‘The Walking Dead’ Soars With the Tragedy-Laced ‘Spend’ (Review)
Recap and review of The Walking Dead – Season 5 Episode 14 – Spend:
The Walking Dead prides itself on being the sort of series where nobody is safe, not even people in the main cast. And they’ve done a pretty good job proving it in this season alone. But tragedy for its own sake is boring, so it’s a good thing that “Spend” manages to make the death of two characters (one minor and new, and one fairly major) as poignant and significant as they ended up being.
The show tries to lull us into a false sense of security by building this as a return to form for the storytelling: not only are Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carol (Melissa McBride) back to dealing with abusive, possessive jerks — in this case, the same man — but fetch quests have also returned! Yes, the group must venture out beyond the walls of Alexandria to search for devices that will allow Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to repair the power grid. I admit that I was expecting a pretty routine episode, building on the internal conflict that has been set up since Rick’s group first arrived in Alexandria. But two things probably should have clued me into how unconventional this episode was going to be. First, we have a scene in which Noah (Tyler James Williams) reveals to Deanna’s husband that he’s in this for the long haul, and so he wants to contribute by learning everything he can about architecture. His plan is to help reinforce the walls and to generally just glean as much knowledge as he can about “how to build stuff” in the event that Deanna’s husband isn’t around in the decades to come. Right away, I probably should have known that character development and talk of the future were a deadly one-two punch for Noah. The second tip-off that this episode would break from the expectations of the past few weeks is just how hard Eugene fights to get out of having to go on this fetch quest. Even when he’s at the warehouse where they’ll be retrieving the supplies, he argues to Tara (Alanna Masterson) that he’s already fulfilled his end of the bargain by getting the group this far. “Are you really that much of a coward?” Tara asks, to which Eugene responds, “Yes, I am. I told you I was.” Eugene’s desperation to get out of this situation essentially tells us how integral he’d end up being to the climax of the episode, as we’d have lost a lot more than just Noah and Aiden, had Eugene not been here.
But I overlooked both of those crucial details, because I’d sort of gotten to a point with the show where I just turn off whatever critical brain I’ve got, and just watch. The Walking Dead is popcorn television, which is why it has such a capacity to surprise with its depth, as it does here. Admittedly, this isn’t particularly deep TV, but the way the show uses the deaths of Noah and Aiden (Daniel Bonjour) to present the contrast in the ideologies of Rick’s group and the Alexandrians is superb. When Aiden shoots an armored walker and ends up detonating a grenade, Aiden finds himself impaled on a forklift. Glenn (Steven Yeun) is desperate to save him, insisting that no man is left behind. But Aiden’s friend, Nicholas (Michael Traynor), ends up bailing on him, since Alexandrians have a “system” in which it’s basically okay to sacrifice one person for your own good. At least, that’s the implication here. Aiden is devoured as Glenn and Noah simply don’t have the manpower to free him. And it only gets worse from there, as Nicholas, Noah and Glenn get trapped in a revolving door with walkers boxing them in on both sides. Luckily, Eugene is able to draw some of the walkers away from the door by blaring the stereo on their van. But Nicholas refuses to go along with Glenn’s plan to break the glass door to help them get through, since he assumes the glass won’t break and the plan will fail. So what does Nicholas do? He squeezes through an opening in the door, and in so doing, turns the revolving door so that Glenn and Noah are exposed to the walkers on the other side.
In showing the “leave no one behind / the group is more important than any one person” mentality of Rick’s group, Glenn refuses to let go of Noah as the walkers drag him away. Hell, he hangs on for so long that he nearly gets dragged into the horde himself. Ultimately, Noah is devoured while Glenn can do little else but watch from the other side of the glass. It’s one of the most nightmarish visuals of the entire series, as the walkers absolutely tear Noah apart, ripping at his face until there’s nothing left but pulp and gore. It’s horrific, and it results in Yeun doing some of his most heartfelt work of the season, as we see just how deeply Noah’s death affects him (for one, he slugs Nicholas until he’s unconscious…but he loads him into the van anyway, since he still believes in the “save your own” principle). Eugene seems to have trouble handling that Noah is gone, since he’s been through so much saving Tara. After the explosion, Tara is knocked unconscious, and the result is severe head trauma and bleeding. Basically, it looks like Tara isn’t long for this world, so Eugene springs into action by throwing her over his shoulder and marching her back to the van, sniping one walker after another to clear a path. It’s an inversion of the expectation that Eugene will be a coward, as he feels a certain drive to do right by Tara, almost as if to make up for what he did to them with the Washington lie. Sure, he earlier told Tara that he felt his task had been fulfilled, but her disbelief at his cowardice seems to shock Eugene into action. He strives to do better, and in so doing, ends up saving what’s left of the group. It’s a wonderful arc, and at least as poignant as Noah’s, even if it isn’t as viscerally affecting.
