The Walking Dead: 511 “The Distance” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
In the apocalypse, hope is a rare thing. Rick Grimes and crew, time after time, have entered a new sanctuary full of hope for the future; only to invariably lose it or find out it’s infested with cannibals and maniacs. So, after several false dawns for the group, can they really trust someone when they claim they have a secure, safe and friendly sanctuary?
That question was the crux of this week’s episode, The Distance, as Team Grimes debated if the friendly new appearance, Aaron, was actually just another deceitful Governor-esque nutjob or a genuinely sincere person. Unsurprisingly, Rick in particular was extremely skeptical, threatening to murder Aaron and knocking him out – an interesting study of how the Rick’s experiences have moulded him into someone almost incapable of trusting anyone new; as explored earlier in the season with the Hunters, Rick is slowly becoming one of the monsters he has fought against thanks to his reasonably horrifying experiences in the apocalypse. The Walking Dead works well when it dips into the greyer moral shades and lines blur between the heroes and the villains – and it was a very interesting idea here (if not entirely convincing) to see Rick become something of an uber-paranoid antagonist to the genuinely friendly Aaron. However, it was a slight case of the concept outweighing the execution.
Despite it being understandable that from a story point of view that Rick may be a little cautious, his paranoia here was a little overplayed – given evidence piled on top of evidence that Aaron is telling the truth, the former cop continued to doubt pretty much everything Aaron said or did, climaxing in the slightly ludicrous fear that Aaron could be trying to poison Judith with applesauce for little to no reason. Rick’s paranoia fits well thematically into the episode, but it’s arguable that the writers may have gone a little overboard in painting Rick as someone scarred by previous experiences. Rick may have lost a great deal of his humanity along the way, and the character is far more interesting when he’s a little on the shady side, but Rick is still the hero of the story – and he felt just a little too unpalatably dislikeable here.
However, Rick’s dip into paranoia allowed Michonne to step forward as the advocate for hope and new beginnings – since the mid-season break, the character has really flourished in the role of the new optimist (and less out of touch with the world than Tyreese) – Michonne may have started off as a standard strong-silent type, but recently the self-proclaimed ‘crazy lady with a sword’ has developed into a genuinely interesting presence, and a great counterpart to the more cynical Rick.
We learned a great deal more about the new arrival, Aaron, in The Distance – and thankfully, Aaron worked very well indeed. As I’ve said before in these reviews, the majority of The Walking Dead’s characters have a tendency to brood a lot – so the light-heartedness (Actual jokes! Weird hobbies! Strange dislike of applesauce!) that Aaron brought was a nice palate-cleanser to wash away some of the bitterly depressing tone of the last few episodes.
One of the most important strengths of The Distance was its refreshingly hopeful tone, and Aaron was a major contributor. Likewise, his relationship with fellow recruiter Eric (the first gay male couple in The Walking Dead, fact fans) gave the character some clear motivations and backstory. Unlike some past characters who felt a little like they’d started existing when they joined the group, Aaron feels fairly well established and developed already – not a bad feat for his first full episode.
After a couple of fairly action-light episodes, The Distance delivered a great, intense central action scene as a section of the group found themselves stuck with a broken down car in a middle of a walker herd at night. The night setting (though given a slightly clunky story reason) was a great factor in adding to the intensity of the scene – not being able to see where the walkers were coming from only heightened the peril that the group was in, allowing the scene to feel viscerally frightening as Rick and co escaped through the skin of their teeth (and a great deal of handy plot armour). There was even a textbook creative walker kill, as Rick resorted to using a flare gun to take down a walker, turning it into an illuminated jack-o-lantern of sorts – a slightly gimmicky moment perhaps, but an example of the creativity The Walking Dead applies to its action scenes.
The episode’s cliffhanger was somewhat different to usual – as Rick and crew stepped out of their cars at the gates of what we now knew to be called the Alexandria Safe Zone, Rick heard something that changed his cynical stance on the safe zone; the sound of children playing. For a show that usually takes a more downbeat path, the end of the episode was an almost bizarre change of tone from that – as Rick’s frown melted away, this reviewer almost found it heartwarming; a feeling not often felt when watching The Walking Dead.
The group has faced a fairly ridiculous amount of trials and tribulations, losing team members and almost losing the will to live along the way – but finally, they’ve arrived at what appears to be a genuine new home. It’s a cathartic break from the onslaught of misery we’ve faced, and provides a satisfying conclusion to the spottily executed thematic thread of being unable to trust a potential new sanctuary (it may say something that in this show, a sanctuary being friendly is an unexpected plot twist). The Alexandria Safe Zone will doubtless provide plenty more heartbreak, death and misery – but just for now, things are looking up for Team Grimes…
Refreshingly upbeat, entertainingly intense at points and functioning as a satisfying prologue to the next big arc of the show, The Distance isn’t without its issues, but remains the best episode since the season premiere.
Scene of the Episode: Yes Sanctuary – Rick and co finally reach the Alexandria Safe Zone, which appears to be a fairly lovely place. For now.