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The Walking Dead 4.15 "Us" Review: Playing to Win

    This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Us,” was written by the team of Nichole Beattie and Seth Hoffman and directed by Greg Nicotero. Beattie and Hoffman last penned episode 11 of this season, “Claimed.” Claiming is once again a prominent element in this episode which focuses in part on the new group introduced in episode 11.

    The title of the episode is once again an important reflection of a theme and question which runs throughout the episode. Who exactly makes up the “us” and if you are “us” is there a “them” opposing you? As we see a major portion of our main characters arrive at Terminus, it’s a very pressing question as to whether they will be welcomed as a bigger part of the “us” or be seen as outsiders or opponents. We already see that the group Daryl (Norman Reedus) is with sees themselves as the “us” versus “them” with Terminus being one set of “them” and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Carl (Chandler Riggs), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) forming another “them” that they are actively seeking to oppose.

    The episode features only one scene with Rick, Carl, and Michonne. As they walk down the track, Carl and Michonne are having a contest to see who can walk on the rail longest. This scene dovetails with the other scenes that showcased Carl’s obsession with games and winning in “After” (the last episode directed by Nicotero, incidentally) and his lighter game playing with Michonne in “Claimed.” Carl wins, and I don’t think Michonne lost on purpose. She has too much respect for Carl to do that, and I think he would have called her on it if he did. Rick watches silently as Carl collects his winnings: the last Big Cat chocolate bar. Michonne is clearly disappointed but lives up to her part of the bargain. Carl then offers her half the bar back, saying, “C’mon. We always share.” Rick smiles. Michonne has become firmly part of this small “us.” And Carl may still need to win, but he doesn’t have to isolate himself by doing so any more. Seeing Rick that happy – and seeing the scenes for the season finale – make me very worried that this entire trio is not going to make it out of the season.

    The first scene in the episode also touches on games. The opening shot captures a penny that’s been flattened on the tracks – a traditional game among kids. Eugene (Josh McDermitt) offers it to Tara (Alanna Masterson). A quick shout out to McDermitt who is simply brilliant as Eugene. His delivery is always completely deadpan with no emotions on his face. It’s hard to tell if he is telling the truth when he confesses to Tara that he thinks she’s seriously hot and she responds that she likes girls and he says he knows. He is astute enough to recognize that Tara is a good person, however.

    We see in this episode that he was clearly a gamer in his previous life. He wants to know what kind of gamer Tara was and insists that he should navigate because of his experience in both real and virtual worlds. Gaming would teach someone how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, and I wonder if that is a skill he’s using – whether he’s telling the truth, or whether he’s simply ensuring that he’s surrounded by people who are willing to die to keep him alive. He does opt to go to Terminus to replenish his supply of guards rather than simply continue the mission. On the other hand, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) says that when Eugene tells him he’s wrong, he listens. Abraham has proven himself an astute judge of character. And Eugene also does some pretty good navigating and math – without Rosita (Christian Serratos) catching on – to arrive in time to help save Glenn (Steven Yuen) and Tara.

    A shout out to Cudlitz as well who is doing a terrific job with one of the iconic characters from the comic book. Like David Morrissey with the Governor, Cudlitz could easily have slipped into making this character too broad and “comic-like” but it’s impossible not to love this guy! Cudlitz has definitely made the character on of “us.” He’s clearly a bit rough around the edges, but he’s also able to see Tara clearly, something important for a soldier and tactician to be able to do. He identifies that she is support, not point. He clearly sees the signs that she’s gay by the way she looks at Rosita.

     The scene in which they discuss being mission-oriented is a great one. He asks Tara if it’s something she did or didn’t do that she’s trying to atone for. She confesses it’s something she did. While he tries to get her to rest at night, it’s because she will be a liability to his own mission if she doesn’t.  He also knows that her own mission will keep her on her feet when she’s injured and he’s not above using that knowledge to his own advantage. He takes Glenn’s body armor, but he also leaves them with food when they have to split up. Even though he clearly puts his own mission first, he’s still compassionate about others – at least as far as he can be. They seem to have one rule, and that is don’t stop – which is an interesting reflection on the series title The Walking Dead – walkers never stop either. By the end of the episode, Tara has finished her mission and solves her dilemma of what to do next by committing to joining Abraham's mission.

    One of the best moments in the episode is when Glenn first sees Maggie’s (Lauren Cohen) note and takes off running. We see a close up of his face and it goes from passive or even sad to this huge joyful grin as he runs toward his wife. It’s also a parallel to Rick’s smile as that group also makes its way to Terminus. This is also a nice nod to Tara remarking on Abraham smiling while killing walkers when she first met him. Glenn and Rick smile in the face of life and hope, however.

    Glenn has recognized the signs in Tara and says he knows what she’s going through. Tara confesses that she is more troubled by her part in Hershel’s death than her own loss. The episode really provides us with some great insight into this character. Glenn, Abraham, and Eugene are all correct in seeing her as a good person. She tells Glenn that “Brian said we “might” have to kill people. I was just hanging on to the might.” Right up until Brian took off Hershel’s head, Tara was really still just playing the part of a soldier. Now she really is a soldier with a mission – to reunite Glenn and Maggie. I thought this was also a clever play on words as the first time she said it, I immediately thought she meant might as in power not as in the possibility. She was, after all, safe herself with Brian up until that point. Glenn completely spares Tara by introducing her to Maggie as someone who he met on the road who was such a good person that she insisted on joining his quest, forever putting Maggie in Tara’s debt. In fact, Glenn really did meet her on the road as she revealed her true self to him there in her devotion to atoning for what she’d done.

