With “Alone,” The Walking Dead pendulum swings back to the positive thanks in large part to an excellent performance by Larry Gillard, Jr.

It says sanctuary. That’s just another reason to try.

-Bob Stookey

If Sunday night’s other top show, True Detective, is centered around the idea of eternal recurrence encapsulated in the idea that time is a flat circle, then The Walking Dead is alternately best represented by a pendulum. Seemingly, week after week, it swings back and forth alternating between good episode and bad episode. A week after I praised “Claimed” as one of its best episodes in ages, The Walking Dead burned the house down (literally) with the complete mess that was “Still.” However, I’m splitting recaps of this half season with Rachel Shepherd, and, luckily, I’m the one getting all the good episodes. And “Alone” was definitely one of those.

For most of his tenure on the show, Bob Stookey has been a forgettable background character. The Walking Dead is frequently guilty of that horror film trope of killing its black male characters quickly, and I’ve made a lot of jokes about there only being enough space on the show for one at a time. Morgan got left behind right before Rick met the ridiculously named T-Dog. T-Dog died as soon as Oscar arrived, and Oscar was himself dispatched as soon as Tyrese started making regular appearances. So when Bob Stookey showed up at the start of season four, it seemed likely that it was curtains for Tyrese. However, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, both characters have simply lingered at the edges of the show (just purposefully dead instead of literally), and neither has been developed much. All that we really know about Bob can be boiled down to two facts: He’s a former army medic, and he’s a recovering alcoholic. That changes with “Alone.”

Our pre-credits scene finds a vacant-eyed Bob aimlessly wandering the roads. He’s unkempt and carrying a machete, assembling makeshift shelters and drinking himself to sleep with cough syrup. He’s also accompanied by one of those new, weird The Walking Dead background musical accompaniments that always seem out of place (I’m sorry, “Still,” there’s no folk-pop soundtrack to the apocalypse). Point being, Bob is aimless and alone, and any suspicions that this is a pre-prison Bob are confirmed when Daryl and Glen roll up to him on the road, and accept him back to the prison once he passes Rick’s Three Questions test. Does he even want to know who his new companions are? “It doesn’t matter who you are. Doesn’t matter,” he says. Isolation can break a man. Bob’s living proof.

Present day finds him, Maggie, and Sasha engulfed in fog and fighting a walker swarm. It’s a creepy, claustrophobic image as the camera rotates around our protagonists, and it works. They are completely surrounded by the fog as walkers lunge towards them at random intervals. This is what The Walking Dead needs more of: the psychological horrors of the apocalypse. Four seasons on, gore horror only goes so far. There’s this other terror of constantly having to be on high alert, and It’s wearing our heroes down. Sahsa takes their narrow escape as a sign to find shelter and settle down. As she tells Bob, they’re down to just six bullets and next time they may not be so lucky to survive. “We get warnings,” she says.  “And the next time it’s on us.”

Maggie would rather follow the tracks to Terminus, the promised sanctuary at the central railroad station, feeling that Glen surely went there. She’s so convinced that she sets off on her own, leaving Bob and Sasha a note not to follow. Fine by Sasha, but Bob knows the toll of isolation on the road. He can’t let her go alone. It’s not safe, and it’s not emotionally sound. I’m thrilled that the show’s writers finally gave Bob something to do. Larry Gillard, Jr was the highlight of the first season of The Wire, and he’s got the acting chops to carry Bob’s emotional load. It’s high time the writers actually USED him for some purpose other than providing diversity and lurking in the background.

All of this is burdening Bob’s blossoming relationship with Sasha since they’re pulling in opposite directions. Bob’s intent to follow Maggie and his optimism are diametrically opposed by Sasha’s desire for shelter and lingering black cloud of a personality. Bob pushes her to know why she’s convinced that Tyrese (her brother) and all of their friends are dead. Is it just an expression of her fear? Gillard adds a rare humanity to a cast of actors that often seem driven by plot and not their emotions. He’s more subtle than most of the rest of the cast, and it works to his advantage. He doesn’t need to match Lauren Cohan’s (Maggie) wired intensity or Andrew Lincoln’s (Rick) downtrodden, oppressive burden of guilt. When he finally leans in and gives Sasha a loving, yet somber kiss shortly before they part ways he’s more like us than we’d care to admit – eager, curious, and also apprehensive. This is us, not the barn loft passions that were Glen and Maggie.

Romance is actually in the air during this episode. Could grungy woodsman Daryl actually be falling for Beth? It seems so. He’s happy to carry her after she gets her foot caught in a trap. He’s teaching her to hunt and track. Really, he’s teaching this long protected girl the skills she needs to survive. Are we setting up an inevitable love triangle when he learns that his sort-of former flame, Carol, is still alive and with Tyrese? Tracking a walker with his crossbow in hand Beth brags “I’m getting good at this. Pretty soon I won’t need you at all.” Uh-oh.

Sure enough, after a few hours of domestic bliss at a seemingly undisturbed funeral home, the pair is overwhelmed by a walker herd that swarms the house. Daryl tells Beth to run while he takes care of the walkers. He escapes just in time to see a car speeding away and Beth’s knapsack on the ground. Daryl races after the kidnapping car, but can’t keep up, and he collapses on the ground as the sun finally starts to come up. Beth will get to prove whether she really can survive on her own, and Daryl will have to deal with a new group of armed men that surround him as the episode ends. Their leader, Joe, tries to convince Daryl to lower his crossbow and join them saying “Why hurt yourself when you can hurt other people?” Meh. It’s the plot-moving portion of the episode.

After Bob’s departure, Sasha finds a building for shelter, but is shocked to see Maggie herself outside and fending off a walker attack. Rushing to her side, the two put the walkers down, and Maggie confesses that she needs Bob and Sasha’s help after all. As Bob knew, walking the road alone is a crushing place to be. Soon reunited with Bob, the three set off for Terminus, and a quick scene before the credits finds Glen studying a Terminus sign himself. Maybe a reunion is in the cards after all.

It’s Larry Gillard, Jr. that makes this episode, and (like I say weekly about positive developments) I hope the writers harness that going forward. It’s been mostly a season of redemption for a show that I was almost ready to give up on, and they’ve managed to get a lot right while avoiding a lot of their traditional ruts – at least for the weeks that I’m covering. If form fits function, then uncertainty is a perfect fit for The Walking Dead. The characters never seem to know what’s coming, and neither do its viewers. I’ll try to be like Bob Stookey and try to focus on the positive. After all, it’s no fun to go it alone.

Grade: B+

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