I have often been hard pressed to explain, or even understand, why such a bleak, brutal and often hopeless show is so damn popular, and after tonight’s episode, I think I know what it is: Stockholm Syndrome. There really is no other show on television that plays with us, we’re like a cat chasing a laser pointer. What other show can take surviving a tornado and make it feel tiring? What other show can make you afraid of bottled water? What other show can make you fear a well-scrubbed, clean-cut stranger and still keep you on board?
After last week’s totally bizarre — at least to me — tornado sequence that played more like a horrible dream than an actual storm, the group is spent, starving and, as usual, feeling pretty dazed. The Walking Dead does silence really well and here in the barn it conveys says more than words could. But, of course, even the exhausted silence can’t last before we are plunged into madness – when Maggie and Sasha return with a too clean, overly chipper stranger who immediately gets everybody’s back up. Maybe not everyone, but Rick goes completely off the rails…again.
It’s easy to see why Rick would be upset with the latest in a very long line of seemingly pleasant strangers who are in fact total devils. This time it’s Aaron, a kid with an easy smile and an affable demeanor who claims to be “auditioning” folk to join his community. Aaron makes some lame jokes, shows the group pictures of the huge steel walls, and makes his pitch about the importance of community and people and Rick punches the kid’s lights out. After their run ins with the Governor, the folk at Terminus and Dawn’s crew at Grady Memorial, it is a wonder that Rick doesn’t actually shoot Aaron.
Rick goes into full-tilt paranoia/panic, “they’re coming for us” mode and while it’s hard to blame him, he does come off as unreasonable even to the misery-hardened group. Michonne talks him down a bit and convinces Rick to hear the kid out after the boy regains consciousness….
Aaron is surprisingly chipper after being cold cocked and still wants Our Gang to join his community. He claims to be impressed with their survival skills and their camaraderie which, while complimentary, betrays the fact that Aaron has been spying on the group for some time. Rick demands to know how many of Aaron’s people are out there, but the kid keeps dodging the question, “No matter what I say, you’re not going to trust me.” At this point, Aaron is one big red flag, the epitome of “too good to be true.”
While nobody is totally buying Aaron’s story, only Rick is unwilling to see this as anything other than a trap. While Rick does have a point, Michonne basically calls him out as being the bigger danger to the group for not entertaining at least the option that the kid is on the level. And, let’s be honest, if Aaron’s community is yet another nightmare, the group is a lot better prepared to deal with it, though they would likely all feel pretty stupid … or pretty dead.
Glenn breaks the stalemate by volunteering to verify Aaron’s claim that it’s just him and one other person who have been tailing the group. Rick volunteers Abe and Rosita and hit the road along with Maggie and Michonne. Rick gives them one hour before Aaron he murders Aaron. The rest of the team sets up a perimeter in case Rick is right and they are about to be attacked, a la the Governor’s raid on the prison, leaving Aaron alone with Rick.
Clearly terrified, Aaron attempts to win Rick over by giving his bona fides as a do-gooder and chatting up the fundamental goodness of Rick and the crew. Rick parries the compliments with: “Just because we’re good people, doesn’t mean we won’t kill you.” See, he can be funny.
On the road, Glenn is wondering why, if Aaron’s has been following them and seen them in action, anyone would try to recruit “people like us.” Michonne’s response signals a pretty huge change in her attitude: “people like us saved a priest, saved a girl who rolled up to the prison with the governor, saved a crazy lady with a sword. He saw that.” With that statement, Michonne has firmly moved from sullen outcast to formidable leader. of course, they don’t see the guy watching them from behind an abandoned tractor.
Back at the barn, Judith is crying, as babies do, so Aaron quickly offers up the applesauce in his pack to keep her quiet so the “roamers,” as his people call them, don’t come calling. He’s also trying to play up the self-preservation angle because the jovial wisecracks had been getting him less than nowhere with Rick. Fearing poison, Rick forces Aaron to eat the applesauce first. Despite his hatred of the stuff, Aaron chokes it down. Up to this point, scarcity has been a major problem for Our Gang, so it’s interesting that Aaron and presumably his troop can afford to be picky about food.
