“You’re not who you were, and neither am I. I don’t know if I believe in God any more, or Heaven, but if I’m going to Hell, I’m making damn sure I hold it off as long as I can.”
This week’s The Walking Dead found us rejoining the plot thread involving the show’s two fan favourite characters with the rhyming names, Carol and Daryl; though the ep as a whole was properly devoted to her rather than him. And that’s a good thing. No disrespect to Beth or Abraham, who’ve been the focus of the last two eps, but Carol’s a fan favourite for a reason – her character arc has been probably the most powerful of the show, played with quiet dignity and intensity by Melissa McBride. Some extremely good writing this week from Matthew Negrete and Corey Reed gave her plenty of meat to chew on this week, and the result was another quietly devastating episode to rank with last season’s The Grove.
It wasn’t an action packed episode, but once again exploited the possibility of the apocalyptic setting to give us an excellent character piece. Both Carol and Daryl have changed immeasurably since we first met them, in a perfectly believable way. As they searched for Beth, their journey through the devastated, Walker-infested ruins of Atlanta gave them plenty of time to ruminate on everything they’ve gained – and lost – as a result of the end of civilisation. In both cases, it’s been the making of them; but while Daryl has matured into a strong and caring person, Carol found herself asking whether she’d ended up losing more than she’d gained.
The show’s done this kind of two-handed character piece plenty of times before, but it’s the first time these particular characters have been the focus of attention for an entire episode. Given their status as the show’s fan favourite characters, that was a hard one to get wrong, but it still exceeded my expectations. Interspersing flashbacks of all the trauma Carol’s been through since killing Karen and David, and exploring her traumatic existence before the fall of humanity, this was a melancholic ep shot through with sorrow. It’s hard to imagine anyone being strong enough to survive everything that’s happened to Carol (both before and after the apocalypse) without being destroyed by it; the Carol we saw here is plainly hanging on by a thread.
As with the Beth-centric ep a couple of weeks ago, the setting of the deserted Atlanta was eerie and effective. If you’re one of those people with a fetish for post-apocalyptic drama, the vistas of deserted cities are one of its key tropes; here, the darkened, unlit city by night, the moans of Walkers echoing through the empty streets, was intensely spooky. It also allowed for one of the ep’s key moments, as Carol returned to the shelter for domestic abuse survivors she’d visited before the apocalypse, only to find an undead mother and child still trapped behind the frosted glass door of the secure accommodation.
The look on Melissa McBride’s face spoke volumes about what went through her mind; remember, she lost her own daughter a couple of seasons ago. Oddly for a show so set on relentless bleakness, The Walking Dead doesn’t often show child Walkers, so when we do see one, it’s that much more upsetting. Director Seith Mann’s decision to show the mother and child as no more than silhouettes behind the glass made it an affecting moment, as was Carol’s discovery the next morning that Daryl had spared her the ordeal of dispatching the two, compassionately cremating them rather than leaving their corpses to rot.
Indeed, fire as a source of cleansing was a central theme in the ep. The keynote speech from Carol about how her previous selves had been “burned away”, even the woman she’d wanted to be back at the prison, was cleverly reflected visually in the recurring image of her face framed by flames or smoke.
The Carol we saw this week is a burnt out shell of a woman; but when she finally changed her mind and entreated Daryl to save the trapped Noah, we saw that the old Carol is still in there, somewhere deep inside. She started the ep morosely reflecting that “we don’t get to save people any more”, but by the end that’s exactly what she was doing. Of all the characters, she’s lost the most, and she still can’t help trying to do the right thing, no matter what it costs her.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of levity and humour amid all the angst, mind. Carol and Daryl’s discussion of the piece of modern art hanging in the lawyers’ office they were using as a lookout point was genuinely amusing. And despite the horrific nature of the show’s premise, there were plenty of blackly humorous moments involving the shambling Walkers – notably the spectacle of several incarcerated in tightly zipped sleeping bags and tents, writhing helplessly around but unable to get out. Even the world-weary Daryl was surprised at this – “Some days I don’t know what the hell to think,” he commented.
It was no major surprise that the two eventually met up with young Noah who escaped from Grace Memorial Hospital a couple of weeks ago; clearly this ep was the one in which we would find out how Carol ended up on a stretcher being wheeled past Beth. Still, the moment when the car smashed into her genuinely made me jump – and that wasn’t the only one. In an ep that traded more on spooky atmosphere than outright horror, there were plenty of shock moments as Walkers unexpectedly started banging on car windows.
So, with Daryl and Noah heading back to Rick and the church, it looks like next week will pick up from the last time we saw the rest of the gang, as well as the last time we saw the group in the hospital. It’s plain that, for this half season at least, they’re going to be the main antagonists for our heroes; as villains, though, they’re not quite up there with the Governor and Woodbury. Just as with the comics, the show may struggle to find another villain that memorable. Still, things are ramping up, and this show has a habit of surprising me – maybe we’ll find that this year’s mid-season finale is a gripping one.
Gore of the week
Despite the plethora of Walkers on display in Atlanta, the contemplative, mournful tone of the ep meant gore was in short supply this week. It’s never completely absent though. Kudos for the crossbow bolt through the eye of one of the sleeping-bag confined Walkers:
And the blackly amusing spectacle of Walkers tumbling from the bridge onto the roof of the just-crashed van gave us a satisfying splosh on the windscreen, along with one unfortunate Walker who won’t be walking any more:
Probably the best, though, was Daryl’s employment of his newfound machete, in a moment that’s surely a tribute to the original Dawn of the Dead:
Not an action-packed ep this, to be sure, but with its central focus on Carol it was extremely powerful. It’s interesting to note that she and Daryl are non-comic characters who are original to the show, and yet they’ve become probably the most popular. Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus were excellent throughout; perhaps frustratingly for the fans, there’s still no hint of a romantic relationship between the two (which easily could have come up), just a very deep and caring friendship. It’s worth noting that Carol’s opinion of Daryl is that he’s grown from a ‘kid’ into a man; given the fate of all the kids she’s played mother to since we met her, that must surely be reassuring. It also makes you think that their relationship is more like mother and son than anything romantic.
Only two eps to go till the mid-season break now, and it looks like all the plot threads established this year will start to converge. I’ve really enjoyed the multiple narratives that splitting the gang up has given us, and the more measured pace of this first half of the season compared to last year. But I do wonder where they’ll go after they’ve managed (or failed) to rescue Beth. For some while, I’ve thought that the comic has exhausted all the potential plot possibilities of the premise; let’s hope the show has a while to go before reaching that point.