Negotiation is a recurring theme in “Us,” the penultimate episode of The Walking Dead’s fourth season. The episode mainly follows two companies and consistently underlines how the members of each group are adapting their own differing goals to a joint directive. In one early scene, Tara (Alanna Masterson) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) discuss their motivations and correctly project each other’s reasons for having them. Abraham’s mission is to get Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to Washington D.C. (since Eugene claims to have important information about why the zombie outbreak occurred), while Tara’s is to help Glen (Steven Yeun) find Maggie (Lauren Cohan). Though Abraham draws purpose in his belief that he can save the world, Tara is driven more by the guilt of having believed blindly in a cause that resulted in the Governor’s assault on the prison. There’s a mutual understanding and relating between them, as well as an implicit acknowledgement that their causes, however far-fetched or simplistic, are necessary to carry on. It’s not a momentous scene, but it’s a quiet and effective recapitulation of the journey that all of the characters are taking in The Walking Dead’s fourth season.
After much parleying between Abraham and Glen to remain together despite their opposing missions, Glen and Tara amicably separate off from Abraham’s crew and venture through a pitch-black tunnel in pursuit of Maggie. After an obligatory but inventive encounter with walkers (who are trapped under a collapsed ceiling, their heads and arms dangling out from the rubble), it isn’t long before they’re reunited with Abraham, but how they come together again is nonetheless somewhat of a surprise. While Abraham is content to let them go, Eugene becomes the catalyst for their reunion. Playing a more important role here than in previous episodes, the socially awkward Eugene shows a desire to connect with the group, even though his ramblings about roleplaying games and other such personal obsessions are his only means of doing so. His “man of importance” act may not have an insidious motivation, as was initially suggested several episodes ago, but it suggests a desire on his part for a sense of purpose. Without that, Abraham would have no other reason to protect him and stick together. Their mission to D.C. may not have ever been achievable, but they are less of wanderers because of it.
In the episode’s other main storyline, Daryl (Norman Reedus) struggles to balance his compassionate side with his new group’s more brutish approach toward survival. He initially resists the charming manner of intimidation of the group’s leader, Joe (Jeff Kober), who explains to him: “See, going at it alone ain’t an option nowadays. Still, it is survival of the fittest…That’s a paradox right there.” Joe operates a simple system of survival: Stick together and each man can claim what’s his. Break the rules, and face physical punishment from the others. Perhaps recognizing his vulnerability without support, Daryl eventually complies with the group’s rules. Joe explains to Daryl that they’re following the railroad to hunt down the man who killed one of their own, which definitively settles that it was Joe’s group that raided the house, several episodes ago, where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) was forced to strangle a man in the bathroom. Their pursuit of one man seems misplaced, especially since they kill each other to resolve their own conflicts, but, then again, it gives them a directive. And of course, Daryl is unaware that Rick is the man they’re after. Rick is seen only in brief during the episode, as the short scene along the tracks that features him exists mostly to foreground the evolving and playful relationship between Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Carl (Chandler Riggs). In fact, Rick seems like a bit of a stranger even in his own group, which is an odd stance for the show’s main protagonist with just one episode to go until the season wraps.
After last week’s draining episode with Carol and Tyreese, “Us” feels most like a bridge to a more eventful finish for the season. While a confrontation between Rick and Joe’s group is a near certainty in next week’s finale, less clear is what will come of the Terminus plotline, where Glen and Maggie arrive after reuniting in the tunnel. The peculiar ending with the lone smiling woman has a David Lynch-ian sensibility (minus the hopeful song playing over the sequence), mainly serving as a tease to the season’s finale next week. Whether the eventual clash of the groups will constitute a satisfying conclusion to this fragmented season is the big question. And while it’s a credit to show runner Scott Gimple that next week’s finale has a strong sense of mystery, his carefully drawn-out and mechanical means of getting there is no less transparent.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.