Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Rating: 5 out of 5 jellyfish. I may be a high rater, but I don’t give out perfect scores too often. Now, my biases for Iñárritu (Amores Perros, especially) and for Emma Stone aside, this is, to me, a perfect film. The editing (made to appear as though the film was shot in one take, no cuts) was daring and fascinating and never grew gimmicky but it was also, even more surprisingly, not the film’s only strength. Far from it, actually. The technical panache is met with and matched by amazing, raw performances from the entire, stellar cast, even as they deliver intentionally pretentious and philosophical stretches of dialogue– and this is all in service of achieving a surrealist satire about celebrity culture and the difference in value between art and entertainment. Ironic, considering this film is both art and entertainment in equal, glorious measure.

Birdman is a sometimes absurd, always engrossing tale about a show business has-been– Riggan Thomson (Keaton)– attempting to direct and star in a dramatic Broadway play of his own adaptation from a short story. The actor jargon is meant to be laughable, I think, at least when it’s coming from everyone else (in particular, Norton and Watts give great performances). But for Riggan– even with all his otherworldly abilities (which he uses mostly to throw temper tantrums and escape from his current self into delusions of his former self: the global superhero sensation, Birdman)– the struggle between artist and entertainer seems authentic, poignant almost. We may not love him every second of the film– we find out he was a pretty negligent father and a self-absorbed husband– but he is the only character who seems at least somewhat aware of what he used to be, and who he is trying to be, all with the existential dread of not really know what any of that makes him right now.

Emma Stone (again, bias aside but I couldn’t not mention this) gives a standout performance as his daughter, Sam, a recent rehab alum who’s now acting as his bitter assistant. She has one powerful, perfectly executed monologue all about how Riggan doesn’t matter anymore, how he is washed up and irrelevant, and it is one of the most gripping moments in the film. The movie seems to effortlessly, seamlessly ebb and flow between honesty and intensity, fantasy and dark humor, philosophy and spectacle. The film in itself is kind of striking a convincing balance then, a cohesive and complicated hybrid even, of the very modes it seems to argue are opposites– again, art and entertainment are assigned values that I think we’re meant to question and consider throughout the film’s content, while in the film’s form, they’re beautifully mangled together, both worthy of our attention. Everything from theater critics to Twitter and viral culture, from method acting and petty backstage power plays, is examined in equal measure; what lengths should these actors be going to to be taken seriously, and should being taken seriously be the end goal anyway? And if so, why should that be the end goal? And, as is brought up again and again throughout the film, how does any of this fit into our wired world?

The film is creative and calculated, cynical and cerebral, emotional and exciting. The jazz drumming adds to the absurdity of the film as well as to the artsy nature of it, of course, and it punctuates the film, tying together its disparate tones into one big, jazzy joke. The sound in general is extremely effective. The mixing of sound levels paired with the visual one-take effect give us the eerie feeling like the film is happening in a labyrinth around us, like we are inescapably and inexplicably immersed in this world. I loved the thrill of certain scenes, and embraced the guilt that came with feeling a thrill in those scenes– such as when Riggan is essentially in one of his old Birdman flicks again. With the snap of his fingers, there are explosions and special effects and he even flies… or does he? The messages are intentionally mixed until the film’s awe-inspiring conclusion; we’re left to wonder again and again where he’d feel most happy, most successful, most loved and admired– in his Birdman suit, making billions of dollars or on stage, making “art.” As my convoluted review probably indicates, this is a complex film that sometimes, in certain ways, masquerades as an extremely simple film– it looks like one take, but with every fluid and meaningful movement of the camera, a million questions are being raised, a million things are being considered and made fun of, and we, as media consumers, are complicit in all of it. In the end, I think the film is critiquing the conflict between art and entertainment, rather than necessarily choosing sides within that conflict. And this is what makes it so interesting to me in the first place; the film is an expertly choreographed debate, and a truly important, innovative and enjoyable film that will, above all else, remind you what the medium can do– as both art and as entertainment.