Back on the road, the crew finds a too white Cadillac and an equally spotless RV. After a brief encounter with some walkers, Abraham and Rosita share a moment that hints that Abraham is coming out of his self-pity party. They recon the RV and discover canned food, that makes Abraham wistful and repentant about alienating Rosita and nearly murdering Eugene. Rosita is mostly on board, but it’s clear that Abraham still has a ways to go.
The road crew has returned, with car and RV, to the barn essentially proving that Aaron hasn’t been lying, at least about this, with the caveat that no second person was found. Yet Rick cannot seem to turn off full jerk mode and instead gets territorial over the food from the RV. The rest of Our Gang, however,especially Michonne, is clearly is tired of Rick’s lunatic ravings and tired of starving and likely tired of being frightened all the time. Michonne, finally lays down the law declaring that the group is going. Rick, either sensing he is alone in his opposition or is waiting to drop an “I told you so” on Michonne when everything blows up, agrees to go.
Rick insists that Aaron give the location of his camp, but as nice as Aaron has been, there is no way he’s going to leading a pack of armed killers, led by a lunatic to his people. Aaron has a plan and, while he claims to trust Our Gang, if they want to find sanctuary they have to play by his rules. Which makes sense to everyone but Rick, of course, who insists on taking a route other than the one Aaron maintains has been cleared (I am not sure how you clear an entire highway and expect it to stay like that), and traveling at night, so they can escape into the night if things go south.
Michonne again confronts Rick, unsure if he means to actually go to the camp or if he’s just playing along. He kindly reminds her of Woodbury and Terminus and what is often lurking behind the quiet walls of supposed safe havens. After being burned so often and so hard he confesses that he’s not sure what it would take to agree to enter any camp again. At this point, it’s hard to fault him for what seems like excessive caution, and yet the rest of the group has seen what Rick’s seen and is willing to give Aaron a chance. He reluctantly agrees.
The group leaves on Rick’s prescribed route at night, because apparently Rick still has some sway over the bad decision-making process. Rick, Michonne, Glenn and Aaron in the Caddie and the rest in the RV. Rick finds a collection of license plates in the glove box and Aaron explains that he’s trying to collect all 50 states, he has a wall of them at his house. Michonne is taken by the notion of quiet domesticity, and is nearly won over by the sheaf of photos of Aaron’s house until it dawns on her on her that he doesn’t have any pictures his people. Aaron claims that he took a group photo but got the exposure wrong. Michonne is now super spooked and asks Rick if he asked Aaron “The Questions.” Ah, no, he didn’t. Cue tense music.
Michonne figures out that Aaron has killed “a bunch” of walkers and two people because they tried to kill him. Poor Aaron is not terribly convincing. To make matters worse, Rick discovers a parabolic microphone and flips because not only had Aaron been watching them he has been listening to them as well, but before Rick can go all, well… Rick on the kid, Glenn drives straight into a bunch of walkers, which he proceeds to mow down for a good stretch of road, until they can safely stop.
They quickly discover that the RV is no longer behind them and, lo and behold, more zombies are coming and the formerly white and now gore-encrusted car won’t start. Michonne tries to clear some loose body parts and thick slime from the grill, and Aaron is generally freaking out when they all spot a red flare rising in the sky in the distance.
Aaron really begins to lose it and flees after saying, rather cryptically, “this is over.” The group is in a pickle; the car won’t start, their captive has fled, they are alone at night in a forest and walkers are bearing down on them – which, while not terribly surprising, exposes the HUGE flaw in Rick’s plan: while the world is always dangerous, it gets even deeper at night. At this point they only way out is through, so they abandon the car and follow the flare.
Glenn gets separated and almost buys it, but he does stumble across Aaron who has somehow managed not to die even though he is still tied up. Glen frees and arms Aaron, and they manage to make it back to Rick and Michonne just before things go completely south. They regroup, exit the woods and make it to Highway 16, the route that Aaron told them to take originally, which makes Rick super murdery…again, and he threatens to kill everyone if Aaron has led them into a trap, which only makes sense if you completely forget that their current mess is entirely on Rick.
