long as it happens behind closed doors—as long as all the windows are intact and everything looks pristine—she’s content to pretend everything’s cool. Pete’s window has to break because the ugliness going on inside his house has to be exposed. Sasha was right when she told Deanna that Alexandria isn’t real; reality is the bloodshed that Rick takes out into the street. Likewise, Michonne was right to knock him out at the very end; I’m still not sure whether her sucker punch was an act of aggression or mercy. The scrum with Pete reduced Rick to a babbling, bloodied madman, but he was right; Alexandria is an illusion, and the repression it requires to keep going is unnatural. Now that Rick’s forced it to the surface, it can no longer be ignored. The eerie quiet after Michonne knocked out the vigilante constable might have been the last moment of peace ever to be had within those walls.