The Walking Recap: Consumed

Last night’s episode was quiet, moody, slow and introspective. Not one of my favorites, despite having it follow my favorite duo– Daryl and Carol. I’ll give it a 3.5 out of 5 like I gave last week’s, but this time, I’ll applaud its overall unpredictability that really punctuated the overall subdued tone. 3.5 out of 5 machetes, shall we say, after the only really awesome, gory zombie kill of the episode? Or perhaps the unit should be books about dealing with domestic abuse.

At any rate, this episode follows Daryl and Carol through the streets of Atlanta, giving us a feeling of both nostalgia and frustration– is this really how far we’ve come, that we can return to the beginning so easily and quickly? The city is looking pretty rough at this point, and our dynamic duo have a lot of serious conversations in which not much is really said, while camping out partly in what was once a shelter for wives and children living with abusive husbands/fathers. The fact that Carol had stayed here once with Sophia is another eerie revelation about how far our characters have come spiritually, emotionally, mentally, even if not physically getting too far outside Atlanta’s city limits. It was emotional for Carol to see a zombified mother and daughter, and heartwarming in a weird way for Daryl to tell her he’ll take care of it because she shouldn’t have to; the next morning, she wakes up to Daryl respectfully burning the bodies. One great line in the episode comes from Daryl where he says that they’re not ashes, as they talk about who they were and how they’re different. The whole thing seems really intent on examining Carol in particular and retracing her steps, outlining and highlighting the various lows and sacrifices and unspeakable acts she’s had to commit, and we’re definitely meant to see that they’re taking a toll on her at this point, that they’re really informing her survival skills and weighing against her humanity a little.

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One way the episode shows this that I did love was the way pretty much every return from commercial break was a flashback to some other moment in Carol’s timeline– when Rick makes her leave, or when she burns and buries bodies, etc.

The episode wasn’t devoid of action necessarily, and even if it were that would be okay with me normally. I think I was expecting something more from this episode, but I can’t quite articulate what, or why. Maybe it was a pacing issue especially given the fast pace of the season up until this point. But things certainly did get interesting when they’re stuck in a van that is teetering at the edge of an industrial bridge, with walkers swarming all around, forcing them to hold on for dear life and face the fall. Even more interesting, of course, was when they get their weapons stolen from none other than the escaped Noah. But, Daryl and Carol eventually catch up to him and switch places in terms of which one wants to kill versus spare him (at first, Carol is willing to wound him in order to save their weapons, but when Noah later actively endangers Carol’s safety, that’s when Daryl seems all too willing to let him die beneath a bookcase with a walker right over him). When they do ultimately save him though, they find out all about Beth and the hospital, so it’s a good thing– unless we’re not meant to trust him.

Carol, as usual, gets a little too trigger happy but this time, I mean that figuratively: she should have looked both ways before crossing the street, even during a zombie apocalypse– she gets hit by one of the hospital’s vehicles and subsequently saved and taken by that same vehicle (though I use the term “saved” loosely here). The episode ends with Daryl and Noah heading back to the church for reinforcements so they can save Daryl’s two ladies. So I’d presume that it’s Noah who’s in the woods with him after all but we’ll have to wait and see– all I know is, it looks like our group is gearing up for a classic rescue mission. I just hope it plays out in a refreshing and exciting way, because that is something that could very easily be trite and tired at this point. All in all though, this was a pretty good episode in a mostly amazing season so far.

The Walking Recap: Self Help

This is the most behind I’ve ever fallen on my Walking Recap series of posts and I feel so terrible about it but my life got extra topsy turvy this past week and I’m trying to get back on track and not letting my day-to-day affect my blogging too much; after all, this is still a passion and a hobby and not something I ever want to see as a chore. So anyway, I’m writing this before tonight’s episode, and it may be moot to do so, but still a principle and a commitment. I’ll keep it short:

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I’m giving last week’s episode a 3.5 out of 5 lies. It wasn’t the most engaging episode this season so far, and its twist was one I saw coming. In fact, this recap will inevitably short for another reason, and that is that not a whole lot happened that wasn’t repetitive or predictable.

