The Walking Dead – Recap: Asking Alexandria
Recap video and review of The Walking Dead – Season 5 Episode 11 – The Distance:
Although next week’s developments could easily undo whatever peace was won here, “The Distance” is still one of the most intense, emotionally cathartic episodes of The Walking Dead in a long time.
So much of its runtime was dedicated to issues of trust, not only in other people, but also in oneself. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) wrestles with the question of whether or not he should trust Aaron (Russ Marquand), a man who presents a solution to their wandering days — a solution that sounds too good to be true. It’s in Rick’s nature to doubt, because he’s been burned before. He’s seen what this world has turned people into, and he’s seen just how monstrous a regular man can become in the name of self-preservation. Hell, he’s seen what people can become even when their lives aren’t immediately in danger. When given the power of trusting or distrusting, distrust will win out every time, because distrust keeps them warm, keeps them fed, keeps them alive. And yet, Rick has also been on the other side of that fence, trying to win the trust of Hershel and his family in an attempt to convince him to let them stay on his farm. Rick knows that desperation to find an end to all the wandering, that need to find a finish line. So even while he might be able to see hope in what Aaron is offering, he can’t bring himself to trust that it’s real, because the finish line has moved on him before, and Lord only knows if his heart could take that happening again. “The Distance” does focus on the struggle for everyone in the group to accept that there could be a happy ending, but beyond that, it centers on Rick letting go of his paranoia without letting go of his caution. What results is one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead this season.
The long and short of this week’s episode is that Aaron promises to take Rick and co. back to Alexandria, an idyllic community where everyone has a house, lots of food, medical care, and protection from an impregnable outer wall. Rick is obviously skeptical, but he spends the first half of the episode asking Aaron about Alexandria and interrogating him about the nature of his camp. It ends up coming across like Rick doesn’t particularly care what the rest of the group wants, since he’s in a position to know what’s best for them. For her part, Michonne (Danai Gurira) can’t take all the running anymore, so she doesn’t care if Rick asks Aaron about Alexandria until he’s blue in the face, as long as they can at least check it out and keep an open mind about what they might find. After all, as Glenn (Steven Yeun) states, they can’t give up everything just to be safe. If being safe means they close off all opportunities that present themselves, and if being safe means they never interact with anyone else in the world again but each other, then…well, what does being safe really get you? A life of isolation and constant fear? That’s not really living. It’s just surviving. It plays back into Rick’s “We are The Walking Dead” speech from last week, since it suggests that these are people who are just existing, without any real hope that things might change. This is why tonight’s episode is so vital in moving the narrative forward, since Rick’s decision to let the group check out Alexandria with Aaron represents his own recognition that things need to change.
That said, Rick still has his doubts. He explains to Michonne that every community he’s ever come across, from Woodbury to Terminus, had one huge red flag that he ignored when first coming across those supposed safe havens: from the outside, those places were silent. No sounds of children, no sounds people, no sounds of life. Just silence. So he tells Michonne that while he does owe it to the group to see what Alexandria is all about, he isn’t exactly expecting Mayberry. And it makes sense. Even as Rick grows more obnoxiously paranoid about Aaron, we can still understand why he’d be that way. Part of it is thanks to the great choice to cast Russ Marquand as Aaron. I mean it in the very nicest possible way when I say that Marquand is a blank canvas. You can project whatever personality you want onto the character. He has an earnest-looking face, so it’d be easy to believe he’s telling the truth about Alexandria, but that earnestness also suggests a deeper, more complex character, so that you could also see why Rick has a nagging suspicion about him. It could literally go one way or the other without being all that surprising, and that’s a credit to both the casting department and to how Marquand plays the role down the middle.
Ultimately, Rick cautiously agrees to accept that Aaron is telling the truth, but only after a major setpiece in which Glenn plows through an endless parade of walkers in Aaron’s car. The group gets separated in the surrounding woods, and it’s Aaron who volunteers to accompany Glenn to go back for Rick and Michonne, who’ve been pinned down in the forest by more walkers than they could have reasonably fought themselves. Aaron and Glenn come to the rescue, and Rick seems to begrudgingly turn the corner on Aaron after that. He doesn’t wholly accept him, but it seems that Rick at least begins to consider that Aaron might not be the villain he’s expecting him to be. This is further backed up when Rick, Glenn, Michonne and Aaron reunite with the rest of Rick’s co. to discover they’ve taken in a new person: Aaron’s boyfriend, Eric, whom they’ve rescued from walkers. Eric has broken his ankle, and although Eric lightheartedly insists he’s fine, the amount of love and concern in Aaron’s eyes seems to resonate with Rick. Granted, that doesn’t stop him from trying to make Aaron sleep away from the rest of the group, but that doesn’t end up mattering anyway, as Glenn goes to bat for Aaron.
And whaddya know? The next day, they arrive at Alexandria, and the first thing Rick hears is the sounds of children playing. It’s a beautiful shot, as we focus on Andrew Lincoln’s eyes, the realization dawning on him that Alexandria is for real. He might not have to run anymore. He might not have to be the constantly-vigilant Rick Grimes of old. He can just be a father, a citizen, a part of a community. For the first time in a long time, Rick Grimes has hope. And that’s undoubtedly poignant, considering just how much Rick has been through in such a short amount of time. And yet, his over-the-top vigilance isn’t a bad thing. Carol (Melissa McBride) tells Rick that although he was wrong, he was still right. In essence, being wrong about Aaron’s motives doesn’t mean Rick wasn’t right to question them. He was just doing what he needed to do to keep his people safe. And now, he might actually get to reap the rewards of getting them this far. Although, given that this is The Walking Dead, I wouldn’t count on it.
“The Distance” was an absolutely terrific episode of The Walking Dead, and illustrates just how far the series has come. In the early seasons, the introduction of Aaron would have resulted in countless episodes of wondering whether or not Aaron was trustworthy as the group made the multi-episode journey to Alexandria. In seasons past, the battery in the RV breaking down en route to Alexandria would have resulted in an episode-long fetch quest to find a new battery. In the past, the arrival at Alexandria would have been fraught with walkers, causing Rick to potentially assume he’d been right about Aaron the entire time. But none of those things happened here. Aaron is introduced, and we’re at Alexandria by the end of the episode. The RV breaks down, and Glenn (remembering Dale and his RV) finds a new battery in a different compartment. The group gets to Alexandria, and we fade to black. And that’s okay, because it’s far more progress than we would have gotten before. Although the story of a “safe haven that ain’t so safe” feels like a narrative retread, it’s far more gripping now, in light of what the characters have been through since the prison and Terminus. The characters have grown, their approach to this world has evolved, and better drama has grown out of it. “The Distance” is simply great TV, and one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead this season.