Pain, emotional or otherwise, is a warning: Something bad is happening, and it’s going to cause injury, so you should probably get on that. The message is profoundly simple, as is the case with nearly all biological sensations; and just as with lust or fear or fury, it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusions. A hurt is an in-the-moment lesson, but we extrapolate. Like: You were in a car accident once, and you broke your leg, and for years, you are terrified of getting behind the wheel. Just the sight of a set of keys puts your nerves on edge. Or you date, you fall in love, you spend time with a person who you believe is everything you ever needed in a romantic partner, and then they leave you without warning, gutting you; so you shut down, close yourself off, refuse to look anyone in the eye, and console yourself in isolation with the comfort that you are secure, protected, whole. When pain is especially strong, the temptation is to turn the lesson into an axiom—worse, a philosophy. To make suffering into a moral imperative, as though the only way to live is to glide without friction. No connection, no contact, no injury. No anything.
Nearly every major character in “Indifference” is struggling with the concept of letting go (several say the phrase out loud, just in case we might miss the point), and while the script isn’t always subtle—and while behaviors sometimes border on forced—the theme is a compelling one. The episode continues the show’s slow, often tedious work of trying to establish personalities in a world where individuals have rarely been clearly defined. It’s reminiscent of the dreaded second season, which kept Rick and the others cooped up on Herschel’s farm, chewing over the same three or four arguments and stalling until something really bad could happen. But while the dialogue in that season was frustratingly circular, and rarely consistent, season four has done a much better job of sticking to some basic ideas. Everyone pretty much makes sense, and if that sense is one-note at times (I’m starting to dread Glenn and Maggie scenes, if only because I don’t need to see Glenn stare longingly at Maggie ever again), it helps to make everything more solid.
Take Carol and Rick’s story. After last week’s reveal, there was some uncertainty as to what came next: Would Rick bring the truth to the rest of the group? Would he chalk it up to necessary (if doomed) measures and sweep it under the rug? The episode doesn’t immediately answer the question, much to its credit. Subtext is a rarity on The Walking Dead, at least in part because the crises are so immediately relevant and obvious to everyone that it’s difficult to create situations in which people have appreciably different needs. Unless you’re dealing with an out-and-out psycho (an idea which the show tried last season, with limited success), everyone is focused on the problem at hand with by-and-large the same goal. They may have different ideas about how to accomplish that goal, but there’s little need of the subterfuge and complexity that great drama requires. It’s zombies. Whatever else is going on, whatever prejudices and assumptions these people brought with them from the past, their current problem is always staying alive, and the threat is almost always zombies. Even when it isn’t (like with this season’s plague), the zombies are still the main obstacle in the way of getting anything done.
Zombies are at the heart of Carol and Rick’s conflict, but the situation is complex enough that it’s not just a matter of shooting something and moving on. The initial scenes of the episode, with Carol having a clumsy (and unsettling) heart-to-heart with Lizzy, and Rick imagining how Carol went about killing Karen and David, set up the stakes. Our two heroes are going on a run together, but while the prison needs supplies, that’s not the only reason for the trip, as Carol well knows. It’s thrilling to watch, because the suspense doesn’t come from wondering if Rick or Carol will get their faces eaten off; it comes from the uncertainty that now exists between these two friends, and the weight the irrevocable choices Carol has made, first in murdering the sick, then in willingly confessing her actions. By telling Rick the truth, she’s put him in a position where he has to pass judgement, and it’s not immediately clear what judgement he’s going to make. That’s interesting, tricky stuff, especially when you take into account the fact that Carol is one of the show’s strongest characters; Rick’s crisis becomes a test for the writers as well. Will they go easy just to maintain the status quo? Or will there be actual consequences?