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Essentially, last week’s episode gave us a glimpse into Abraham’s former life, the life he led just as the zombie apocalypse was starting. We may have some remaining questions about who he was with during these scenes, and how much his anger issues and need for purpose were instilled in him from before the outbreak and how many of those qualities directly resulted from the outbreak. But in the end, all I cared about was knowing that these flashbacks would reveal how Abraham and Eugene met, and how he came to devote his militaristic sense of discipline to protecting and transporting Eugene to Washington D.C. And, this moment was gratifying, especially because it comes soon after the present day revelation that Eugene has been lying all along– he isn’t a scientist, just a really good liar.

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The moment plays out shockingly, but the revelation in itself was not shocking at all (maybe that’s the pessimist in me… or maybe it’s due to the fact that Eugene has been secretly stalling their travels this whole time, and this becomes obvious at various points in this episode). He decides to reveal it because if he doesn’t, he knows someone will get hurt: he reveals it just as Abraham and everyone else are arguing about which way they should travel– take more time to backtrack and guarantee safety, or go through the shorter route which will no doubt be a zombie minefield.

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So, it’ll be interesting to see where this subgroup stands now, but if I’m being honest, I feel more invested in the other storylines that have been established this season, and there’s really not much of a point in having this one go on for much longer on its own merits, in my opinion.

Review: Interstellar

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Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 wormholes. This space epic could be considered Nolan’s most ambitious film yet, and like always, this film feels like it wants to be something greater, something completely different than simply a reinvention of the blockbuster wheel– the fact that it still does reinvent that wheel in some way as opposed to merely spinning it well, does deserve some credit, then. But for its grand scope and far reach, even this achievement feels like falling short.

Interstellar takes place in a future where earth is running out of food and thus everyone is forced to be a farmer, including Coop (McConaughey), who was once destined for something far greater, before the world was ravaged by dust storms and famine. But when his daughter, Murph, starts receiving messages in Morse code and binary in her bedroom, one thing leads to another and Coop finds himself with a group of mysterious scientists and explorers: NASA. With Coop as the pilot, this group sets off on a journey through space and time– a wormhole has been discovered, through which another galaxy exists, a galaxy whose planets have been tested for how well they’d be able to sustain human life when the earth no longer can.

The stakes are high and Nolan’s human touch is certainly improved here– he has a keen grasp on, and conveys powerfully what these characters are sacrificing by leaving their home planet (Coop’s relationship with his daughter remains a particularly important and poignant force in the narrative), especially because time is such an unknowable thing for them; an hour for them on one planet could be seven years or more at home, where things could be deteriorating even further with every passing minute. The idea is that Murph’s generation might be the last to survive on earth, but Coop may be doing all of this for her without ever even seeing her again, which proves a devastating possibility to him.

Of course, many people who have been anticipating this film eagerly were probably most excited for– and expecting to be blown away by– the visuals. And, again, they’re spectacular enough– impeccably executed and constructed intelligently. In fact, the whole film boasts an almost pretentious intellect, but as far as blockbusters go, I’d say that’s a commendable thing more often than it is a flaw. Despite all this, there was still something lacking about the film, as much as I enjoyed it. Even with all the questions of science and the human relationships driving the story, it still felt like the impressive visuals themselves were hollow, motivated by and operating on the thinnest possible pieces of those other components.

That is, there was a disconnect, for me personally, between its breathtaking technical elements and its more grounded, emotional elements. For instance, I thought the performances were wonderful, even if its script at times carried that same air of poetic, brainy pretension I mentioned earlier. And the film’s use of sound was deeply effective– the way the film would go from moments of extreme loudness to eerie, empty silence in a matter of one jarring edit was one of my favorite technical aspects of the film. And the trippy wormhole scene was clearly another exercise for Nolan in aesthetically manifesting meaningful, philosophical questions about our physical dimensions and their boundaries; it was predictable, but still beautiful nonetheless. This was all effective, yes, but only when considered separately, somehow, like an equation that just doesn’t quite work out in the end as perfectly as its parts seem to dictate that it should.

