Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE SURVIVAL TIP: When you’re hiding behind a tree and need to distract an approaching herd of zombies, throw a stone literally three feet away from where you’re standing.
Okay, so let me start on a positive note by saying that I really like what The Walking Dead is doing in the second half of this season with the introspective character studies. Isolating the prison gang into groups of two or three and letting their personalities play out against each other, and even delving into everyone’s backstory, has been pretty effective.
That being said, this episode just didn’t cut the mustard for me. The minute they let Beth and (GAH, I hate to say this) Daryl start talking, it stopped working. Which was almost immediately after the scene where they waited out a stampede in the trunk of a car, with Daryl keeping his eye sighted on the bow and Beth clutching her knife, all night. That was a neat demonstration of the fatigue, terror and desperate focus life in the zombiescape entails. After that? Exposition by talking for about 40 minutes, mixed in with Daryl being sullen and Beth taking on whatever new incongruous traits the writers have invented for her this time. (Is it crazy that I had totally forgotten about her suicide attempt until Daryl brought it up? That seems like a big deal, but it totally slipped from my mind because I don’t think I consider Beth a “real” character.)
Maybe you’ll like this one more than I did, but none of it—from the build-up, to the fight scene, to the catharsis, to the fire—felt organic or compelling to me. I’m not necessarily opposed to the central themes, like being haunted by the past, or the spiritual death that might creep into your bones when everyone you know is dying, or feeling like you’re responsible for things going bad. It was just the execution that failed, and as usual, it’s hard to decide how much was bad acting and how much was bad writing. But one thing is evident—when The Walking Dead deals with smaller tableaus of two or three characters, it does much better with action than words. Think how effective the Governor’s redemption episode was earlier this year, or even last week when Rick was under the bed and Michonne found the nursery. Then contrast that with Daryl and Beth’s speeches, or the less interesting parts last week when Carl and Michonne were forced to reach an emotional epiphany by means of conversation. Dialogue, at least the emotional kind, has always been a weak spot for this show. And the metaphors, from Daryl burning down his past to Beth getting blood all over the nice cardigan she found, weren’t much better.
I did, however, enjoy our second-ever scene of golf club violence. Daryl’s skill with what looked like a fairway wood clearly shows that the writers missed a huge opportunity by not staging a Daryl vs. Governor golf club fight to the death. For the record, I also would have liked to see Daryl kill a zombie with a dart. It’s really hard to throw darts accurately when you carefully aim, but it seemed like Daryl had pinpoint control even when rage-throwing them. There should be an episode where he kills zombies using nothing but bar game implements … darts, pool cues, shuffle board pucks, foosball handles, etc.
And look, as a last thing, I’m just going to say it—why didn’t Daryl and Beth hook up? WHY WON’T ANYONE HOOK UP IN THIS SHOW, JOSH?!?!!? Shouldn’t everyone be hooking up for no good reason? You could die any day, guys!
Okay, let me know if I’m being too harsh, or if we should expunge this one from the ol’ memory bank.
I was wondering if I was going to have to be the one to bring up how surprisingly unlikable Daryl was—drunk or sober—for most of this episode. I mean, I understand why he was surly. Of all the people to be stuck with, it was the most helpless member of the group with the possible exception of Judith. And if any audience member might have been confused as to where that surliness came from, he explained it in great detail at the end of the episode. It’s reasonable to be grumpy during the apocalypse—I’m sure I’d be insufferable if you just took away coffee and hot showers. But that’s never been The Walking Dead at its strongest, whether that character dipping into a funk was Hershel, Beth, Rick, Carl, Glenn or Michonne. Daryl was the last remaining rock, and while it’s great to get more of his backstory, the writers have gone to this well a few too many times for my taste. I don’t blame either actor. When the script says be a whiny little bitch, that’s what you’ve got to do.
It’s a shame because the set-up of this episode started strong. When you’re running through woods thick with zombies with nowhere to rest, the trunk of an abandoned car is a harrowing place to spend the night. Survival means hunting for squirrel or snake and lighting fires with rearview mirrors. But none of that—including the adventure at the decrepit golf course for a bottle of peach schnapps—compared to the genuine emotion of last week.
The one moment that did it for me was seeing Daryl upset in the specific—thinking about having lost Michonne and Rick and even Hershel—but the expository lead-up had the unintended effect of watering down its impact. I’m just glad Daryl was able to let his grief out so he can go back to being a badass.
But clearly the best thing about this episode was having it end with The Mountain Goats’ “Up the Wolves,” a song John Darnielle says is about “triumph over adversity.” The show doesn’t use music prominently very often, but when it does, it does it well.
And yes, kudos to Glenn and Maggie for knowing what to do when the world comes crashing down. Although I guess Andrea left us with a cautionary tale about hooking up in a zombie apocalypse: Always check to see what’s in the closet first.
So I don’t think we’re being harsh here. Maybe it’s too much to ask of a show about zombies to handle things like grief in a realistic way without getting mired in it, but it’s proven it can do it well before. One of the things I love about the show is that it hasn’t ever really been about the zombies; it’s more interested in humanity robbed of civilization. But these lulls between major confrontations are hit and miss, depending mostly on the strength of the characters we’re given. And when one of those characters isn’t strong enough to throw a rock farther than the next tree over, you’re starting in a hole.
We are agreed. And as much as I laughed at “with the possible exception of Judith” (great use of qualification), my favorite part of your email was the idea that maybe we had to get this out of the way for Daryl to go back to doing what he does well. Sometimes we have to test our boundaries before we know what they are, and churlish, whiny Daryl is a step too far for that character. Now that we know that, it’s time to return to the wheelhouse, and I think the catharsis, unsatisfying as it was, at least ends the whole Daryl-is-troubled story. Hurray.
I do agree with you about the closing music. Here’s a controversial take—hardcore music fans are attuned to the timbre of Darnielle’s voice, but considering how great a songwriter he is, doesn’t it seem like he’d be HUGE if he had a more appealing vocal sound? I’m fully prepared for Mountain Goats fanboys to light my house on fire Daryl-style (let’s be honest, Mountain Goats fans are out of their minds anyway), but imagine Darnielle’s voice was swapped in with, say, Robin Pecknold’s or Justin Vernon’s. I think we’d be talking mega-indie-star instead of niche-indie-star.
And now imagine if he stopped writing these emotional cry-fests and started writing fun, poppy songs with a broader appeal, like Lady Gaga…
(House is currently on fire … man, those fanboys are quick.)
Anyway, I don’t think there’s a ton to say about this episode beyond what we’ve already covered. In summary, Daryl needs to keep stifling his emotions, the writers need to stop trying to make Beth into a real character, and we all need MORE SERGEANT ABRAHAM FORD!
I think the only thing left to say is, “Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon. And please, no more moping. Or drinking. Just shoot that crossbow straight.”