About three quarters of the way through this episode, I sensed a strange shift in the atmosphere, as if gravity itself were bending, or some ripple of energy rolled through the cosmos. But no earthquakes were reported in my neighborhood. I wasn’t drunk. We may not have the technology to confirm this, but I’m sure what I felt was millions of women (and more than a few guys) in full synchronized swoon as Daryl, with all his tough-dude swagger and wiry brawn, let his guard down. Last night, Daryl cried. When Beth wrapped her arms around him, he didn’t push her away. And with that, untold numbers of Daryl devotees began mentally scripting fan-fic in which they, not that moonshine-swillin’ diary-keepin’ whiner, held him close.
In terms of plot advancement, almost nothing happened. Daryl and Beth hid in a car trunk, scavenged at a country club, and torched a run-down shack. They’re no closer to finding the rest of their gang or stumbling upon one of the many Terminus billboards. But while Beth did most of the talking, it was really the Daryl Hour, and that’s way better than watching Rick covered in sweat and dust bunnies underneath a bed for half an episode.
One might think that midway through the fourth season, we would be desensitized to the actual horror of day-to-day living in a world populated mostly by zombies. The characters themselves often are, as they eat, sleep, and have sex in close proximity to flesh-eating fiends. The opening sequence was a stark, effective reminder of just how miserable and scary life can be (and why a fortified shelter like the prison is so essential). Daryl and Beth get caught in the path of a walker herd and take cover in the trunk of a broken-down car — luckily for them, one large enough to fit two adults relatively comfortably. Night turns to day, and it appears neither of them slept. Daryl keeps watch, never taking his finger off the trigger of his crossbow. When the road is finally clear, they climb out and move forward in silence. (How cool would an entire episode with no dialogue be?)
Daryl never was much of a talker, but since the prison raid, he’s been some pretty lousy company (save for the fact that he makes a mean snake jerky — which made me think about how oral hygiene must really blow during a zombie apocalypse. Breath stinks, teeth in bad shape, rampant gingivitis. Maggie and Glenn must have stocked up on mouthwash when they raided that pharmacy in season two). This is probably not the first time that Daryl has driven a woman to drink or flip him the bird.
Beth’s quest for booze leads them to a country club, where we get a dark glimpse into what went down when society began to crumble. Inside, walkers dangle from nooses. A woman in golf whites is now a horrible corpse, stripped to her bra and bearing a sign that reads “Rich Bitch.” Looks like when the shit went down, Pine Vista was the site of a hostile takeover by some of the less fortunate. (Beth even finds a silver spoon from Washington, D.C. — perhaps both symbolism and another hint that the story is headed toward the capital.) Something about this place sets Daryl off. When the Tempus Fugit clock (“Time Flees”) sounds, Daryl shows impressive diversity in zombie-killing — first by crossbow, then knife, and finishing with a golf club. He goes berserk on the last moaner, a grandfatherly chap in a green V-neck sweater, beating him for stress relief. When Daryl finally tees off (literally) on the bad grandpa’s head, brains and blood ruin Beth’s new sweater. (Which really sucks, since it must be hard to find clothes in your size that aren’t covered in gore. Also, the new rule for when to where white — never.) Instead of tossing darts at the dartboard, he perforates the portraits of the old white guys who once ran the place. It’s not hard to imagine, if the chips fell differently, Merle and Daryl among the raiders who decided this club was theirs for the taking.
But Daryl, we know, always had a moral center. He’d never let that topless woman suffer as she did, and he refuses to let Beth settle for bottom-shelf liquor (“Ain’t gonna have your first drink be no damn peach schnapps”). We knew moonshine was on his mind, and sure enough, he leads them to a shack he discovered with Michonne. (This raises the question — if Daryl remembered how to get back there, why does it seem like he, and everyone else, is wandering aimlessly?) The shack, of course, isn’t just a house-o-hooch — it’s a metaphor for Daryl’s life, and the way he was raised by a father who’d line up pink plastic boob-buckets for target practice, and a brother who nearly got him killed while watching cartoons with his drug dealer. When Beth’s drinking game goes south, Daryl snaps, reminding Beth of her lowest moments (cutting, losing a couple of boyfriends) and says she’s like “some dumb college bitch,” again hinting at the class differences he feels with the rest of the survivors.
Maybe emboldened by the booze, Beth stands toe to toe with him. “I know you look at me and you just see another dead girl,” she says, and that line seems to strike a chord. When Daryl finally eases off his “I ain’t afraid of nothin’” pose, we learn what’s been eating him up — he blames himself for the prison raid and even for Hershel’s death. “Maybe if I wouldn’t have stopped looking,” he says. “Maybe ’cause I gave up. That’s on me. And your dad. Maybe, maybe I coulda done something …” It’s these moments when the best actors on the show really set themselves apart, and when Norman Reedus is given a chance to shine, he always delivers.