The Walking Dead 5×11 ‘The Distance’: Hope and despair

The Walking Dead 5x11 COver

The Walking Dead has always had trouble with finding new avenues to take.  It’s inherent in the premise that the show has.  Survivors move on, find zombies, kill zombies, find bad people, kill bad people.  Rinse.  Repeat.  So on and so on.  And as long as the show has gone on, nobody has really made sense of that fact.  Danger is a reality.  Death is a reality.  “We are the walking dead” is a cute phrase to spout, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that these people understand that life is now equivalent to violence, pain the only reality.  It’s an understandable way for the world to work, but it risks getting boring for the viewer.  That’s why, even in an underwhelming episode like “The Distance”, the notion of something new is immensely exciting.

The Walking Dead 5x11-3

Source: AMC

It’s exciting because, for once, the survivors are faced with the reality that something decent might happen to them.  It’s a possibility that, for almost five seasons, has never entirely panned out.  Sure, Hershel’s farm was a sanctuary, but it was easily torn apart by walkers.  Sure, the prison was a fortress, but it was torn down as well.  Alexandria is surrounded by walls so high that nothing has penetrated it yet, and the sounds of children emanating from within are certainly promising.

The Walking Dead 5x11-2

Source: AMC

The first half of the season has dealt with Rick and the rest of the survivors living through some pretty terrible situations (Terminus, Gareth, the hospital in Atlanta), and it reminds us of just how bitter everybody is.  I was 99% sure that Aaron was being genuine when he was walking about Alexandria (mostly because another Terminus situation would just be WAY too redundant), but even then, whenever Rick did something outrageous like punching Aaron in the face, I found myself saying, “I could see why he’d do that.”  And that made the episode exponentially more meaningful.  We know what happens when the group meets another insurmountable obstacle.  But we don’t know what happens when the group is faced with the notion that they might be able to rest up and rediscover their humanity.

The Walking Dead 5x11-1

Source: AMC

The bulk of the episode is concerned with attempting to figure out whether or not Aaron is a legitimate ally or not.  Rick is convinced that he’s lying to them, that he’s just going to hurt them all, and he’s right to think that.  After the horrible things that have happened to everybody at the hands of other living people (Hershel being decapitated by The Governor, Bob being eaten by Gareth, Carl almost being raped by Joe’s men), he has very right to want to kill Aaron in order to keep his children safe.  And everybody else is twitchy as well.  When Abraham and his small group check to see if Aaron is telling the truth about his one other recruiter, they come across a noise in the bushes and all immediately point their guns in that direction.  Everybody is running scared because they know the cost of not being completely careful.  Now that Beth and Tyreese are dead (Beth after being kidnapped by another group and Tyreese after looking away for a second too long), they’re even more scared of what is hiding in the bushes.  One of my favorite lines goes to Glenn when he looks out of the barn and tells Rick that he sees “lots of hiding places”.  It’s easy to look out into the forest and remember all of the terrible things that have happened.  It’s harder to look out into the forest and see hope.

The Walking Dead 5x11-4

Source: AMC

The emotional story of the episode goes to Rick facing the notion that there is hope out there, that Aaron might be telling the truth.  He didn’t even want to invite the idea that Aaron was telling the truth and wanted to kill him immediately.  Because inviting that idea means risking everybody’s life after all of the pain and suffering that they endured.  Who is to say that Aaron isn’t just another member of another group like those at Terminus, another person that will systematically kill everybody in the group?  And Rick grapples with that for a long time, though even after they check the area, even after they meet Eric, Rick has to hide a gun in a broken blender just in case things go wrong.  Because even if Alexandria appears to be a safe place, it’s foolish to think that it will be safe forever.  But there’s a reason that “The Distance” featured more Judith and Carl than we’ve seen in a while.  Every decision Rick makes decides the fate of his family.  And that has to weigh on his mental and emotional stamina more than anything else.  In “The Distance”, Rick looks beaten down, and while the safety of Alexandria may rejuvenate him, it takes a great deal of effort to even get to the point where that rejuvenation can happen.

But I couldn’t help feeling that “The Distance” would have been a better episode if “Them” more adequately showed us the desperation that the survivors feel.  It’s obvious that this was the entire point of the first two episodes.  While “What Happened and What’s Going On” was a more thoughtful meditation, it didn’t necessarily show us the collective desperation weighing on the group as a whole.  And “Them” was just a dragging, boring episode of television.  If anything, “The Distance” shows us that desperation better than the two episodes before it.  But it almost entirely invalidates “Them” as an episode of the show.  You could take “Them” out of the season entirely and almost nothing would happen as a result.

“The Distance” may not be a more exciting episode of the show, but it’s an important one.  The group has faced so much pain and suffering that it seems absurd to expect anything otherwise.  That’s why “The Distance” is so important.  It entertains the idea that there is hope and decency out there.  But more than that, it shows us that pain traumatizes people to the point where even considering hope is horribly painful.  Because there’s little worse than having your hope shattered.  And it says a lot about the stamina of Rick and the survivors when, even after all of the pain that they’ve endured, they still carry enough hope to walk up to the gates of Alexandria and hope again.

So what did you think of “The Distance”?  What do you think will happen after everybody gets to Alexandria?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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