Did you skip out on this week’s episode of The Walking Dead to watch The Oscars? Following last week’s less-than-great showing, it may be hard to blame you, but “The Distance” finally does an admirable job at advancing the show’s plot – as small of an advancement as it is. We see just how paranoid Rick can get, learn what a flare looks like when shoved in a walker’s eye, and wonder why that guy wouldn’t just eat the applesauce in this week’s The Walking Dead review.
The episode picks up right where last week’s ended, with Maggie and Sasha bringing Aaron back to the group. Now stripped of his guns and thoroughly searched, Aaron is paraded into the barn where the main chunk of Rick’s group is holed up. Understandably, they all over-react as if he had bust his way through the door and was brandishing a chainsaw. It’s been a long few months for the group, and the last thing they’re going to do is trust people. At least in the first few minutes of the episode.
Once Aaron’s promise of a new safe place to live starts to click with some of the characters – particularly Sasha and Maggie who witnessed him saying hello and not shooting them on sight when he came out form the brush – the bulk of “The Distance” becomes a struggle between the overly-cautious Rick, and the rest of the group that so desperately want to know things aren’t all awful all the time that they are willing to trust a random guy with a clean haircut.
If “we’re sad” is the theme that was stretched unnecessarily and ultimately dragged down last week’s episode, “we’re paranoid” took that role this week. Not nearly to the same degree of course, but the fact that Rick is extremely untrusting is established almost immediately, then repeated several times throughout the episode. It’s fine that he would be paranoid, and it makes sense in the context of everything the group has been through, but The Walking Dead gets the point across so blatantly and so many times that it gets frustrating. There is really no reason for Rick to be so paranoid about halfway through the episode, but he continues to do so – even in the face of mounting evidence that Aaron wasn’t there to kill him, Rick keeps fighting it. All of his paranoia does nothing for the episode as far as the end result is concerned. A good 3/4 of “The Distance” could have been cut and the episode would still feel the same, have the same resolution, and be just as action-packed. The only real difference that can be attributed to his hardheadedness is the fact that the group’s car runs into a swarm of walkers instead of having a clear path back to Alexandria. Even after that however, things still end up the same, but the episode was able to pad another 15 minutes and an extra few gunshots (with an admittedly cool flare-to-the-face kill) shoved in there.
The whole business with the flare being fired into the air doesn’t feel properly explained. As Michonne yells when she takes off to chase down Aaron, the flare is used as a way to signal that the group being auditioned failed. When this happens in the comic, Eric would assume that the group has done something to fail their test – such as shoot or otherwise harm the recruiter (who in this case is Aaron). When that happens, he would kill the group so they can’t cause trouble for the main settlement. Nothing in the episode itself establishes that, yet Michonne seems to know right away why Aaron panicked and said he had to run – even though it turned out to be because he assumed his partner Eric was in trouble? It almost feels like an entire scene or two is missing explaining why she would know that.
On the subject of weird character decisions that feel like forced moments to stretch for time – why the hell wouldn’t Aaron just eat the applesauce? Hate it or not, his options are to eat the applesauce, get eaten by a walker, or be stabbed in the skull. He’s clearly meant to be a grounded character with a good head on his shoulders, but he feels the need to delay what would otherwise be a simple ordeal and potentially tick off his captor.
The Walking Dead‘s growing mass of characters is starting to take a toll on the show’s writing. Several times throughout the episode characters are made to awkwardly reference events from the past in some bizarre way to make the audience remember that they still exist – Abraham and Rosita’s odd confrontation in the motor home being the most obvious example. Nothing in particular triggers Abraham to abruptly ask about his violent actions in the past, and it comes across extremely awkwardly. The show has mostly given up on keeping all the characters relevant while the group is so big, and instead gives them each a line or two in place of real development. Basically, everyone has become T-Dawg.
Ross Marquand slides perfectly into the show with his portrayal of Aaron.The character is meant to be a stark contrast to the down and dirty main group of the show, and it comes across well through Marquand’s confident performance. It almost feels like he is from a different show entirely, which makes sense seeing as he’s from a (presumably) safe place and hasn’t been on the run like Rick Grimes and company. He and Andrew Lincoln have a nice sense of back-and-forth while arguing, and Lincoln maintains a satisfying level of crazy eye with another great performance. Tyler James Williams slurring his lines at the end for no reason is the only real issue with any of the performances in the episode.
The big emotional moment, and biggest plot twist, of “The Distance” is the revelation that Eric and Aaron are a couple, and their subsequent kiss. As far as emotional impact on the story, it’s handled well. Just the fact that two guys kissed on a major TV show, while a big deal in the grand scheme of television, is dealt with appropriately as not a big deal to the characters of the show itself. They are two guys in an apocalypse in love – no need to blow it up into a huge deal, but no need to minimize to nothing either. All of the main characters recognize it as the fact that Aaron thought he may have lost someone he loved, only to be relieved that they are alive afterall – a feeling the group knows well enough by now. With that said, The Walking Dead isn’t known to be unpredictable, so you can bet one of them is due to die any episode now.
In in the end, it’s hard to say that anything in the episode was any kind of character development. Rick had a chance, but he went from extremely paranoid back to not so paranoid – so basically right where he was before Tyreese’s death. The impact of seeing the group arriving at what they think is a safe haven is completely gone at this point. Similar to how Rick is sick and tired of being betrayed by false hope, it’s getting tiring as a viewer watching the show repeat the same plot structure over and over again. There’s always a chance that something new will happen with this new bastion of hope, but I’m not counting on it.
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