The following review contains spoilers for the Walking Dead season 5 Episode “Strangers”
Introduction of a ‘Stranger’
The season premiere of the Walking Dead brought us an action packed hour full of mayhem and emotion. Carol emerged as a legitimate tour de force in the walker plagued world, Rick did stuff….thangs, and everyone was finally reunited! The group was left on the road at the end of it all and the viewers were left completely exhausted. The follow up episode “Strangers” took a different, yet effective, approach to moving the story forward. It was a more character driven episode, low on action, but high on tension. These types of episodes tend to be hit or miss, often times dubbed as “filler” episodes when they are the latter, but “Strangers” avoids this with a focused and balanced approach and some edge of your seat moments. Let’s dig a little deeper into what did, and didn’t, make this episode work.
David Boyd’s Direction
David Boyd, who has a strong track record directing for the Walking Dead, seems to have a knack for character driven episodes. The way he splices in tension throughout helps more than it might appear on the surface and he’s no stranger to a surprise ending (see season 4 episode Internment). He did, however, have his work cut out for him by taking on the task of balancing screen time between such a large group of characters. Similarly to the premiere episode “No Sanctuary”, most of the characters were just nudged along while a few characters stole the show. The difference this time around is the lack of action which creates a lot of space that needs to be filled with story and character progressions. This is an area The Walking Dead has struggled with in the past.
This episode features recaps of all the characters and very brief reminders of what their story is. Rick shares a moment (albeit an awkward fist bump type of moment) with Tara, the elephant in the church. Maggie also comforts Tara and does her best to make her feel at ease concerning what happened at the prison. Tyreese wants to forget about Lizzie and Mika, Carol doesn’t want to talk to Daryl about what she has been through, and Rick tries to address the rift that lead to him exiling Carol from the group. This is just part of it and when you list all these little moments out, it’s quite a lot but each is a small piece of the “Strangers” puzzle.
So you have these different sections coming together, but how does it all form the final picture? Boyd is subtle, but he did a good job creating a sense of tension that kept everything together. Teasing the hunters early on planted a seed that grew with each passing minute, waiting to see when they would strike. There wasn’t much the way of special effects in this episode, but there were some interesting water logged walkers about half way through. There were slow and predictable moments throughout but the hunters did indeed strike when all was said and done. They didn’t spend three episodes playing up the hunters, who ended up being Gareth and the surviving Termites. Instead, they brought them right back into the fold at the end and this was Boyd’s best moment of the night.
The final scene, Gareth’s “A man’s got to eat” speech to Bob that was set against images of the whole group laughing and smiling is the type of moment that makes me lose sleep. Anytime things seem to be looking up in the Walking Dead, anytime things seem right with the world for a moment, we are quickly reminded that things are never right. We go from Bob smiling as he watches from outside, to Bob breaking down, to Bob waking up with a missing leg that’s being devoured in front of him by the man that threatened him and his friends just one episode prior. This scene was eery and surreal, it made me feel uneasy and queasy, and it was awesome.
Boyd did get a lot of help from his players, though. Most of it from…
Superb Acting from Episode 2
Seth Gilliam stole most of the show this time around. It’s always fun when a character from the books is introduced into the show and it’s always surrounded by a ton of hype. This could be a bad thing, it’s not always easy to meet the hype people not involved in the creative process create but, just like with Gareth, they picked a solid actor to fill the shoes of Gabriel.
What makes Father Gabriel Stokes so interesting in the books is the suspicions around him. You know he is hiding something but you can’t decide if you should trust him or not. First instinct is always to trust no one but Gilliam sold the part so well that you question it right from the beginning. His answers to Rick’s questions seemed impossibly true and they planted doubt right away but his love for his God and his fear of the walkers directly challenges your first impression. While director David Boyd deserves some credit for setting this up, Gilliam made the most of his first effort and sold the character.
While most of the characters only had to worry about being focused on for a few minutes, their reactions to Gabriel did a pretty good job creating that sense of mystery. Beyond that, a lot of the cast was on cruise control for most of the episode. The character that made the most of their brief time in the spotlight was Gareth, played by Andrew West. I don’t know what it is about him but his approach to his character just has a certain extra bit of flavor with it. He plays the nonchalant villain so well and his cold attitude towards the terrible things he and his people do makes him all the more frightening. At this rate, he’ll easily surpass any villain the show has seen so far.
Did Episode 2 Keep up the Pace?