Interstellar is science-fiction at its most indulgent and, for better and for worse perhaps, it often takes a more introspective approach despite its outwardly intergalactic scope. It is a film that feels like it was meant for greater things, a film that has overachiever written all over it. It isn’t necessarily a disappointment, speaking as someone who went in with few expectations at all, and it certainly is not a bad film. It is awe-inducing, but it never induces quite as much awe as it boasts so self-assuredly that it can; a mission too big to accomplish fully, it comes close, which is admirable enough and certainly entertaining on some level, but for many more expectant fans, Interstellar may feel like a bit of a black hole.

The Walking Recap: Slabtown

No complaints from me yet in season 5– each episode has been nothing short of spectacular, in my opinion. And though last night’s episode shook things up and deviated from our newly established norm (the group, the church, Terminus, violence, cannibalism, all that good stuff), it was a welcome breath (or BETH… get it?) of fresh air– a strange and suspenseful episode that views the post-apocalypse through a creepily contained pressure cooker of indentured servitude.

I’m giving this one another 4 out of 5, and disagree with those who time and time again complain about the “slower” episodes or those that do not focus on the main group. Beth really proves she can hold her own here and the writing in this episode proves that it too can stand out and drive the suspense and drama, without many walkers or much action at all.

behtwakeSo, alas, the episode does not begin with Daryl telling us the story of finding Beth. Instead, the show takes a few steps backward to show us her parallel storyline. The timelines got a little muddled, for sure, but I tried not to dwell on it. Beth awakens at a functioning hospital in Atlanta, which is eerie enough in itself. Things get worse, rather than better as is so often the case in the TWD universe, when Beth learns that she “owes” for the help she’s been given– the help she never asked for, but needed.

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The hospital is run by one doctor and a staff of crazy cops, ranging from the sexually abusive (to watch Beth have to take a lollipop in her mouth by force was bad enough, and to watch as she is almost raped later was intense and unsettling) to the delusional and belligerent Dawn. Dawn, the leader, is fiercely stubborn and wildly overbearing, to put it lightly. She keeps giving Beth speeches about all the good they’re doing in preparation for when they’re all rescued (delusion); she also slaps Beth out of anger at something not caused by Beth at all (belligerence). And sexual abuse is hinted at throughout the episode, with regard to another female patient, Joan, and brought up subtly again when Dawn says if the cops are kept happy then they work harder to protect the hospital. Yuck. My stomach was probably in knots during this episode more than in any other this season so far, actually– not because it was more suspenseful necessarily, but it just built up to these themes and questions and moments in really unnerving ways.

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I will say, though, that it was deeply satisfying for Beth to take note of the almost-zombie in the room (Dawn’s office, to be precise, from which she was stealing keys for her escape attempt), an almost-zombie who happened to be the apparently suicidal Joan, and to use that to her advantage. Just as the aforementioned attempted-rape is about to occur, Beth knocks the creepy cop over the head with a glass jar from Dawn’s desk and he falls right in front of Joan’s hungry walker mouth. This was the perfect revenge for both females, even if one happened to be undead, to seek and further achieve in a microcosm where sexual assault is justified as a means of productivity and survival.

Some key moments include Beth’s befriending another patient, Noah. They try to escape together but it fails– shockingly, Noah gets away and doesn’t help Beth, who is pinned to the ground by the police. Beth finally talks back to Dawn at one point, and I think we really see a full range of emotions from Beth; impressively, we see the side of her that is meek and afraid, but also the side of her that Daryl helped bring out, the back-talking, more abrasive and far braver Beth, who does what needs to be done even though her fear is still evident. She’s one of the most human characters the show has developed, I think, and this episode proves that.

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Especially shocking is when Beth gets blunt with the doctor, Dr. Edwards, who seems like a good enough guy in the grand scheme of this prison-like hospital. She knows that the patient who was brought in earlier in the episode was another doctor, and that that’s why he gave her the name of the wrong medicine to give him so that he’d die, leaving Dr. Edwards with no competition or fear of being killed or kicked out of the hospital. Dr. Edwards says earlier that it’s still better in there than it is out in the world, where walkers are still rampant; I think we’re meant to question the validity of this opinion and weigh it against what Beth is going through and what she was taken away from on the outside.

