Up until the final 10 minutes of the episode, what’s most remarkable about “Them” is its sense of quiet. Sure, both Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) give their speeches about only finding “survival” when they’re “together,” but the moments that resonate build off of thick, voiceless stretches of internal rot and frustration. Following the deaths of two major characters, “Them” plays to the proverbial calm after the storm, even if it’s perhaps inevitably a restless and short-lived sort of quiet.
In a sense, the episode fits that bill a little too well. The opening shows Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Daryl (Norman Reedus), and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) giving themselves over to silent moments of grief; the great first shot, a pull-out away from Maggie, imparts an unsettling sense of increasing distance between who Maggie was and who she’s becoming. As the episode goes on, the writers’ focus seems to be on how the exhaustion, fatigue, and desperation felt by the group is weighing on each character as they make their way to Washington D.C. “Them” is one of those episodes where part of the thematic concern is the very real positives of giving up, an unfortunate outcome of which is that the narrative world itself feels repetitive and dogged in these passages. Even Daryl’s act of self-mutilation seems a too-familiar signal of inward despair.
Sasha’s decision to let loose on a pack of zombies rather than carefully, safely dispatching them feels like a far more dangerous and, yes, human expression of anger and alienation. As that early shot indicates, Maggie is perhaps the most withdrawn, unable to even take comfort in Glenn’s company. Though zombies make more than a few appearances in “Them,” Maggie’s interactions are particularly fascinating. Upon inspecting the trunk of an abandoned car, she finds one hogtied inside, once a loved one that no one could bear to kill, and neither can she. Later on, she discovers another zombie squirreled away in a barn, one that clearly had the choice of killing herself before turning. Maggie has less of an issue killing the latter, but the former interaction shows a hesitancy to let go of a loved one. She is, in essence, facing her own death in two unpleasant ways: as a cherished member of a group that no one can bear to dispatch and as a lone survivor whose been clinging onto life so long that she can’t let go.
The less showy, more inescapable effects of this stark world are beginning to become impossible to ignore, and each character has had their relationship to death completely rattled. One can feel the discomfort when Rick attempts to share a philosophy of living that refers to their group as “the walking dead,” which is received most dubiously by Daryl. The assumption is that he’s lumped in with Sasha and Maggie because of how close he grew with Beth, but then there’s also the matter of the late Merle. Beth was the last person to make Daryl open up about his brother and his past, and her passing pulls him back into the loneliness that she refused to let him give into. It’s the absence of these characters that’s felt so deeply in “Them,” but the episode went further to underline these deaths as the excision of reasons to fight, and reasons to live.
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