In what future historians will refer to as “the post-Governor era of The Walking Dead,” the show has stepped in to fill the gap left by the conclusion of Breaking Bad. This is now AMC’s very slow-moving, contemplative, character-based genre show that may go a long time between outbreaks of bloody mayhem, outbreaks that serve as beats in the action but that scarcely threaten to overshadow the quieter moments. Even for those of us who, a couple of seasons back, couldn’t get away from that damn farm fast enough, this was not exactly an expected development. The show has always tried to balance long stretches of character drama that often bordered on the meandering with big, gorehound action set pieces.
Having discharged its duties on the action-horror front, big time, with the sustained fireworks display of the mid-season finale, the series has dug in deep on the character drama, as if to say, “That sure was some mess that those poor people had to run from, wasn’t it? Maybe, now that they’re reformed into smaller groups, this would be a good opportunity to get to know them better.” Happily, the writers have shown a pretty good instinct for which characters we want to see tiptoe-ing through a big house, hiding from and violently dispatching post-apocalyptic versions of the kinds of guys who buy a lot of Duck Dynasty merchandise, and which ones we really do want to hang out with learn more about.
Daryl would head many people’s lists of the characters who fall into the latter category, and one of the biggest surprises of “Alone” is that half of it centers on Daryl and Beth, after last weeks episode kept them front and center for the entire hour. This is actually a risky move: The beauty-and-the-beast contrast between Beth and Daryl is an obvious way to shed light on their characters by having them learn from and warm up to each other, and it feels like the kind of device that could wear out from overuse pretty fast. It still works like gangbusters here, though. The two of them make a nest for themselves inside a funeral home, where Beth plays the piano and Daryl stretches out inside an open casket and proclaims it “the comfiest bed I’ve had in years.”
The sides of them that will never see eye-to-eye are showcased when they discover a pair of corpses that have been embalmed and neatly groomed and dressed. The sight of the properly presentable dead folks gives Beth one of her richest attacks of the warm and fuzzies. “Whoever did this…cares,” she says. “They wanted these people to have a funeral.” She pronounces the whole thing, and the thought behind it, “beautiful.” Daryl’s reaction is more of a mordant shrug: “Looks like somebody ran out of dolls to play with.” (Before they find the funeral home, Daryl is teaching Beth to track. She finds footprints and concludes that “It’s a walker” because “The pattern’s all zig-zag.” For once, it’s Daryl who comes up with the rosier possibility: “Maybe it’s a drunk,” he says.)
The more visually ambitious, dreamlike sections of this episode are lavished on Bob, who, along with Sasha and Maggie, gets a fog-shrouded horror scene, as well as a flashback to his first meeting with Daryl and Glenn. In previous episodes, Bob hasn’t looked like much, and this has created suspense, because presumably you don’t cast Lawrence Gillard, Jr. as a character who is never going to amount to much. He starts to break away from the pack here, with the assistance of some flashbacks that suggest what his life was like before he had anyone to fight alongside, let alone anyone to fight for. When he rejects the idea that Maggie might go off on her own in search of Glenn, arguing for the importance of maintaining greater numbers whenever possible, it’s as if he not just stepping up but finally shaking off a bad case of PTSD. He also plants a kiss on Sasha, after warning her that “I’m gonna try something here.” After the kiss, he simply says, “Well, okay,” and it’s frustrating, because it’s tricky to get a read on either her reaction, or his response to her reaction—is he manfully conceding defeat and promising not to make that mistake again, or is there something there that the two of them will pursue further later?
I couldn’t tell. But then, whatever you think of the idea of Daryl and Beth as a romantic couple, it seems a little strange that, when they’re on their own and playing house, neither seems to ever give the other an appraising glance, as if giving it some consideration. It’s funny that, the way this show tears through the show runners, it’s never found one who seems to be that interested in the idea of warm bodies huddling together after the apocalypse, for any reason other than protection from the cold. The show has had its share of star-crossed lovers, like Maggie and Glenn, but Andrea and the Governor are the only characters who’ve ever seemed really, brain-scramblingly hot for each other. And we all know that relationship wasn’t much of a commercial for the properties of sexual healing.
Bob is evolving into a hero, the way Daryl did over the course of the first couple of seasons. Daryl the fan favorite is an easy character to idealize, and these last couple of episodes may constitute an effort to, if not take him down a peg, then re-stabilize his identity as a man with the capacity to be a hero but also a flawed individual with a past that looms in the background like a family curse. In the course of “Alone,” he and Beth become separated, after a four-star zombie attack that begins with the normally wary Daryl hurrying to open the door, because he thinks a stray dog is on the other side. Reportedly, Norman Reedus once put in a request that Daryl be given a dog, a request that was shot down by the writers: Is this their way of showing why they thought this was a bad idea? Or is it their way of suggesting that softening Daryl’s rough edges to the slightest degree would make him a damn sight more vulnerable?
He’s last seen joining ranks with a scary bunch of dudes he meets on the road; their leader, Joe, is played by the hatchet-faced, coyote-eyed Jeff Kober, whose long list of untrustworthy characters includes the warlock who horrified a nation by helping Willow get hooked on magic on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, further grossing everyone out by telling her that she tasted like strawberries. In his recent, soul-baring monologues, Daryl has gone out of the way to stress that he used to be an asshole because he was basically a follower, and that his emergence as a man worthy of emulation has been one of the happier results of his losing his brother Merle. The scariest thing in any Walking Dead episode this half-season is the possibility that Jeff Kober might become the new Merle in Daryl’s life.
- Zach is under the weather this evening, and sends his apologies. He’ll be back next week.
- Daryl, inspecting the food supply at the funeral home: “peanut butter and jelly, diet soda, and pig’s feet. That’s a white trash brunch right there.” Lest you think he’s kidding, he calls dibs on the pig’s feet.