Just when we see her approach Dr. Edwards unsuspected, with a scissor in her hand, prepped for a shocking stabbing, something else shocks us even more– a new patient being brought in on a stretcher. This new patient is none other than Carol. Beth’s look of shock is enough to dictate how we’re meant to feel, even though I think we need no instruction on the matter. Beth is just as confused as we are (muddled timelines not withstanding– could Carol be sent in by Daryl as bait of some sort, to rescue Beth from the inside? Or did something happen to Carol while they were chasing down the car with the cross on the back?) but unfortunately, next week’s episode will follow Abraham and his new little crew. Again, I’m all for bouncing around if it’s done well and paced right, but I’m dying to know who is with Daryl in the woods after all, which hinges directly upon the end of last night’s episode and whatever is to follow.

The Walking Recap: Four Walls and a Roof

Apologies again for such a delayed recap of last week’s episode– I can only hope that it’s still fun for you guys to read and comment on (and I’m also in the process of sifting through and responding to comments, by the way! Not ignoring them on purpose, I just don’t get to blog or comment back as often as I’d like to.) Or, maybe it serves as a refresher before this weekend’s episode (it certainly helps me remember!) Either way, I thank you all for your patience and understanding as always as I navigated my first week at a new job and the new, longer commute. I really will try to time manage and keep up with all my blogging responsibilities once I figure out this new routine!

Anyway, I’m giving this episode 4 out of 5 Rick-promises (because he sure does know how to keep his promises!) And for the sake of time and due to the delay, I’m going to go through the major moments of this episode rather succinctly.

Bob reveals to everyone that he has been bitten– a particularly hard revelation for Sasha to deal with, in this episode. Tyrese tells her later to forgive the Terminus people, as hard as it may be– even keeping with the themes of forgiveness that pervade this season so far, this seemed a little weird to me at first. But alas, Tyrese knows what it’s like to hold violent grudges and be blinded by them, and has also experienced the release and closure that comes with forgiveness. He didn’t want Sasha to miss any important final moments with Bob for the sake of seeking revenge.

The goodbyes bestowed upon Bob were heartfelt, even if he never stood out as a particularly fleshed out or important character in the group– people in that group still learned to love and accept him, just as we viewers did. Plus, it isn’t often that we get to see such closure between the group and a character whose death is imminent but prolonged, so to witness Tyrese stab him so clinically, as a matter of procedure and protocol and necessity, was sad and shocking in its own unique and emotional way.

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Before this happens though, we find our group cleverly tricking the Terminus folks, and they had us fooled at first, too. A portion of our group hides in the church while another portion “leave,” looking for the elementary school where the Terminus folks held Bob, so that Gareth believes the church is particularly vulnerable. But, just in time, Rick and his portion of the gang basically ambush them in the church. And, despite any pleas or resistance, Rick proves to be a man of his word, bludgeoning Gareth with the same machete he promises to kill him with in a previous episode. The scene is a thrilling and unsettling massacre– in some ways, more brutal than what we’ve seen yet, and in another sense, this kind of violent brutality seems to be a norm for the season, which is mostly fine by me.

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Finally, Daryl returns seemingly solo, and when asked where Carol is, he says something along the lines of, “you can come out now,” to someone unseen in the woods and shadows behind him. In this upcoming episode, we’ll find out from him where he ended up in looking for Beth– and what he ultimately discovered on this little mission. And, I suppose, we’ll find out what the mystery was all about in revealing Carol (or whoever may have been with him in this strange moment).

Some other notable moments include Abraham leaving for DC with Glenn and Maggie and Tara at the end of the episode as an unfortunate ultimatum/compromise– I don’t like the whole splitting up thing but I hope it works out and that they all meet up once again. Abraham even says that the new world needs Rick Grimes, and it’s true– even if they have all been conditioned to be ruthless at this point.

Also, Maggie has the best line (also the title line) in the whole episode. Since the compromise was that Abraham and Eugene stay another day in exchange for Glenn, Maggie, and Tara’s company when they do head out, they’re there to help with the ambush/massacre. When it’s done, Father Gabriel says, in disbelief, “This is the Lord’s house,” to which Maggie replies “No, it’s just four walls and a roof.” Also, last amazing moment I should mention– Michonne had arguably the best reunion of the entire season when she found her katana on the dead body of one of the Terminus crew. Just saying.