The episode’s other storyline focuses on Daryl’s group and their ongoing search for antibiotics. This is less effective than Rick and Carol, largely because the dynamic is less focused. There’s some stuff about Tyreese being angry and damn near suicidal, some stuff about Michonne needing to give up hunting for the Governor, and Bob’s alcoholism comes back with a vengeance. Daryl is, as ever, Daryl, although he gets super pissed off when Bob risks himself (and by extension the group, and everyone back at the prison) to hold on to a bottle of booze. There’s a lot of simmering, but nothing ever quite catches—even the big confrontation between Daryl and Bob (which comes a little while after Bob confesses his tangential responsibility for Zack’s death) is abrupt and forced. Bob’s behavior is stupid, no question, and the way his hand goes for his gun when Daryl threatens to throw the bottle away is really stupid, but Daryl’s response is more than just righteous anger. He acts betrayed, as though his and Bob’s friendship was this deep, lasting relationship, as opposed to a couple of pleasant conversations. Maybe it’s guilt on Daryl’s part—he’s angry because he trusted someone and should’ve seen this coming—but the modulation is off. Tyreese and Michonne are more effective; Chad Coleman does a great job of playing barely restrained fury and despair, and Michonne’s decision to stop chasing a man she despises is a small, but necessary moment for her. But none of this adds up to more than a few decent scenes and the standard let’s-run-from-monsters sequence.
Rick and Carol are the highlight of the hour, then, and their interactions are gripping enough that even the intrusion of two strangers with “Dead Meat” metaphorically plastered on their foreheads doesn’t diminish the drama. The new folks are a symbol—both in how their naive optimism gets them killed (we don’t see how they die, and Sam, the guy, could theoretically be alive; but their eagerness to help, combined with a clear lack of survival skills, dooms them straight off), and as a kind of evidence in the ideological conflict between our two leads. Carol tends to Sam’s wounds, but when it comes time to search the area, she’s perfectly willing to let the clearly inexperienced idiots go off on their own. When the girl (who is, so far as I can tell, never named) is killed, Carol shrugs it off, and when Sam doesn’t show up at the arranged meeting time, Carol is utterly indifferent. Rick, on the other hand, wants to protect the strangers, and is reluctant to use them when he knows that use will put them in danger. It’s an old argument: Caring about people is dangerous in a world full of walkers (or “skin-eaters” as the Dead Meat Duo calls them). Do you shut down your empathy as much as possible, and focus your efforts on saving yourself and a few others? Or do you stay open, and risk suffering, loss, and death?
What makes the conflict work here is the history between Carol and Rick, and the way the episode doesn’t make it easy to pick a side. Killing Karen and David was a pointless action, but Carol’s reasons for doing so—that the sick were going to die regardless, that she saved them suffering and tried to shut down the contagion—make sense. They especially make sense given everything that’s happened to her. She’s a survivor, and she was a survivor even before the world went to hell; but staying alive didn’t mean she could protect her daughter. Carol took Sophia’s death and tried to learn from it. She doesn’t talk about the girl anymore, doesn’t dwell on the past, and she’s determined to face this new reality as pragmatically and ruthlessly as possible. Her pain has taught her that the only way forward is to turn hard, brutal; to see any kindness or feeling in the face of potential danger as weak.
Rick, though, keeps struggling. He can’t let go of his dead wife, but his willingness to talk about her (the anecdote about Sunday morning pancakes is lovely) doesn’t seem unhealthy or obsessed. This isn’t the Rick who got phone calls from his mind, or was haunted by ghosts. He’s troubled, but he’s not insane, and when he tries to explain to Carol at the end why he thinks she made the wrong choice, he doesn’t sound deluded. It’s reminiscent of Herschel’s speech last week, if only because it offers a worldview that isn’t completely binary—there’s some room for hope left, even if it’s not much, and even if it’ll all turn horrible in the end. By sending Carol away, Rick makes his own choice, and whether or not you agree with him, it’s not a random decision; it’s one that comes from everything he’s been saying over the course of the hour, and it makes Carol’s insistence that Rick was a good leader once sound a little less hollow. “Indifference” does a good job of developing and justifying both characters, and while it’s frustrating to see Carol leave, it had to be done. If you’re willing to let everyone go, you can’t be shocked when someone returns the favor.
- I hope she isn’t gone for long, though. Melissa McBride is one of the best actors the show has; if this is all just a setup for a spin-off series, her presence here will be sorely missed. (I can’t imagine Daryl taking her leaving too well. If he heads off to join her, is anyone going to keep watching this show?)
- As evidence that Carol maybe has the right idea, we present young Lizzy’s misguided notions about zombies.
- Carol learned how to fix a dislocated shoulder from the Internet, because her asshole abusive husband used to beat her and she didn’t want to go to the emergency room. As much as I recognize the necessity of exiling her, I really hope they find some way to bring her back.
- I’m amazed that couple lasted as long as they did.
- “It was a nice watch.” Carol, bein’ cold.