The entirety of “The Distance” hinges on a question of trust between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Aaron (Ross Marquand), a newcomer who finds Rick’s group held up in a barn and offers sanctuary at a community called Alexandria. The looming memories of the Governor and Terminus are written all over Rick’s face, and the psychological damage done by those experiences on our fearful leader can be shown in his general hostility toward Aaron. The subject, as is often the case with The Walking Dead, boils down to the inherent dangers in believing in safe havens, and that’s primarily why “The Distance” feels like one of the more repetitive and dramatically light episodes of this season.
This is particularly noticeable early on, with Rick and Aaron beginning to feel each other out. Aaron makes a classic mistake in trying to bond with Rick by speaking about common experiences prior to the zombie uprising. Rick, of course, isn’t fascinated with nostalgia for the past, only what he can learn from it, an extension of both his and the show’s core philosophy. By reiterating how tactful and stubborn Rick is, and how incessant Aaron is, the narrative often feels as if it’s spinning its proverbial wheels.
It’s only when the expectations of what Aaron is up to die down that the episode finds some firm footing. In not trusting Aaron, Rick puts the group in the way of a road chock-full of zombies, with Glenn (Steven Yeun) running them down by the droves just to get a clear view. And it’s at that same moment that a pile of broadcasting equipment and a favored behavioral test also call Aaron’s motives into question. In the world of The Walking Dead, you can’t totally trust someone until you’re overrun by violent chaos and confusion alongside each other, able to see priorities more clearly in the light of urgency and panic.
The inevitable problem of this sort of precaution is that you become dependent on urgency and panic, or at the very least seek comfort in those feelings. Following what has been the show’s greatest season thus far, “The Distance” itself could be seen as a well-needed break from the unrelenting horror, tragedy, and fervor that’s denoted the series, an act of recalibration. That’s certainly the feeling given when Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Rosita (Christian Serratos) quietly perk up at the sight of the Washington Monument in the distance, but it’s almost immediately subverted. The writers cleverly align the audience’s inherent distrust of sanctuary in Alexandria with Rick’s disbelief in the very notion of home in the new world order. His final decision to fall in with Aaron and his camp toward the end of “The Distance” is less an acknowledgement of trust than recognition of the limitations of the group’s self-sufficiency. After all, he didn’t find the small group of brave, skilled companions he depends on now by keeping faith in himself alone.
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