“Strangers” is a bit slow at times but short moments here and there provided jolts of life in between the character development. The whole group being reunited will help the show’s pacing tremendously (more on this in a bit) and I feel we already got a glimpse of this improvement in this episode. The lingering tease of the hunters is anchored in the middle by a walker scare for Bob and Gabriel and “Strangers” goes into a furious sprint at the end with Bob’s capture, the Bob-B-Q, and Daryl taking off with Carol in pursuit of the car that left the scene of Beth’s kidnapping. This end sequence went at just the right pace.
What seems the most improved from the last few seasons is the focus. They didn’t make us wait for Gareth to come back, they didn’t make us wait for a development on Beth’s story. They gave them to us right away, sure they were brief but a little can go a long way and it’s a positive sign moving forward. Terminus was destroyed in one episode and it seems the group won’t end up staying at the church for very long either. For the first time since season 1, it seems as though there will be constant movement and the group won’t be taking too much time at any pit stop along the way.
Having a clear villain is also lending a helping hand towards the pacing. In the second half of season 4 we really only had Joe but he was just a filler foe in between the Governor and Gareth, his sole purpose was to push Rick into what he is this season. The Governor’s story was inconsistent and had lots of ups and downs but there is already some evidence that they learned some lessons. Gareth’s story, and its impact on the show’s pace, is off to a solid, yet subtle, start. I believe it will be more pronounced as the season progresses.
“Strangers” Plot Shows Lessons Learned
Tying into the pacing of “Strangers”, the best thing this season has going for it so far is the reunited group. My problems with the second half of season 4 weren’t due to the lengthy journey down the train tracks to Terminus, despite a strong feeling of “just get there already”. My problems were with the group being severed into so many smaller groups. It became clear that certain characters, who are great in support roles such as Daryl, were not great characters to lead an episode. The focus of the season was to DEADicate entire episodes to each sub group but it just didn’t work out half the time. Episodes that focused on multiple groups seemed jumbled and it was jarring jumping around when each group was so detached from each other. It was a novel idea but the execution left a lot to be desired.
Jumping ahead to season 5, this problem is remedied. They can once again progress the characters at whatever pace is necessary because they can shift focus around to anyone they want. A few characters will get the spotlight each episode while everyone else takes a back seat but there’s nothing stopping them from being nudged along the way. This episode is a solid example of how this could be executed in episodes that aren’t so action packed (which will most likely be the majority of episodes, as is usually the case). It’s early, but “Strangers” is a good sign of things to come but only time will tell.
The highlight of the plot to “Strangers” is the introduction of father Gabriel Stokes. You can give all the credit in the world to David Boyd and Seth Gilliam but fans of the comic have to be pleased with how this part of Robert Kirkman’s story was adapted for the small screen. There’s still a lot of Gabriel to see but the set up was faithful and true.
Writing Had its Moments. Cheesy And Clever
There aren’t a ton of highlights with the script in this episode due to most of the juice coming from its direction and acting. Rick’s “you are not safe” exchange with Carl and Gareth’s speech to Bob stood out as the biggest moments. They powered home the themes of the season, mainly “hunt or be hunted” and “never let your guard down”. Gareth is just a creep but it’s fantastic to watch. Gabriel’s lines worked well for how the character should be introduced. Bob and Sasha shared a humorous exchange near the beginning of the episode that worked well with the “happiness vs grim reality” bit the episode played up, although it got a bit cheesy with the kisses. You could have guessed right then that something bad was going to break up this relationship right from the start. Glenn and Maggie fill the love meter enough the way it is.
Most of the other characters were just recapping past events that we are all well aware of. It served as a good round up and reminder (still waiting for Maggie to care about Beth) of what position these characters were in when the prison fell to the Governor’s attack which feels so long ago now. The writing didn’t have to provide much of a punch in this episode to get the character’s wheels in motion but I feel it was a little shallow.
Conclusion of our Review of “Strangers”
While a bit slow at times, “Strangers” never seemed to stall. Jolts of energy kept the episode going until it reached a furious conclusion. The introduction of Gabriel Stokes was well done and we weren’t left waiting too long for Gareth to pop up again. Director David Boyd even threw a curve ball at us by bringing back Beth’s captors, leading to Daryl and Carol going on the pursuit. Overall, it was a solid follow up to “No Sanctuary” that packed a few punches of its own.
What did you think of “Strangers” and the introduction of father Gabriel Stokes? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to rate the episode!