The Walking Dead season 10 continues to march to the rhythm of its own drum with episode 5, "What It Always Is", eschewing any sense of showmanship for something more akin to a longstanding soap opera – one that’s gradually moving the pieces in place for a final standoff against The Whisperers. The leisurely pace of recent episodes was agonising, but a stronger focus and more interesting scenarios make "What It Always Is" a far more tolerable viewing experience, albeit one that isn't without its hiccups.
Episode 5 follows three roughly synchronous plotlines, and, though none of them overlap, the main focus is on Negan, who has mysteriously escaped from Alexandria. We still don't know how he broke out, but the antagonist-turned-antihero finds himself accompanied by an avid fan in the form of Brandon, whose parents were part of The Saviours back during the Rick Grimes era of season 8.
Brandon, however, is awkwardly and inadequately written into existence, thrown onto the screen without warning as a walking metaphor for Negan's internal struggles. There’s nothing that naturally characterises him as an actual human being we can believe in. No one, not even in the apocalypse, speaks like Brandon, all expository dumps and throwbacks to The Saviour's past, with even Negan chastising him for "rating Walkers on hotness." Unsurprisingly, you can see the ending of this character's short-lived season arc coming a mile off, and the fact that Negan is now fully embracing his past life as a result feels like a step backward for his redemption story – not least because it's the kind of 360 turn that we've already seen before from The Governor back in season 4.
On the Whisperer's side of the border, we learn that Alpha's cult has indeed been playing the long game with its war of attrition on our heroes, with Gamma now contaminating Alexandria's water supply via a steady dose of disemboweled Walker guts. While there's a sense of deja vu in watching more of the cult's internal drama unfold at their home base (complete with another "shock" execution from Alpha), Gamma's sense of regret over Frances' death, alongside Aaron's sudden act of kindness following her self-inflicted injury, suggests a mutiny could be on the cards very soon. Hopefully something tangible happens sooner rather than later, though, or we could be watching more petty Whisperer politics well into the new year and beyond.
The weakest storyline of "What It Always Is" involves the search for Kelly, who it transpires has been stealing and hoarding Hilltop's food supply alongside Magna. While I'll always be happy to watch more of Daryl and Connie's burgeoning kinship blossom into its inevitable romance, these scenes feel like more needless filler to pad out the episode's runtime for the most part. They do, however, contain the unexpected revelation that Ezekiel is suffering from Thyroid Cancer, which adds some much needed context to his suicide attempt last episode, and presents a catalyst for his desire to make amends with Carol.
The Walking Dead's central theme has always been that the living are more dangerous than the dead, but season 10 is now asking us to question whether we've been ignoring the real, less visible threats all along. Our heroes are battling the likes of terminal illness, depression, disability, and fatigue, all of which are more relatable (and thus somewhat scarier) than the reanimated corpses longtime viewers are so accustomed to. True, that more grounded focus is currently at odds with the mad cult of skin-wearing freaks wandering outside Alexandria's borders, but The Whisperers are drawing near, especially now with Negan on their territory. "What It Always Is" has put everything in place for an eruption of conflict and consequence; here's hoping the final three episodes of the mid-season bring that to a bloody fruition.
For more, check out our full Walking Dead recap to catch up before season 10, or watch below for our latest episode of Dialogue Options below.