    Perhaps the biggest “us” in the episode has to be Maggie and Glenn.  It was wonderful to see them reunited at last. Maggie symbolically insists on burning her picture, telling Glenn that he’ll never need it again because he’ll always have her to look at from now on. Given the world they live in, this is a bit overly optimistic – and in fact, I can’t help think they just signed their own death warrant. Given the single-minded drive of each to find the other, I can’t help but think that if one of them does die, the other won’t go on without them. At this point, they have both lost their body armor and this may also be symbolic of their fragility.

    The final scene with the group shows them arriving at Terminus. It is a well protected sanctuary and they move through several enclosures before being greeted by Mary (Denis Crosby!) who welcomes them and offers them food. She is the only person visible. The entire enclosure is neat and tidy, with gardens and a washing area – that completely reminded me of the prison. Did anyone else notice that Maggie was wearing Daryl’s poncho? I hope this is going to be important in a good way and not a bad way – ie I hope Daryl recognizes Maggie before he shoots her...

    Daryl spends this episode being assimilated into his new group. He begins by resisting becoming one of them. Joe (Jeff Kober) is clearly well suited to being their leader. He’s a very astute judge of character and a master manipulator. I would love to know his backstory! Kober is simply magnificent in this role. Joe recognizes that Daryl is not committed to the group, that he’s simply staying safe in the group for now. He doesn’t push him, but he does subtly take Daryl’s side and slowly assimilates him into the group. He also subtly takes on Merle's role of older brother/mentor for Daryl.

    Daryl has gone out hunting first thing in the morning, leaving the rest of them sleeping. Len (Marcus Hester) follows him and essentially steals Daryl’s kill by claiming it. I believe Daryl would have brought the rabbit back to camp to share with everyone, but that’s not how this group works. Before things get too ugly between Daryl and Len, Joe magically appears. He may seem laid back, but it’s clear that Joe sees everything that goes on in his group. Joe acts as King Solomon, cutting the rabbit in two to prevent the fight and at least somewhat satisfy both parties. As he says to Daryl, “An ass end is still an end.”

    While the group is clearly not playing a game, their existence does rely on rules – just like a game does. Joe explains to Daryl that people don’t have to be friendly, nice, or brothers in arms – they just have to follow the rules. Joe identifies the paradox of their existence – it’s not safe to be alone, but it’s survival of the fittest – the rules help them solve the paradox. Joe emphasizes that Daryl is like them, he says “When men like us follow rules and cooperate a little bit, then the world becomes ours.” Daryl denies that there is an “us,” and Joe quickly asks if Daryl is leaving right away. “No? Then it sure seems like there’s an us.” Daryl looks both devastated and trapped. Joe then asks Daryl if he’s a cat person. Joe explains “Ain’t nothing sadder than an outdoor cat thinks he’s an indoor cat.” Joe suggests that Daryl has been fooling himself that he’s better than the thugs he’s currently with. For those of us who have watched Daryl develop into a hero, it’s heartbreaking to watch him slowly accept his place among this group.

    Joe explains that the three rules are claim, don’t steal, don’t lie. The not lying is easy, because that’s not who Daryl is. Len is determined to get rid of Daryl – perhaps he’s jealous of the attention Joe gives Daryl. In any event, he plants his half of the rabbit in Daryl’s bag and accuses Daryl of stealing it. We learn that Joe saw the whole thing and could have settled it immediately. After all, Joe points out that the action doesn’t violate the rules, it’s just disappointing. He calls Len “some pussy, punk-ass cheating coward cop.” I wondered if Len really had been a cop or whether that was simply Joe’s utter disdain for the law coming through. In the end, Joe sets Len up to lie and break the rules. He also tests Daryl in the process. It’s also Joe who clearly decides the severity of the punishment when he tells the rest of the group to “teach him a lesson. Teach him all the way.” Joe delivers a death sentence – which serves as an object lesson to Daryl: step out of line, break the rules, and we’ll kill you.

    In a nod to “Still,” we see Joe offer Daryl moonshine. Daryl remarks he hasn’t been lit in the morning since ‘before everything fell apart.’ I immediately thought of the incident Daryl had told Beth about when in a drunken rage a guy had almost killed him just before the outbreak and how Daryl had confessed that before he’d never done anything worthwhile. That drink is symbolic of Daryl being pulled back down into that world.  Joe remarks that he never thought of it as things falling apart but as things finally falling together – “at least for guys like us.” Joe likes the way they are living now, only having to abide by their own rules.
    Daryl refuses to claim until the very last scene when he claims a strawberry. Prior to that, he’d rather sleep on cold concrete than admit he is one of the group by abiding by their rules. Is he just trying to get along? Is he claiming that strawberry for Beth (Emily Kinney)? Maybe he’s hoping to find her at Terminus? Or has he accepted that he’s no better than the rest of them?

    The last we see of Daryl’s new group is them joining the train tracks at a sign for Terminus. It really is going to be the end of the line for a number of people. Joe tells Daryl about the events from “Claimed” – the first time we saw rule number one in action. Only Tony (Davi Jay) can identify Rick. But the group is determined to exact revenge for Rick turning one of them and then releasing him onto them. We see them step over the Big Cat wrapper from the beginning of the episode, so we know they are close behind – just as Glenn was close behind Maggie at the beginning of the episode.

    The season is coming to a terrific climax – the writing this season has been simply brilliant – as the number of threads woven together in this episode illustrates. I am both excited and terrified for this last episode. I have a feeling that we are in for a terribly long and painful hiatus! What did you think of the episode? Who do you think is going to die? Survive? Be redeemed? So many possible reunions or heartbreaking lost opportunities are possible! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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