Community and Humanity in The Walking Dead‘s “No Way Out”

There were two big themes that emerged in “No Way Out”, and they’re themes that have been with The Walking Dead almost since the beginning: the concept of community and the idea that this post-apocalyptic world can change an individual in profound ways. The episode was certainly a bit overly didactic about these points at times, but for once, it allowed them to dovetail together with a surprising harmony.

The community element of the episode has been telegraphed from at least the beginning of this season, if not long before. Rick has spent so much time decrying the preparedness of the Alexandrians, declaring that they are children of the summer, and drawing a dividing line between them and his own people, that you just knew he was going to turn around and accept them with open arms sooner or later. It was inevitable that some event was going to take place, Rick was going to see that these people had potential, and then eventually, he would embrace them. It’s not even the first time we’ve seen this type of arc with Rick.

But despite the predictability of it, I liked the way the show accomplished this task. Initially, it seemed like The Walking Dead was giving into Rick’s skepticism about the Alexandrians’ ability to do what’s necessary to survive in their new environs in the ways it depicted the deaths of the entire Anderson family.

Each death in that sequence was emblematic of some perceived flaw of the Alexandrian community as a whole. Sam was too scared, too unmoored by the horror he was witnessing to be able to proceed with the plan in the face of such grotesque images. Jesse was unable to let go, literally but more importantly figuratively, in order to save the rest of her family in the face of tragedy that inevitably strikes, and pays the price for it. And Ron, who meets Michonne’s blade after aiming a pistol at the Grimes boys, was too willing to hold onto old grudges, too ready to point fingers and count marks in the ledger that was already covered in blood. It was a gruesome, unexpected scene that was as shocking as it was gripping, and seemed to portend the type of nihilism the show’s critics accuse it of presenting.

But in the aftermath of these ugly deaths, in a scene that felt very reminiscent of Season 2, Carl has been shot in the course of Ron’s final flail, and Rick goes running through the horde with his son in his arms, trying to reach the nearest safe space. Once Carl is being treated, Rick, laden with his grief and his anger, stupidly tries to fight off the zombie horde single-handedly.

(Incidentally, Michonne’s little kiss for Carl before leaving to help Rick is one of those brief-but-powerful little character moments that the show could really use more of in place of the heavy-handed colloquies it’s so fond of. That one gesture conveyed so much so succinctly that I would almost speculate it was improvised.)

And then something funny thing happens. Soon not only has Michonne gone out to help Rick but the rest of the Alexandrians who were holed up in the infirmary do so as well. So do the folks who are enmeshed in a tense truce after coming to blows over the life of the head wolf. So does the cowardly Eugene; so does the disaffected Enid; so does the pacifistic Morgan; so does the visceraphobic Denise; so does the untrustworthy Father Gabriel; and in one of the show’s most effective visual and editing bay flourishes, so does effectively everyone we’ve ever met in the show who still has a leg to stand on.

From the sign above the door in the church, to Gabriel’s speech, to Denise taking action to help Carl immediately after her own fraught incident is over, there’s a thematic nod toward the idea of the divine rewarding those who act to make the change they want to see—to, as the saying goes, help themselves–and in the climax of the episode, all of Alexandria rises to that call.

At the end, they are a community. It’s not subtle (especially considering Rick’s incredibly blunt speech at the end of the episode that ties a neat little bow on this idea), but it’s effective. The Walking Dead’s M.O. for several seasons now has been to divide up its characters (a choice I agree with), and its cast has gotten so large that it’s easy for the whole enterprise to feel somewhat disjointed and disconnected. But for once the disparate characters in this show, most if not all of whom are separated by history, by ideology, by temperament, and by experience, are united. However clumsily he conveys the point, Rick is right to have hope. While The Walking Dead employs more than a few narrative shortcuts to get there, the sequence of the town coming together, one-by-one, to repel the attack is a triumphant one, and for once that triumph is earned.

That said, basically everything touched by the Daryl/Sasha/Abraham triumvirate smacked of deus ex machina solutions to plot obstacles. The cold open had a wonderfully tension-filled energy to it, but its ending was weak, not only because it strains credulity that Daryl could take out one of Negan’s henchman and load up a rocket launcher without so much as making a peep, but also because the head henchman had a certain presence about him that made me look forward to subsequent appearances that will never come.

At the same time, that trio showing up just in time to save Glenn (and bail out his fairly dumb plan) by miraculously firing machine guns in his general direction without so much as nicking him was cheap and cheesy storytelling as well. (The plausibility of the scene wasn’t helped by Abraham’s cornball cackle either.) And the way that Daryl was able to put a dent in the morass of zombies with the tanker, with the quiet calm of the morning after showing next to no deaths or injuries to the Alexandrians beyond the Anderson family, felt all too convenient as well.

But in the end, that’s what The Walking Dead is and what it’s been for some time now. If you’re watching this show for logical consistency, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, and that’s not a new development. I would be lying if I said that this tack never irked me, but I can accept the series’s consistent choice to value theme over logic for what it is, even if it makes me wrinkle my nose a bit.

I can accept it in this episode in particular because as much as “No Way Out” explores the idea of community in its action-packed climax, it also examines something more personal and individual in the shadow of that theme — the extent to which people have been, and can be changed by this new state of affairs. To the point, Carol is one of the best characters on the show, and her transition from battered spouse to grieving mother to capable hand to hardened warrior has been one of the strongest elements of The Walking Dead in its six-season run. But the next step in that evolution — Carol wondering if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction (with seeds originally planted in “JSS”) is a powerful one that continues the character’s tradition of having one of the show’s most interesting arcs.

The episode’s examination of these ideas is not limited to Carol. It’s much less subtle, but the same themes are at play in the conversations between The Wolf and Denise, and the intercut scenes with Glenn and Enid, and many smaller moments with Morgan, Eugene, Rosita, and others, all of which underscore the way in which these people have a choice. They’ve all been affected by the downfall of civilization, but they can choose to give into the lawless state of nature they’ve been deposited into, or hold onto their humanity in an inhumane world.

“No Way Out” is an episode that name-checks a lot of lost souls from the series’s past, from recent losses like Deanna to ones as far back as Dale. It marries the themes of community with the idea that those who survive in this world carry the people who made them what they are with them through every step taken along the way to rebuilding civilization and society. It stands for the idea of not losing yourself in the carnage or cravenness of the world as it is now, a world where even a wolf has a conscience, where a woman who’s grown hard begins to feel the pain of what she’s become, and where a community unites as one for what feels like the first time. It’s The Walking Dead, so much of the execution of these themes along the way is more than a little bit clumsy, but it’s a right and earnest culmination of the ideas and themes introduced this season, and in many ways, of the series as a whole.

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