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Mmmmmmm, I do love luxuriating in a solid arranging-the-pieces-on-the-board episode, ooh yes. And cackling wildly over delicious character work via themes, motifs, and symbolism, ooooh yes. (As a sidenote, I hope they never go down the chess-motif route; everyone does chess motifs.... Ah, who am I kidding, if they ever do, I'll love it and be front of the line asking for seconds, let's be real here.) I certainly made up for the short shrift I gave the last two episodes. So, without further ado – shall we?

Wider season/series perspective:
While thematically this season has been touching base with S1, structurally, it's been closest to S3 (although I kind of suspect that, had S1 been longer, the structure pattern would be similar). The seasons have alternated, so far: the odd ones have been about seeking to accomplish a survival-related goal – Rick finding his family safe, Rick finding a safe place for Lori and the baby, Rick keeping his family and extended tribe safe from those who threaten them; the even ones have been about preserving a state of provision and hope – safety of Sophia and the farm, the community and moral safety of the prison. Of course, each is an aim erring too far toward humanity (evens) or survival (odds – S1 was fairly mild and overlapped a bit, and again, too short to really tease much out), incorporating the false hope that achieving or maintaining the one can sustain the other. The hope that protecting his family's survival will somehow provide for their humanity, or that protecting their humanity will somehow provide for their survival. Events and choices made according to this hope deconstructs and reveals its falseness, until by the end of each season Rick and those who have survived have done so by being forced to once more find the balance between survival and humanity in their evolving circumstances.

S1 saw the threat of the stranger to be negotiated; S3, the stranger was a threat to keep out; S5, the stranger is a threat to be killed. (S2, the stranger offered a place of conditional hospitality, to be negotiated; S4, the stranger was to be offered conditional hospitality.) As conditions devolve into more and more extreme states – the strong more threatening, the weak more vulnerable – the pendulum swing of how to deal with it gets likewise more extreme. Just as Rick was unwilling to take the risk of allowing anyone into his closeknit family group in S3, he is now unwilling to take the risk of not simply killing any potential threats in order to ensure the job is successfully done. (S2 and S4, on the other hand, he was unwilling to make the hard decisions that risk his sense of humanity.) And yet, of course, the choice between killing and saving has already become much more complicated than that; paying with others' lives to preserve your own and/or your own people, though clearly sometimes necessary – Gareth – cannot become a choice you make too easily. Just like S3 bringing outsiders into the fold, preserving your people's lives will sometimes require that you choose to save the lives of those who have already endangered them. And either way, it'll cost you, because that's life and of course it will. (What's that, show? There is no cure? Trying to find a way to live life without paying the cost will only cost you more, especially if you won't let it go – so work out what cost you're willing to take on, and make that choice by taking that step? Do not under any circumstances be the shitheel who tries to make other people pay that cost to avoid it yourself (but learn to discern and accept the true help to pay the cost of those who are willing to offer it)? You've been beating this drum for four and a half seasons now? Right, got it.)

Review and reassessment:
— I was expecting the reiteration of going back into Atlanta to be a question again, giving us comparisons with the first time and how Rick has changed – but of course it wasn't. That's what's changed – the knowing how to successfully, efficiently accomplish what was a challenge and occasionally an agonising question of direction, before. Going back to Atlanta (in a truck!) was a given; the attempt to make a trade of people for people, unsurprising. It's that this time, Rick – his shiny clean uniform long gone and his hat of authority bequeathed away – had to be talked into choosing the hope for that bloodless resolution; also, last time, the group that deliberately presented themselves as gangbangers were, in fact, giving all their strength in order to care for the survival-valueless elderly. Given the inversion of presentation and reality, I don't think it'll go down as smooth as a sweet old lady and an old guy's asthma-attack emergency (though we've already seen the appearance of similar). Last time, Rick gave over "not nearly half" of their bag of weapons, to Daryl's protests that they'll die off "momentarily" anyway; this time ... well, we'll get into that.

— If we reckon by the Wolf Family imagery (discussed at the end of the last post), this is also the second time that a (war-born) sibling of Daryl's has been trapped by no-longer-cops on an Atlanta rooftop with a hinky drug situation, surrounded by things wanting to eat – use – them up. Last time, Merle, animal-like, mutilated himself to escape from the trap, not trusting for a second they would return to save him intact; this time, Beth has (like Merle subsequently was) already been dubbed by Daryl as strong enough to be capable of saving herself; this time, Beth is straight-thinking-human enough to endure the cost of remaining in the trap and wait for the right moment to free herself, whole and intact (and strong and human enough to pay the price to set Noah free instead). And now that the lone-wolf mother-figure's been caught in the trap, too, Beth is only stepping up her game.

