Though there’s no denying the thrilling and unsettling power of the last two to three minutes of “Strangers,” it would be incorrect to label the episode as all build-up. In fact, the image of Gareth (Andrew J. West) chowing down on a hunk of Bob’s (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) leg meat while casually explaining away his barbarism wasn’t even the episode’s most remarkable moment. Rather, it was a short excursion into town to pick up supplies that yielded one of the more emotionally revealing reactions in the aftermath of Terminus and the return of Carol (Melissa McBride).
Not long after Rick (Andrew Lincoln) makes peace with Carol, they come upon Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), a priest stuck on a rock in the middle of the woods, surrounded by walkers. The image, of a man isolated from others due to his overwhelming fear to face the living dead, has an almost bibilical simplicity to it. This introduction quickly gives a sense of not just the fear, but the utter inner panic that has eaten away at Gabriel as he’s survived in a church outside of the town. The etching—“You’ll burn for this”—on the side of the church that Carl (Chandler Riggs) shows Rick suggests that his actions, or lack thereof, have caused him to be cast out in more ways than one.
It’s not until the need for food and ammo brings Rick and company to the adjacent town, however, that we see how deep this panic goes. While attempting to secure food from an underground pool swarming with walkers, the sight of a single zombie sends Gabriel sputtering and weeping, trying desperately to crawl up decaying stairs and get far away from this one zombie. Though the series is a master class in suspense and fear stoking, The Walking Dead has never really spent much time on the cowardly, those who are too scared to even fight. Gilliam’s assured performance brings out not only the priest’s inability to deal with the horrors of the new world and what that says about his faith and profession, but also to come to terms with what he’s done to survive, how his fear consumed his faith.
A photograph reveals that the zombie that spooked him was a former parishioner, not long before Bob takes a quiet walk outside to meet his tragic fate. And yet even these grim portents are met with an optimistic choice to follow Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt) to Washington D.C., a testament to the show’s insistence on often fleeting hopes in gruesome times. Even Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol’s spotting of the car that took Beth away last season is an even mixture of bad omens and faith in survival. Still, there’s no denying the eerie pull of that last scene, the true horror of cynicism and paranoia turning humans into eaters of their own flesh. For now, it’s unclear if Gabriel’s fear comes from knowing that people like Gareth and his ilk exist, or knowing that a similar desperation has driven him to where he now finds himself.
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