After a somewhat rough return from the midseason break, “The Walking Dead” came back with a strong, emotionally resonant episode wherein we rediscovered the rest of the survivors of the prison massacre. It was a harsh, unforgiving episode, but also an effective one. Part of what made it so refreshing was its willing to abandon the conventional pairings and groups that we’d become so comfortable with, allowing for new dynamics and conflicts. Just as intriguingly, each group came with its own pair of contrasting visions, one hopeful, one despairing, both having to find enough commonality to survive.
One of the show’s most-neglected characters has always been Beth. Sister of the strong, driven Maggie, daughter of the sage patriarch Hershel (RIP), Beth has always simply been a sweet, charming young woman with little to do. Her sequence with Daryl added a little depth to her character, particularly via the tragically hopeful tone of the voiceover. Full of earnest innocence, it serves as a stark contrast to her ragged gasps as she and Daryl race through the woods, trying to find safety. But what was more striking was Daryl’s moment of numbness, staring into the middle distance as Beth pleads for him to help. It’s the anti-Daryl, the rare moment where he simply wants to quit, and it’s Beth’s hope — or need, whatever you want to call it — that brings him out of it. Yet ultimately, he’s still Daryl - unapologetic and unrepentant, never looking back on what he’s done or said — even after the crack about Beth’s father. Daryl is hard, because to be soft is to come apart like Beth does, and even in the face of her despair, he can’t pull his punches.
Meanwhile, we had two surprises, though one wasn’t all that surprising. The unlikeliest, and most uncomfortable new group is the one made of Tyreese and the two young girls, Mika and Lizzie. Once again, the light and dark dynamic comes into play, this time between the terrified naivete of Mika compared to the burgeoning sociopath that is Lizzie. LIzzie, who tries so hard to be strong, to be what she thinks Carol would have wanted. The one chilling moment, where she attempts to smother Judith (surprise #1 - Judith lives!), shows just where the path that Carol was on could take you. Yet there’s also a terrible pragmatism to it, because what more nightmarish scenario could there be than to be trapped with a baby in a forest full of the undead? When one of your companions screams and runs from birds? Yet it was the second surprise that was the greater curve ball, when in the midst of the chaos and terror, as Tyreese and Lizzie and Mika all begin to lose themselves in different ways — suddenly, improbably, almost impossibly — Carol. After finding the ruins of her former home, paired with the man who she betrayed worse than anyone, one can only wonder what strife will be born out of that combination.
Perhaps the most peculiar group was that of Sasha, Maggie and Bob. Maggie is frantic, on a wild-eyed but fiercely determined quest to find Glenn, regardless of the risk. Sasha gets to serve as the voice of reason, and most interesting was the oddly cheerful Bob. Bob has been an enigma from the start, a drunken mess, prone to hapless screwups, a lone survivor who knows nothing but fear and loss. Perhaps he has simply tired of being the last man standing, and thus is willing to do anything to keep his group together. Ultimately, this entire vignette belonged to Lauren Cohan. From her face almost breaking when they came upon the walker-filled bus, to her own breakdown as they burst out of the back door, she hit every emotional note on the head, And when she, climbed aboard, crying and despairing, but knowing that she just had to know — well, I never for a moment believed that it was Glenn, but she sold the hell out of the moment.
Finally, Glenn, in what was likely the best of the four scenes. The last one to remain at the prison, we find him unconscious, surrounded, desolate and alone. There was something so perfectly tragic about him wandering through the wreckage of what used to be their home, now just a dustcloud of hopelessness and echoes of what was. For ten minutes, Steven Yeun carries the scene with only saying her name. and it’s her name and her face in the picture that brings him back from the brink. And when he loads up on supplies, armors up and rolls out, the episode has its first real moment of hopefulness, a visceral thrill and sense of fierce optimism that somehow he has consistently brought to the show. But Glenn is not meant to be alone either, and the show’s writers saved the least likely ally of all for him — Tara, the last survivor of The Governor’s ragtag army. A lost soul, filled with nothing but self-loathing, brought back to life by the words of a man she helped slay. Glenn clings to Hershel’s advice and simply believes, because to do otherwise is to give up everything.
“Inmates,” the tenth episode of this season, carefully balanced those warring themes of hope and despair, of the urge to give up versus the need to carry on. It did so by creating new relationships, and for the most part, those relationships brought a fresh perspective to the show, doing exactly what they need to do as a way to periodically rejuvenate things (certainly more enjoyable than watching Rick and Carl play the same tired tapes over again). Yet there’s still great uncertainty ahead of them, now more than ever. The questions continue to multiply — about Tyreese and Carol, about Glenn and Tara, about a little girl who almost murdered a baby. But also, about what lies on that road that promises safety and sanctuary, and who are the new strangers that have found Glenn and Tara? Who can you trust, in the wake of Woodbury and the prison? Can anyone ever be trusted again?