This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Twice as Far”, begins by focusing on the everyday, mundane, repeatable tasks — the routine into which the citizens of Alexandria have fallen. In the opening, we see the same scenes repeated one day after another: Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) patrolling across a creek bridge; Eugene (Josh McDermitt) taking up his position for a morning session of guard duty, nodding a silent good morning to Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) who stands atop the guard tower; Carol (Melissa McBride) swinging restlessly on her porch swing, smoking cigarettes.
To a certain extent, this kind of routine has been the focus of this spring season on The Walking Dead. After the major battle that took place in “No Way Out”, the series skipped six months ahead to a point of relative peace and stability in the community. Of course, this stability can be deceptive — this spring has also been punctuated by moments of real danger — but more often screen time has been devoted to asking some deeper questions, and to reflecting on the situation, now that there’s some actual time in which to do that. In many ways, this particular episode follows that same pattern: the focus begins on the routine, which allows for some thoughtful dialogue that helps contextualize the entire series up to this point. But danger lurks, and it can strike at the most unexpected moments.
“Twice as Far” sets up as a parallel plot, with two relatively unseasoned characters — Eugene and Denise (Merritt Wever) — each outside the walls for the first time with groups of scavengers. Eugene scouts a possible munitions factory with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz); Denise manages to convince Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) to accompany her to a pharmacy in the nearby town to check for meds. For the first half of the episode, we move back and forth between these two groups.
The surface story for both is essentially the same. These are opportunities for these two characters to prove themselves, both to their more seasoned companions and to themselves, and they seem almost over-eager to do so. Eugene, for instance, insists on taking on a walker himself, only to lose control of the situation. When Abraham steps in to save him, he only becomes more enraged, almost childishly so, at not being allowed to finish the job himself.
In a mirror scene, Denise takes a needless risk and winds up facing down a walker herself. Here again, the walker initially gets the better of her, and Daryl races in to help, only to be shouted down by Denise for interfering. Both characters are treated like children by the others; both seem to take foolish risks that get them into trouble; and both wind up with stern lectures from the “parent” figures.
There are deeper issues at stake, however, some of which are apparent and others less so. Denise makes plain in her response to Daryl and Rosita’s frustration with her, that “taking risks” is part of this life, that it can’t be avoided. As she points out, the two of them took a risk in taking on the Saviors’ compound. More importantly, she argues, life isn’t worth living without taking those risks. Finally, in a show of her strength, she explains to them that she only brought them along so they would have a chance to face their own problems — emotional problems — head on.
In that moment, the moment when she says this, the situation suddenly flips, and we see things from her perspective. It turns out she is the strongest of the three, the one most willing to face her own demons, demons that have nothing to do with a fear of death but rather with the fear of continuing to live on. This scene crystallizes, in many respects, what this half-season has been getting at for the past five weeks: there are fates worse than death, and how — as humans — are we supposed to deal with those?
Here, for instance, both Eugene and Denise are the ones who take the lead in bettering the community: Eugene finding ways to protect them militarily (more ammunition), Denise finding ways to protect their health. Which raises but one important question of many: what truly qualifies as strength in this new society? For so long the answer has been simple: might makes right, or at least might accounts for the group’s values system.
As the world grows larger, though, the brute strength of a single human being must eventually give way to the strength of a society, and that strength lies in inventiveness and cunning; in short, it lies in intellect. It really doesn’t matter how skillful you are with a gun, a machete, or a crossbow, if you can’t at some point figure out how to manufacture bullets and arrows.
Or so the argument seems to be going until about midway through the episode, when the plotline changes suddenly and radically, in ways that seem to suggest the inexperienced — no matter how smart — simply can’t survive on their own in this new world. An old foe, ironically someone Daryl had earlier helped despite his misgivings, returns to threaten Alexandria. Abraham manages to turn the tables on the bandits, and Eugene proves his worth in the process, but Daryl’s especially shaken by the experience and returns to Alexandria torn between what Denise has said about taking the value in risks, and his own failure to prevent the attack because he took unnecessary risks.
In yet another example of mirroring, his struggle is the same one Carol seems to be facing after her recent encounter with the Savior women. In a poetic bit of framing, at episode’s end we watch as the day-to-day events we saw in the opening are repeated yet again, only Carol’s swing now sits empty. In voice-over, we discover she’s abandoned the town, knowing that if she remains she will have to kill humans, something she’s just unwilling to do. As we edge closer to the season finale, I predict that conflict, as much as any battle these survivors may face, will define this season. The show just isn’t about walkers anymore; it’s about deciding what defines humanity.