The Walking Dead is often at its most compelling whenever it stresses the relative silence that’s taken over the world now that the buzz of modern society has been silenced following the zombie apocalypse. One such moment, fleeting but powerful in its implications, dignifies “Alone”: In the midst of an otherwise quiet night, the retching sounds of a nearby walker keep Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) awake at their campsite in the woods. Echoing through the trees, the noise is as constant as the humming of crickets.
The walker never arrives at the campsite, and Bob and Sasha seem to react to it less a potential threat than as a nagging sort of banality that’s become commonplace in this new world. This one scene is more evocative and terrifying than the more overtly tense encounters with walkers elsewhere in the episode, despite veteran television director Ernest Dickerson’s attempts to imbue the combat scenes with more visual gusto than the series has displayed of late. In an early scene, for instance, Bob, Sasha, and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) work together to fend off a horde of walkers on a fog-ridden morning. Here, as the trio awaits walkers who only emerge in sight after they’ve gained uncomfortably close proximity to the group, is where Dickerson first establishes the episode’s fixation on sound. All three characters come out of the skirmish unscathed, but the prevailing sense is that they cannot endure these close calls much longer (which, intriguingly, also borders on a meta-commentary on the show’s recent dearth of walker bites).
Sasha voices her feelings of desperation to Bob throughout the episode. She doesn’t fathom Maggie’s resolve to find Glen (Steven Yeun), and she resists Bob’s repeated insistence that the only thing that matters is not being alone. But the pronounced thematic focus of this stretch of the episode on the importance of togetherness, apart from having been much better handled in last week’s episode, is bewildering. Though the emphasis is on the difference between Bob and Sasha’s respective worldviews, Sasha’s perspective is insufficiently articulated for it to feel convincing. By the end, we learn that she’s afraid of placing her hope in others, but how that connects to her perfectly reasonable pleading to find high ground and protection isn’t clear.
A far more compelling contrast that the episode doesn’t play up is between Bob’s more benign notion of companionship and Maggie’s unshakeable pursuit of Glen that drives her to gut walkers and use their blood to draw directions for Glen to find her. Her preoccupation with finding Glen often makes her seem unstable. Maggie’s distancing herself from the group is framed as a noble act, if for no other reason than she’s a more defined character at this point in the series. Her explanation to Sasha at the end seems more like the writers are shaming Sasha for her having an internal conflict over whether to blindly march on in search of her loved ones or to focus on her own survival.
As opposed to the abrupt and somewhat awkward focus on Bob and Sasha, the episode’s other major storyline involving Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Beth (Emily Kinney) is less convoluted and reveals a more emotionally nuanced progression of two characters’ relationship. They find brief reprieve in a seemingly abandoned but oddly maintained funeral home, where they rest and talk through their own feelings about whether good people can still be left in the world. But beyond their words is a sense that their strengthening bond appears to be taking on a stronger element of sexual attraction, evinced in protracted silences between them wherein they appear to have nothing left to say to each other, at least not as friends. This is a welcome development for a dialogue-rich show in which the characters often say everything they’re feeling. But as Beth and Daryl become closer, the allusions to their eventual separation (which have been present since the thread’s origin after the prison compound’s destruction) also become more intense. When the funeral home is suddenly encroached by walkers, it’s hardly a surprise that they become separated and Beth is taken away in a car by an unknown identity, but no less potent is its upshot.
One positive development that’s stemmed from showrunner Scott Gimple’s fractured narrative approach to this season’s second half is that The Walking Dead is now exploring characters who were previously relegated to non-essential background status. And while this has allowed Beth to blossom into a character almost as full-blooded and rich in emotion and contradiction as Carol, the downside is that Bob and Sasha’s characterizations still hinge on strained contrivances and forced character arcs. Perhaps that’s why the unseen walker bellowing in the night is the one moment from this episode that lingers most in the mind. When a walker isn’t merely a convenient writer’s device to push the plot in a sure direction, the very sound it makes can conjure more fear and pure feeling than anything else among the show’s worn narrative trappings. And when such minor, intuitive asides stand out as strongly as they do, it’s a sign that a series still has a ways to go.
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