They follow the road and arrive at a lovely piece of abandoned industrial property where Daryl is waiting, doing some sort of whistling bit because walkers aren’t attracted to whistles? Anyhow, Our Gang is reunited with much hugging smiles and I assume high fives – which are hard to see in the dark. Only Aaron is agitated as he begins to frantically call out “Eric” who, turns out, was run over and then rescued by the RV crew and is lounging in the back with a broken ankle.
Aaron and Eric kiss, which is pretty cool but also weird because you realize NOBODY kisses on the show. Are they so burdened with zombies that they can’t find time for a little romance? You wonder if smooching is a luxury in the same way, hating food and collecting license plates is a luxury.
While they are being totes adorbs, Rick comes lurking on the moment, all sneers. Eric manages a “nice to meet you,” but Rick is too focused on being angry and suspicious to admit he may be wrong. Aaron addresses the group and finally explains that they are going to Alexandria and that he owes the Gang big time for saving Eric when they get there.
They decide to hang at the warehouse for the night and, of course, paranoid, bad decision-making, Rick decides that the two strangers must be kept separate, which is met by opposition from the group, and when Aaron declares that the only way he and Eric won’t be together is if Rick shoots him, there is that moment where everyone waits for the muzzle flash.
This time it’s Glenn’s turn to talk Rick down by explaining that Aaron hasn’t lied, they know where the camp is and the boys are unarmed and Eric has a broken ankle. Yes, these guys could be up to something, but Our Gang is by far the bigger threat, and Glenn is, at this point, unwilling to relinquish his humanity for the illusion of safety. There are worse things than being dead.
The next morning they head for Alexandria. Eric is in the back sleeping while Aaron tends to him. Noah comes back with some medicine. Aaron notices Noah’s limp. Aaron starts talking up Pete the surgeon in Alexandria, which gives Noah warm feelings but we know those don’t last.
The rest of the team is enjoying the ride, cards are being played and it’s as if they’re on a family trip… on the way home from a funeral. As they come around a bend Rosita’s wistful gaze breaks into a semi smile as she points out the Washington Monument to Abraham, and lo and behold it’s not on fire, in fact, it looks downright peaceful.
This being The Walking Dead and nothing can go smoothly, the RV dies. While Glenn and Abraham tend to the dead battery, Michonne, again, tries to get Rick to chill out, and at least try to let go of the past, to not let it own him and destroy him. Rick does have a point when he reminds Michonne that the rules keep changing, but they’ve been changing on everybody.
Finally, the RV is up and running, and while Rick does seem to have cooled off somewhat he does take a moment to wander off, presumably to commune with nature, to stash a pistol near an abandoned house.
They arrive at the front gates. Rick seems a little panicked, but Michonne is calm and smiling and places a comforting hand over his. At this point, while we want to be as cool as she is, we feel more like Rick and we’ve all been here before – too many times. Rick fetches Judith from the back of the cruiser. The day is sunny and calm, Carol strolls by with some words of encouragement, “You know when you’re wrong, you’re still right.”
Dawn breaks over the quiet gates of an unknown future. Rick hangs back for a second holding his baby maybe soaking in their last taste of freedom, but he manages a smile, lets out a small chuckle and turns to face the future….
While we can say that Aaron never lied to the group, it is clear that he has been holding something back. It is hard not to feel like something deeply weird is going on that maybe we can chalk up to paranoia – presumably everyone who is alive has been burned enough to be very cagey around strangers – but past experience tells us that the “too good to be true” often is. After weeks of being brutalized by the show, we arrive at a place of calm, and after a week of not much happening, we, like the characters on the show, are still having a hard time letting our guard down. Which is why people return week after week. We like being toyed with.
New episodes of The Walking Dead premiere Sunday nights at 9/8CT on AMC.