There’s something to be said for a slow burn, and “Strangers,” the second episode of this fifth season, had one of the slowest buildups we’ve seen in a long while. It was an episode that flirted dangerously with being dragged down by its own pacing, but ultimately it was mostly satisfying, and made the shocking and horrific ending all the more effective. But more importantly, “Strangers” was a crossroads, a fork in the road where the group is made to decide what road — both literal and metaphorical — they will travel.
What made this episode interesting was that it spent the first forty minutes doing two critical things: setting the stage for the next phase of their journey, and tying up the loose ends from the last one. Putting aside Gabriel the priest for a moment, what we really had for the first two thirds was a series of vignettes that closed several loops that were inevitably going to be issues unless they were addressed. And while it seems like an awfully accelerated pace for so much plot resolution, one could easily say that the immediacy and urgency of their new situation — and the bond forged by the horrors of the old one — were notable contributing factors.
The most glaring loose end was of course Carol, and it was Tyreese who led the charge there. His moment with Carol by the riverside was one of gentle understanding, a moment of forgiving and forgetting, although which is more important to whom is a murkier issue. Each of them has things they want to forget, and neither is 10% sure they have earned forgiveness. That second part is Carol’s greatest obstacle — it’s not the forgiveness of others, but rather that she no longer is sure of her place in this world. Her meeting with Tyreese — and later Daryl and then finally Rick — all found her hearing what she needed to hear, but she remains unsure. It’s an interesting twist on Carol, and I appreciate that there will always be an element of introspection and self-reflection. Carol — and by extension actress Melissa McBride — is rapidly becoming one of the best parts of this show, and that’s all the more remarkable given how milquetoast her character was in the early seasons. Both the actress and the new crop of writers are to be commended for her fascinating evolution.
The second loose end is of course the question of where they go from here. The temptation to follow Abraham and Eugene to Washington, to see if a cure truly is possible, is like a specter looming over them all. Do they take the chance, head off on such a difficult journey? Or do they continue to do what they do best and simply survive. Interestingly, it’s Bob’s relentless positivity that appears to hold the most sway over Rick, and eventually that becomes they path that they choose.
It’s that path that becomes the central theme of the episode. “Strangers” was about whether to give in to hope, or whether to succumb to fear. It’s strange, though, that fear is strongest in the visage of the man of faith, a man whose presence represents everything except hope. Gabriel is sick with fear, and everything about him, his persona, his creepily immaculate church with its dark warnings carved into it, feels like a sign that they should leave him and never look back. As for hope? It was nicely encapsulated in Rick’s talk with Carl, in their subtly symbolic conversation about strength and safety, about fear and trust and hope. The hope of Washington versus the fear of change. The hope of life versus the fear of death. The hope of trusting new people versus the fear brought on by the memories of the old. And Rick, despite giving an ominous warning to Gabriel, chooses hope. It’s a lovely moment, when the choice is made, a moment of genuine sweetness and camaraderie, even during Tara’s painful admission to Maggie (yet another loose end neatly knotted off).
But of course, nothing is quite so simple in this world. All of the hugs and kisses, the loving glances and warmth, all of the trust and hope that they have cannot stop the world from turning and cannot stop the sun from setting. And that night, the gates to hell creak slowly open. Gareth and his friends are here, their elaborate trap no longer standing. Instead, now they are hunters. They hunt for food, but also for vengeance, and it is Bob, poor, sweet Bob, who must bear the weight of their savagery. And while the final line was terrible — seriously, Gareth’s smirk and goofy line about how Bob would taste absolutely ruined a grimly effective moment — the scene itself was chilling and terrifying. For Rick was right — the living are worse. The living are the ones who stole Beth away in the night, leaving Daryl and Carol in a chase into the darkness. And the living are the ones who are hunting them now, and all their hopes and dreams will not save them.