— Kind of incidentally, but thinking about it further – the deliberate resemblance in the casting of Steve to make him look like Peter in the Caravaggio was obvious, but the red-brown/black human-meaningless smears of the painting Carol liked has a strong resemblance to the mud/walker-blood mix she smeared over her face to obscure her alive-human smell, along with the bloody-organ-bedewed blanket. This is what they've done to themselves – and we "like" looking at ourselves, there is a fundamental human satisfaction in looking at our own image/reflections. (However, the flashbacks made sure to show Carol wiping it off her face, before she went to find and reunite her people; Steve is going to have a rather harder time getting rid of the resemblance of his own face. *once again side-eyes elevator shaft they've been dumping bodies head-first down to be eaten*)

Digging into the nitty gritty:
Gabriel. There is simply no way I could not start the nitty gritty with you, you complete and utter and, dare I say, irredeemable asstwerp; I'm not even going to dignify you with a stronger epithet. Now, granted, this episode was all about staking out the question of who is a reliable – a tried, and true – guide, who is both able and willing to provide directions that equip you to make the best possible – least costly – choices in your situation. A person's ability to read the signs of both the situation and of the one offering guidance, and to judge if they can be trusted, requires life experience that you can compare it to. You, Father Asstwerp, hid from the life experience that would have given you the context to know that this mere boy, terrifyingly trying to offer you guidance in how to live successfully in this new reality, can in fact be trusted. His insight comes from experience, and his motives are to do you good. That this woman, gently and calmly and terrifyingly trying to explain that the ruthless massacre that occurred in the very heart of your bastion of your own identity was absolutely necessary, can in fact be trusted. But you refused to pay the cost – made those who you'd encouraged to look to you for guidance and safety pay the cost for your own safety with their lives. So now, the tried and true guidance you're receiving sounds like lunacy and lies to you – feels, in fact, terribly threatening, when you are actually among perhaps one of the safest group of people left in existence.

Rather than risk trusting their judgement over your own – that you'd already "confessed" was wrong – rather than stay in the actual fortress that these people created out of the church that you treated that way first, rather than face the tangible reality reflecting your self-serving choices ... you run. You were quite happy to stay there when it was a whited sepulchre of identity, pristine on the outside and putrid spiritual death on the inside (hey, you know what, Gabriel? Maybe just go ahead and make the whole chapter on these religious "blind guides" your scripture reading, because Jesus sure doesn't hold back on using stronger epithets for you lot than "asstwerp", and by God is it satisfying). But now that the truth of your lie is revealed? You turn away from the crossbeam being nailed in place, dig yourself a hole (grave) in the church floorboards, descend into the (tomb-like) darkness underneath in order to flee, get a nail through the foot, and keep limping away – and then shove a cross-necklace wearing walker to the ground to be speared through the (left) side, in order to save your life, but can't even make yourself face concluding the death by dropping the rock into place. Maybe you'll get lucky, and someone will spear you in the left side (heart) to make sure of your death, rather than leave you damned to burn – but since you just inflicted it on the tangible reflection of your self-serving choices, the walker of someone whose death was already almost certainly your fault, I wouldn't count on it. Yeah, you bet your twerptastic fucking ass they'll take the cross, too – if they need it (nice one, Daryl); you certainly aren't using it.

As for his matched-pair, Abraham, I have never been more glad of seeing a bloody, half-bandaged, wedding-ringed hand pick up a half-full bottle of water in my life. (That seems overly specific. I was genuinely very glad, is my point.) Woo for being the member of the pair who is able to change and adapt to the reality of having the lie of your mission, and your whole identity based on it, revealed for all to see. Woo for backing right down instead of blindly pushing forward as making the choice to live (even if your long-term chances are narratively really very slim). WOO TEAM MOUSTACHE. Also, WOO TEAM MAGGIE EQUALLY THREATENING AND PRESERVING LIVES LIKE A BOSS. Woo for trustworthy guidance, woo for all the unexpected and practical ways people have expertise and experience to offer each other (especially potable water) to know how to live. Woo for not completely not not-not funny. Woo for yo-yo! Woo for IT ALL.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the reliable-group spectrum, Maggie's sister (whose own bloodied hand-bandaging has been cleaned snow white, with her black eye healed completely, on a mission of salvation for her own comatose person), surrounded entirely by untrustworthy guidance, where nothing can be "tried", and truth, if it exists at all, is hidden, stands up and threatens with nothing but that same BOSS will to back it. (Hershel, your daughters are doing you very, very proud.) She is told by Dawn that her having done so damns the person she is trying to preserve to pay with her life, in order for Dawn to preserve her fragile appearance of strength (hey, you know what, Dawn? Maybe take a look at that scripture reading as well, and consider whether the severe condemnation for abuse of authority and false guidance might also apply to officers of the law, rotting away on the inside under their immaculate uniforms). And then Beth is given the keys to the drugs stash (Steve's kingdom) by Dawn, who doesn't even trust Peter Steve with them (and why would she, he has made a hypocritical travesty of his Hippocratic oath (oh, TWD, you and your puns)), because Dawn now believes that despite appearances, Beth is strong – so that Beth can sneak the salvation of the life under the radar. And then, Beth needs to consult the doctor who deliberately told her the wrong dosage in order to kill a man, in order to learn what to give Carol – and, in addition, is told that in giving her the keys for this, Dawn is lying and setting Beth up.

