By Chaz Lipp

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Hallelujah, The Walking Dead is BACK! Yes, “The Distance” is the third episode since season five returned from its mid-season hiatus, but the first two barely registered. “What Happened and What’s Going On” was an excuse to kill off a major character (senselessly, at that) and “Them” indulged in plot-stagnating grief porn as we watched the group mourn the losses of Beth and Tyreese. But the very end of “Them” introduced us to Aaron (Ross Marquand) and the promise of a new community, populated by new characters.

“The Distance” delivers on all levels, making it one of season five’s most important and compelling episodes. TWD too often muddles around without any forward momentum in its plotting, but here we have a return to tension and intrigue.

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

The cool:

New characters – Aaron is a great new addition to the cast, with Marquand playing him with just the right balance of polite friendliness and “is he really being on the level” intrigue. We also meet his Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson), Aaron’s boyfriend. While we don’t really get to know him, the fact that some new faces have been added is just what the doctor ordered.

The return of unpredictable and inventive plotting – After two ‘by rote’ episodes, the TWD writing staff (Seth Hoffman, in this case) has rediscovered the joys of storytelling. Everything about the episode felt fresh and exciting. Even a plot point revolving around Aaron’s distaste for apple sauce is suspenseful. All of the “is Aaron good or bad” stuff works, including the discovery that he’s been surveilling Rick’s group for some time.

Dissention among the ranks – Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is wary of Aaron and his supposedly impenetrable “community,” which Aaron claims will make a good home for them all. Michonne (Danai Gurira) is determined to overrule Rick’s opposition and lead the group to the steel-walled community. Most of the group members seem too bewildered to take a stance, but it’s great to see Rick and Michonne in a battle of wills.

The walkers (or “roamers,” as Aaron calls them) are actually scary threats again – It seems like it’s been forever since the slow, dull, easily-killed walkers have posed much of a threat to Rick and company. But when the gang piles into vehicles and head out in the dark of night to visit Aaron’s community, they come under attack by the most fearsome assembly of walkers we’ve seen in some time. The ensuing bloodbath is a welcome return to “gory for the sake of being scary” versus the distressingly common “gory for the sake of being gory.”

Tantalizing ending – “Them” might’ve represented a drop in quality, but its ending packed a punch. “The Distance” does the same thing. When Rick and the gang arrive with Aaron at the gates of the community, we’re left thirsting for more. The sounds of children from behind the walls was a nice, ambiguous touch – remember, Aaron promised that “nothing” could be heard from outside the community walls that would attract walkers, but that seems to not be entirely true.

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

The not so cool:

I have nothing to whine about. “The Distance” is everything I want from The Walking Dead and hopefully a good sign for the remaining season five episodes. Perhaps the episode contained no truly jaw-dropping moments or specific emotional highpoints, but for the first time since before the hiatus, we got an episode where something happened again.

The Walking Dead airs on Sundays on AMC.

Images: Gene Page/AMC

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