As for the Alexandria portion of the episode, I got a kick out of Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) earning the loyalty of his construction crew by saving one of them — a woman named Francine — after the foreman of the group leaves her for dead as walker bait. It’s such a profound moment for Abraham that the foreman ends up resigning his post, telling Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) to appoint Abraham. Deanna reluctantly does this, and then laments to Maggie (Lauren Cohan) that yet another of Rick’s group is in a position of power. Granted, I’m not sure why she’d get upset, since this is the first time anyone has actually prompted her to appoint somebody from Rick’s group into a position of power. But she’s leery of it, just the same. And for reasons that don’t really seem apparent, considering that Deanna has hardly been the suspicious type so far. She tends to give people the benefit of the doubt. Of course, this means she also gives Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) a fair hearing when he comes to her with the plea to send Rick’s group away. He rationalizes his snitching by comparing Rick’s group to Satan, who masqueraded as an angel but who didn’t deserve to live in Paradise. And, naturally, Maggie is there to hear the whole thing from the stairs. Why Gabriel would do this is beyond me, considering that Rick’s group has saved him on more than one occasion, despite him not contributing anything of value to them. Seriously, Gabriel is functionally useless, and the only purpose he really serves is to get these people into more danger. It’s hard to know if Deanna is going to take anything Gabriel says seriously, since he sounds like a rambling, incoherent madman when he confronts her, but it seems that the wheels are at least turning in Deanna’s mind. And I doubt she’s going to think well of Rick’s group when she finds out his people couldn’t save her son. It seems unfair to dole out blame in that way, but grief makes people act out in unfair ways.
For instance, look at the actions of Pete (Corey Brill), Jessie’s husband and Sam’s father. Carol attempts to get Sam to go away when he comes around looking for cookies and complaining about his smashed owl statue. It’s rare that Carol has been this abrasive, but I still feel it’s part of the front she’s putting up for the people of Alexandria, as she stops just short of telling the kid to go jump off a bridge or something. Just the way she’s bitterly snippy with him speaks to just how much she’s been through. And yet, Sam’s dilemma ends up speaking to her on a personal level. As the victim of abuse herself, she can recognize it in others. Once Sam reveals he smashed his own owl statue because he smashes things when he’s upset, and then follows it up by asking her to get him a gun for his mother’s protection, it doesn’t take Carol long to deduce that Pete is abusing both Jessie and Sam. She goes to Rick to tell him about this, and it isn’t hard for him to believe it, since Pete vaguely threatened him under the guise of establishing a friendship. It was all pretty creepy stuff, and it does a great job of establishing Pete as one of the villains of this season (and he’s the town doctor, no less!). But this all culminates in Carol’s somewhat blunt, inelegant solution to the problem: since she knows how it goes with abusers, she knows there’s only one way to stop Pete, and that’s for Rick to kill him. Of course, this is easier said than done, considering that Deanna and the people of Alexandria probably aren’t going to be thrilled about these newcomers killing one of their own. But the episode does a decent job putting the idea into our heads that this might be necessary. It’s a dark way of thinking to inspire in viewers, and I think that’s what the show is hoping to accomplish, by appealing to our darker nature. Because, even if he’s doing it to protect Sam and Jessie, Rick would be objectively wrong to outright murder Pete without due process. But then, this isn’t exactly civilized society. It’s just an elaborate facsimile.
“Spend” is one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead this season, and also one of its most momentous. The death of Noah was the sort of nightmarish setpiece this show does exceedingly well, but it meant a lot more since it tied into the overall theme of difference between Rick’s group and the Alexandrians. A war is brewing, and if next week is anything like this, all hell is likely to break loose by finale time. Either way, I can’t wait.