It's true. No, Rick hasn't lost his mind again, nor has he suddenly started murdering people. But with the arrival of Aaron, the mysterious fellow who's come with smiles, supplies, and a promise of a safe place to live, Rick and the others suddenly find themselves in the position of being the bad guys for a change.
Despite my misgivings about him last week, it appears that Aaron is The Real Deal — a genuinely nice guy who really does want to help them and direct them to the seemingly safe locale of Alexandria. This is an excellent twist for "The Distance", because my distrust as someone who's watched The Walking Dead regularly is exactly the same as Rick's, as well as pretty much everyone in the group who has lived the events of TWD. With very few exceptions, the people they have met have revealed they can't be trusted and any place that looks safe has a 100% chance of being run by violent psychopaths.
Which not only means Rick not only can't bring himself to trust any part of Aaron's seemingly too-good-to-be-true offer, but is an enormous dick to him, too. When Maggie and Sasha bring him into the barn, Aaron gives the group his pitch, indicating that he's a scout of sorts for Alexandria (he even has photos of the giant steel walls), who looks for good-hearted people to join their community. Of course, this requires some watching (and hiding), but Aaron was won over by the group's failure to turn on each other or be horrible.
Unfortunately for Aaron, Rick is perfectly capable of being horrible to someone outside of the group. He decks Aaron in the middle of his pitch, has him tied up, and demands to know how many others are out there, because Rick instantly assumes an ambush is coming. After Aaron very astutely notes that no matter what number he gives, Rick won't believe him, Maggie gently reminds Rick that Aaron had the drop on them last episode, but did nothing. When Aaron promises has he has two cars a bit down the road that he and his partner Eric were going to use to bring them back to Alexandria, Michonne volunteers to go check it out, even though Rick is 100% certain they don't exist and it's a trap. Maggie, Glenn, Michonne, Abraham and Rosita leave to investigate, but all Rick does is promise Aaron that if his people aren't back in an hour, Aaron's getting a knife through his skull.
To be fair, TWD tries to keep Aaron seeming at least a little untrustworthy. My favorite example is when Judith is crying, and Aaron tells Rick there's some applesauce in his pack. Rick — because he is completely paranoid, and because he's had a lot of reasons to be — is worried that the applesauce is poisoned (or, more elaborately, could make Judith sick, and the only cure is at Alexandria, as part of some bizarre trap). He demands Aaron to try it first, but Aaron resists, giving a weird spiel about how his mom made him eat applesauce to be manly, but also pointing out how crazy it is for him to try to poison a baby, especially when he's already tied up and weaponless, and Rick forces him to eat anyways before feeding his baby. It seems like Aaron could be lying, but it's such a weirdly specific, non-plausible story that it actually feels authentic, but Rick is having none of it. He forces applesauce down Aaron's throat to see if he lives, which he does. The more important point is that in his attempts to keep Judith safe, he's actually denying his hungry baby some perfectly fine applesauce.
This is a pretty good microcosm of "The Distance," actually — Rick is so determined to keep his family and his group safe that he's actually begun to endanger them because he refuses to trust anyone or anything. Rick is so certain Alexandria is a death trap he doesn't even want to check it out to see if it's real. When Michonne and the others come back and tell him the cars are there — including a fully stocked camper — and Aaron was telling the truth, Rick still doesn't trust him. Rick chooses a road to Alexandria different from what Aaron tells him to take, even though Aaron warns hasn't been cleared of zombies. Rick thinks he's avoiding an inevitable trap by Aaron's people, but instead he drives straight into a pretty massive crowd of zombies, the kind that cover the car with so much gore it stalls and won't start back up. That's when a distant flare goes up — a flare like Aaron had carried — and Aaron, despite being tied and surrounded by zombies, announces he's done with this nonsense and runs off.
Now the camper is missing along with most of the group, it's dark, they're surrounded by zombies, and their car's engine is clogged with zombie parts — all because Rick thought the way Aaron suggested might be dangerous. The Walking Dead does a great job making the group's mad scramble away from the many, many zombies surrounding them look frightening, disorienting and pretty hopeless — for every zombie Rick or someone shoots in the head, there are a dozen more shambling towards them from all directors. Eventually, Rick, Michonne, Glenn and Aaron — who Glenn rescues from a walker — manage to band back together and head towards the flare. There, not only do they find the camper and the others, they find Aaron's partner Eric — and I do mean partner! Aaron falls onto Eric with a giant kiss and the two of them engage in what is probably the most normal conversation ever had by two people on TWD, one full of genuine affection and concern (Eric broke his ankle) and without the specter of living in constant fear of death.