The Walking Recap: Strangers

Wow. As Chris Hardwick said at the very beginning of tonight’s Talking Dead: that was vile. I give this episode 4 out of 5 soggy walkers. What an intense and insane season this is already shaping up to be, isn’t it?

First of all– Gabriel, the priest the group stumbles upon early in the episode, is mysterious, not to mention annoyingly meek– which in itself is a mystery, since the zombie apocalypse has been going on long enough now for someone to be used to, and not paralyzingly afraid of, the walkers. The group finds Father Gabriel cowering and screaming for help on a large boulder while futilely trying to fend off a group of walkers below him. The group saves him, but is also highly skeptical of him, as they should be; he seems to have rubbed Rick the wrong way the minute he starts spewing his “protection of God” sermon, and I certainly do not blame him. But the religious undertones of forgiveness in this episode, and in the series as a whole I think, are interesting to consider nevertheless.

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Anyway, they follow him back to his church, where he’d been hiding alone this whole time, allegedly, living off of donated food that never made it to the food bank in town. But when there is such a food bank available, it’s only natural that our group would go scavenge there, right? Father Gabriel says he avoided it due to his fear of the waterlogged walkers in the semi-flooded basement, but that’s something the viewers would love to see, isn’t it?

These walkers looked more like undead, mutant sea creatures. They were disgusting, probably the show’s most daring and interesting zombie makeups yet, even more gag-inducing than the well walker of season 2– their milky blue skin drooped and dripped and sagged, and their deaths were particularly gruesome, too. I loved it even while wincing at it. Even Bob says that it smelled like a sewer could puke. Well, these walkers looked perfectly at home in that fowl setting.

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But, happy ending (temporarily speaking), they end up with a feast’s worth of food, and what a feast do they have. Everyone is laughing and bonding over former-communion wine, and Abraham makes an idyllic speech that finally sells Rick on whether everyone will join in on the heroic road trip to D.C. Carol on the other hand, steps out to an abandoned car she prepped in case things went south at the church but it seemed a lot to me like she was actually going to leave the group again. Daryl finds her, though, and then a car drives by them– a car with a cross on the rear window, similar to the car that Beth was taken away in! And it’s a cross… and Gabriel is a priest… let the speculating and theorizing commence, am I right?

Daryl and Carol take off in hot pursuit of the Holy Kidnap mobile, while Bob stands some distance away from the church, leaning upon a tree, crying. I didn’t get to linger too long on why he was crying– he’s always had inner-conflict and baggage and bouts of alcoholism, anyway– before someone in a hood knocked him out from behind. I shouldn’t have been so bewildered at who it might have been– clearly the Terminus folks didn’t all die.

Alas, Bob wakes up, tied to a post, with Gareth telling him how none of this was personal, and that they would have done this to anyone (but he also remarks that it is a bit of cosmic justice since Bob’s group was responsible for their home’s destruction, turning them into hunters again). He also talks about how they didn’t always eat people– cannibalism confirmed– but man’s gotta eat. That’s when we zoom out from a close up to a medium long shot of Bob, missing one leg! And Gareth– and his remaining Terminus crew– are all chowing down on meat! And he tells Bob that he tasted better than he thought he would! And we see a foot roasting in the fire! And the whole ordeal is by far more disturbing than any zombie the show could ever produce– sewer-puke water balloon walkers included.

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Other moments of note: Carl and Rick argue over whether to trust Father Gabriel, and Carl finds the words “you’ll burn for this” scratched into the outside of the church (Carl says he doesn’t know if it means that Gabriel is a bad guy, but he does know it means something, and I tend to agree). Carol tells Daryl that she can’t talk about anything she’s experienced in their time apart (mainly, the events of “The Grove” from last season), because she just wants to forget– a line she basically stole from Tyrese, who by the way did not kill the Terminus guy in last week’s episode after all, because that guy is seen happily chowing down on Bob-leg at the end of the episode.