Despite the risk upon risk of having no way to know who is steering her wrong, and what price she may have to pay for following the guidance she's received, despite the fact that she could play it totally safe and risk Carol's death for her life with no one ever knowing, Beth still takes the full cost of potential danger on herself for the by-no-means-certain attempt to save her, fighting for her with any and every weapon she has at her disposal – even down to a couple of strawberries. (I doubt it is incidental that the plant Daryl "claimed" – the only thing he did – was a strawberry plant; peaches (including schnapps) have been used to (non-sexually) designate innocent girl-childhood (BUT WHAT DO PECANS MEAN); the lollipop that Noah snuck Beth but which was sexually co-opted by Gorman was sour *apple*. Which, if strawberries are specifically linked to Beth, would symbolically mean she is trading on herself to buy an attempt to save Carol. – So there are fruit motifs, now. DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY SPARE FINGERS LYING AROUND I CAN USE. Gareth? Merle?... Joan?) And, though Beth has yet no way to know if she can get to save her, it all culminates in her taking hold of Carol by the hand – both of their hands now having innocent blood on them – trying to humanly-connect and let her know that she was here. (Tryin'.) BECAUSE BETH. IS. AMAZING.

And now, the main event, and trying to work through what trustworthy voices of guidance actually means. Tyreese got the ball rolling, so let's start there: like Carol, he is having trouble seeing the full equation of things, except all he's seeing is the life/identity without the death. But that doesn't make him entirely wrong; only partly. (Tyreese, seriously, man – talk about yo-yos. It's all one or the other for you, isn't it? How have you lived this long? Though to give you your due, you do seem to have the instinct to be able to pull it back juuuust enough each time. Let's work on that, yeah? Also, not for nothing, but it's possible that you're going to get some sense severely smacked into you soon. At least, we can hope the smacking brings some stabilising sense with it. Because I think you have a pretty good heart, under it all, to go with that just-canny-enough instinct – once you stop trying to hide from those parts of life and yourself you don't want to face, we might be in business, here.)

And Daryl, that bruised eye still lingering on, with arguably the most invested in safely getting their people back, nevertheless backs Tyreese up. Because Tyreese, Rick would have brushed off; Daryl's earned a voice Rick can't ignore. And it's not just that Rick is, for the first time, oh-so-casually assigning away the bloody hands, to Daryl to slit a guard's throat (heyo, Gareth and his butcher crew, Steve and Beth), because as we've seen, Daryl's never been one to refuse dirty work that needs to be done. The Governor, Gareth – there are times that, as Michonne stated, that's how it needs to be. Going by the capability we've seen Rick and his people demonstrate that they've acquired, Rick is almost certainly exactly right, his plan will work, and asks little risk or cost to themselves (*cough* NEVER AGAINNEVER TRUSTWE FIRST ALWAYS *cough* *cough*). Tyreese is narratively off-point in worrying about "worst case", because as we've seen, in Rick's hands, the group is better than that; but he is very much on-point in being concerned at the danger to the weak, the trapped, the helpless, the fed-on victim population of Grady who Rick is unquestioningly willing to put at risk in order to ensure his own and his strong people's safety. (As with Guillermo and the Vatos-nursing home situation, the weak are mixed right in with the strong; unlike Gareth and the Terminus-penned cattle situation, where anyone out in the line of fire was a clear and immediate enemy. As to any still-trapped Terminus victims, who knows what happened to them, since Rick's group didn't go back in and finish the job, choosing reuniting with their own safe people instead. If those victims didn't manage to get themselves out – and into the huge swarm of walkers – it's likely that they still ended up eaten, one way or another.)