And even he finally admits to himself that Aaron may be what he seems — a good guy — and that maybe Alexandria might actually not be full or passive-aggressive cannibals. He's reluctant — hell, he's terrified of trusting Aaron, and potentially endangering his family and friends — but even Michonne tells him he has to let go of his distrust some time. Yes, his caution has kept him and his people alive, but now it's the last thing standing in-between his family and the first truly safe haven they've encountered. Rick — tense, disbelieving, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop — finally completely accedes, and lets both Aaron and Eric loose. When Rick approaches the walls of Alexandria, he's gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles are white.
And Rick listens.
And he hears people. And children. Conversation. Laughing. A normal life, waiting right beyond a steel wall.
I suppose this could be the post-apocalyptic world's most elaborate trap ever, but I don't think it is. Given that Rick and the others have spent five seasons seeing humanity at its worst, the idea that Alexandria is a genuinely safe place is The Walking Dead's biggest twist ever, and one rife with storytelling potential. Can Rick truly let go of his distrust? Can he and the others acclimate to living in a semblance of civilization again? Have they experienced too much awfulness to ever trust people fully again?
And more importantly, how will the residents of Alexandria react to their newest members? If they've been regularly recruiting survivors from outside their walls, it doesn't seem plausible that they aren't somewhat used to people being scarred by the outer world, but Rick and his group aren't just armed to the teeth and looking rough, they're at their lowest point ever thanks to the deaths of Tyreese and Beth. And remember, from Aaron's point of view, he approached them peacefully and with an offer of safety, and Rick responded by punching him, tying him up, threatening him pretty much constantly, and forcefeeding him applesauce. Rick might not be the Governor level, but if there's a good guy in this situation, it ain't Rick.
And the group knows it. Aaron mentions that the group will have to "audition" to get to become part of Alexandria's community, and Glenn has to wonder why the Alexandrians would want accept them at all. But Glenn actually provides his own answer when he saves Aaron from a walker, even after telling Rick he can't see himself saving that crazy boxcar dude from Terminus back in the season five premiere. Back then, Glenn says trying to help people, giving them a chance, is what they do, but the brutality of events since then has led Glenn to think he's given up. But when he sees Aaron futilely fighting off a zombie in the wilderness, he still chooses to save the stranger. It's still what they do. Even if Rick doesn't agree any more.
In another universe, "The Distance" is the series finale of The Walking Dead, and it ain't bad. It seems like the end of a journey, but what makes The Walking Dead unique among zombie stories is that the journey doesn't really end. Rick and the others may be safe for now — or even months or years — but the threats of the dead and the living will always be there, waiting to take it all away. Rick's not as afraid of Alexandria is much as what it represents: hope. Because in The Walking Dead, hope can get you killed just as easily as zombies can.
• So whatever you think of TWD, I feel like we should all take a moment to appreciate the fact that we live in a world where a show based on a comic book, about zombies, is so terrifically popular that its network knows it can safely can air it opposite the Academy Awards and still get a bajillion viewers.
• There was some more awkward, obvious writing in this episode. Nothing as bad as Rick's "We ARE the walking dead" from last week, but his little speech about how Terminus and Woodbury were silent when they approached is solely to exist as an unwieldy, obvious comparison to the children laughing sounds of Alexandria. It would have been at least as effective and much more powerful for Rick to just hear the kids when he approached Alexandria — just the sounds of kids feeling that safe would have said everything that needed to be said, Let the audience remember the other places on their own.
• That said, Woodbury probably would have had some regular sounds coming from it. It was a peaceful, normal city until Rick and the others got involved and the Governor snapped. By all indications, the people there were quite happy until the Guv started freaking the fuck out.
• I knew Aaron was 100% legit when Rick opened up the car glove compartment and found his license plate collection. It was just such a weird, harmless character trait that I finally knew he was as good as he claimed.
• Serious props to whoever is brainstorming and carrying out the most recent spate of zombie kills on TWD. "The Distance" features Rick shooting a zombie in the eye socket with a flare gun, and the flare lighting up the zombie's head from within and it was AWESOME.
• Next week on The Walking Dead, Carl grabs a big-ass knife. I'm calling it right now — CARL GRIMES: PUDDING HUNTER.