Last week, I expounded on Scott M. Gimple’s virtues as a screenwriter, glossing over all that the man brings to The Walking Dead as its executive producer. He’s the first show runner not to get the AMC boot after a full season, and I can understand why. Under Frank Darabont, early episodes delivered amazing emotional beats but often threw internal logic out the window to facilitate them. Glen Mazzara’s run took the opposite route, sacrificing character development and momentum in favour of plot consistency. Gimple gives us the best of both worlds, and, as “Strangers” demonstrates, he does it all through pacing and structure.
Consider Carol’s gradual return over the past seven episodes. Given the mechanics of serialised drama, our heroes had to look past Karen and David’s homicide, but their forgiveness would’ve felt contrived, had it occurred too soon after “Infected”. By the same token, half a season of cast members taking sides and throwing blame at each other would’ve turned The Walking Dead into a bad soap à la Revenge. Gimple avoids these pitfalls by giving us enough time to process what’s happened (and assume the tribe has done the same off screen) before Rick welcomes her back in this week’s “Strangers”.
This is not to say The Walking Dead has pulled a fast one on us, transforming a passive extra into a cynical badass without consequence. For all of her bravado, Carol has become consumed with an alienating sense of regret, making her one of the episode’s titular “strangers”. After all, the two girls she meant to protect by way of murder died in her care, obliterating any vestige of rationalisation. I suspect the upcoming Quest for Beth™ will have as much to do with the whereabouts of Maggie’s baby sister as with the widow’s need for redemption. Either way, I’m ecstatic Daryl is tagging along.
Indeed, Gimple has made a habit of splitting off his extensive cast into smaller factions, providing our heroes with more intimate settings to breathe and grow, like in early seasons of Lost. In fact, “Strangers” marks the first time in nearly a year we got to see everyone functioning as a unit, with major characters standing idly in the background, waiting for their turn to hog the camera. You’d expect screenwriter Robert Kirkman, who’s penned over 130 issues of The Walking Dead comics, to excel at coordinating large groups, but the whole affair felt stilted and awkward, so much so that I could barely bring myself to care that an new survivor got introduced.
It doesn’t help that Father Gabriel is presented as a perpetual screw-up, cowering at every opportunity and breaking formation in the midst of a walker attack. His much taunted secret also strikes me as a bit of a no-brainer: the dude locked out his congregation, leaving a tasty zombie buffet around the chapel walls, duh. More to the point, I fear the padre’s arrival has pretty much sealed Bob’s fate. After all, The Walking Dead has a long history of playing musical chair with its black men, a tradition I’d hoped Gimple would change. Right now, it’s as if Rick were filling out affirmative action quotas.
Then again, technically, Bob is still alive and kicking… Well, maybe not kicking. When the recovering alcoholic asked Sasha for one more kiss at the end of “Strangers”, I thought for sure he’d got bitten in the walker pool. I guess the possibility remains, in which case our cannibalistic baddies have just poisoned themselves in a spectacular instance of poetic justice. I just want the matter resolved as quickly as possible. Gimple has done a terrific job establishing a new, more consistent rhythm for The Walking Dead. I’d hate for the show to lose momentum because of one awkward episode.