Daryl may not yet be back to seeing/reading all the factors, but his point is the essence of that, yes, they're capable enough to make Rick's plan work – but they're also capable enough to be able to make the much harder, far riskier plan of trying for a trade work, too (partially wrong: they are, but it probably won't). If they pay a higher cost for trying, well, that's the obligation the strong have to the weak, of being a shepherd rather than just a butcher – and Rick, once dedicated to the duty to protect and serve, knows it. Rick claims Dawn for himself, ready to deal punishment to her for betraying her duty as a cop, for victimising those she was to protect and serve – by a plan that risks victimising those in her care. True, those people are not his people, and also true, he was willing to risk his own apparently – deceptively – weak people to deal with Gareth. But this is his choice – whether his strength is dedicated to serving his (strong) people only (Dawn), or whether to exercise it on behalf of anyone who needs it. His son's voice asked him to save someone, at virtually no risk to themselves; his daughter's voice asked him to help save everyone, at moderate risk to themselves; his brother's voice is asking him to save even those that pose a threat, at high risk to themselves.

Daryl gets pressed – trapped – all the way down into the road of soot and ash and slag, to be consumed by the still-struggling undead bodies of those who came through the fire whole – not ashes, not burned up or consumed but melted/tarred in place and unable to "walk" onward, past it – and not only can Daryl risk, but avoid, having his fingers chewed off (Merle, honey.) and use parts of his inhuman fire-baptised-fellows to fight back (directly, unlike his assailant who was trying to make them do the killing for him), but he can get right up out of it again, blackened in ash but freely and defiantly human, not defined by how his circumstances have made him appear, saving his assailant's life by simply telling Rick, "Three's better than two." For the purposes of weakening Dawn's forces, and preventing potential threats to his own, that officer's death would be just as, if not more, useful to Rick. The value of that officer alive is in what strength he offers/represents, though who will trade on that value to their benefit is yet to be seen. The death sentence on him was far more warranted than the one on Noah, who assumed that Carol was strong enough to handle the walker he threw her way that pinned her down, as opposed to bodily pinning Daryl down to kill him by walker (Rick's you almost killed MY PERSON face is possibly even scarier than Daryl's, but then, he was ready to execute the death sentence himself – no handy bookshelves to leave the guy pinned down so a walker can do it for him). But Daryl listened to Carol's voice, begging for his mercy to not kill when he didn't need to for her sake, and spared Noah, and all Noah's unexpected and practical experience and expertise on Grady Memorial came with it; Dawn's people only take the "weak", determining that one is better than two, seeking to make use of those who appear more vulnerable and filtering out the potential threat of the apparently-strong to die – needlessly.

Rick, as you once posed it to Jenner: you stayed, chose the hard path – why? The "why" does matter, it always matters. Jenner didn't want to, either – but he'd made a promise to his wife, and despite his inadequacies and ultimate failure (everybody dies), he did his best to honour that for as long as he still had the means and was able. YOU HAVE HONOUR, RICK. Because when your loved ones' voices call you to the hard decisions, ask you to choose the harder road you don't want to take – you still listen. And it will cost you, and it will cost them. So is it worth paying, compared to what you, and they, ultimately pay if you lead them to take the easy *way* out?

Soooo, Sgt Lamson – sorry, not gonna call you Bob, that's gonna get confusing – in the fine tradition of like recognising/reading the signs of like (ie, Andrea, who had just lately been devastated by shooting her sister in the head, who she'd let down and who had turned, immediately recognised that was what Jenner had done to TS-19), immediately spots that Rick is a semi-lapsed cop, still loyal to protect/serve his own people. Rick wears his cop on the inside, now, but there are still outward signs in how he acts; Lamson (and all Dawn's officers) wears his on the outside (but I'm going to argue there are still inward signs in how he acts). As Rick calls out when addressing him as Sgt Lamson, though Lamson denies it, they are both still accountable to making a truth or a lie out of that identity, that mission. What's interesting is that our tried-and-true Grady guide, Noah, vouched for Lamson as one of the "good" ones, and therefore judged his guidance trustworthy. And, inasmuch as we've seen Dawn in action, Lamson's guidance for how to deal with her lines right up with that – and, I'm thinking, is to be trusted in that. The thing is, what makes Lamson a "good" one in the context of Grady (Noah, with his own lingering black eye, not seeing the relevant context outside of Grady) is him genuinely trying to protect and serve those who are in his care. His loyalty is not to Dawn (Noah would have known, if that were the case), but to her professed mission to those people, so of course he is going to try to provide as much good information as possible to help the trade go down without casualty. And of course he is going to try to get free, get back there, to try to do what he can to protect his weak people instead of serving Rick's strength, and the potential threat to his people that Rick poses. (This is my current read of it – given that the show is messing with appearances vs truth every which way, who the hell really knows, but that cliffhanger sure did appear to suggest things a certain way.) So – just because someone's guidance has proven reliable in one area (Noah's seen Lamson be good to the weak, Rosita's seen Eugene do stuff!), doesn't guarantee it's reliable in others.

As for the other two officers, not loyal to Dawn but no sign (and no Noah-vouching) that they're necessarily loyal to their duty to their people, either – I just keep coming back to Merle's observation that, in this world now, the guy who comes at you with a friendly smile rather than a raised and ready weapon is the one to look out for. Mind you, Merle was saying that not just because he's seen The Governor's friendly welcomes and has been designated the dirtiest of The Governor's work (therefore his experience/insight on this matter is tried), but also to deflect blame of his own actions (therefore the guidance he's offering isn't entirely true – but this can also edge under the contra-theme, and anyway, I'm getting off track). There have been worse alliances than ones that began with one party calling the other "asshole" (Tara, really, you keep showing you have excellent instincts), although of course that's no guarantee either. So I guess we'll see how that all shakes out.

And, finally, Sasha. Let's ... okay, let's talk about this. Calmly. Without shaking you in frustration, because, after all, people dealing with grief and loss don't always do it particularly well, and at least after taking your rage out on the pews (instead of Rick's face), your actual life-threatening overreaction was born of compassion (TY. REESE.) (y'know what, you two might just get filed under Yo-yo Family). Tyreese is making (although not properly following through) efforts to confront the things he wants to hide from, the death in human life; you don't have to confront only those things, only see the bad in the good, instead of Bob's good in the bad, and you are making efforts in that direction. That's ... that's good, it truly is. HOWEVER. Believing in trying to see the human life in death doesn't excuse ignoring that the undead corpses in question have been melted beyond all possible individual human recognition. Rick's scabwound on his forehead is almost healed, and I still don't know quite how to apply the forehead-tattooed lunatic bounding out of the Terminus container screaming that "we're all the same" to all this, or whether to factor in the head-shot required to kill walkers (something to do with the brain being the seat of humanity, and identity, rather than just animals/the walking dead? – Daryl bashed the officer in the side of the head with the skull of the walker, too, somewhere around the same place Daryl was shot when mistaken for a walker, if that's not just over-connecting), but I will be watching you and Eugene with interest as we go forward.

Random final items/tracking threads:
— After the crucifixion of Jesus and the falling apart of their mission, several of the disciples went back to their original (survival-practical) vocation of fishing – Jesus had promised to make them "fishers of men". Just a guess, but let's keep an eye out for what kind of "men" (in "schools") Gabriel ends up "catching" – or luring in his wake.

— Yeah, yeah, lost sheep parable, yadda yadda. I'm very much looking forward to the party when the lost wolf comes home. (Does a coma count as sheep's clothing?) And, hey, hypocritically self-righteous self-serving religious leaders who screw over their own people and wouldn't know the person and way of salvation if it bit them in the ass ... get bit.

— OMG Gabriel's last name (according to IMDb) is "Stokes". Stoke(ing) and Ford(ing), ~together again~. And Eugene "Porter", making others carry him. Dawn's last name is Lerner, haha, nope – or possibly tragically yep. Heyo, Sgt Lam(b)son. Officer Shepherd, I think we've already met? And Officer "Okay, you win, asshole" ... O'Donnell. Huh. Well that was anticlimactic.

— Eugene, I rather hope you haven't lost your sight from that blow, and that whatever signficance there is to a forehead wound is enough, but I am kind of wondering, though I'm not sure why that is. Thematically, the only thing I can think of that would make you a candidate for that kind of eye-related damage is perving on Abraham and Rosita getting it on, but you know, that combined with everyone you sacrificed to preserve your own life might be enough. Let's ... well, keep an eye out, shall we?

— Now, Atlanta is a city that's already been fire (-and-brimstone) bombed, but since we're apparently doing everything backwards – hmm. Perhaps now that Abraham isn't charging forward to DC, we'll get a second wave of cavalry heading into Atlanta; I wonder exactly how things would go down there to make that necessary...?

— Hey. Show. WHEN MORGAN?

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