Did anyone see this coming? Not the tense standoff between Daryl and Carol (henceforth referred to as Caryl) and Noah (a.k.a. Chris Rock), or Daryl’s interest in self-help books, or even the return to downtown Atlanta — all among the highlights of this episode. The question is: Did anyone think that Carol would develop into one of the show’s best characters? She’s every bit the damaged badass as her grungy, crossbow-slinging pal. Only with Carol — especially now, thanks to a few key flashbacks last night — we have more insight into both who she was and who she’s become. There was a time when you’d think of her as little more than Daryl’s sidekick. Now they’re equals — capable not only of surviving, but saving others and making the kind of tough moral calls this new world demands.
The episode starts off smartly, bringing us back to the moment when Rick tells Carol to hit the bricks and she drives off, alone. Later, she’s sobbing on the roadside, unfazed when a walker pounds on the window. (Amazing how these things keep sneaking up on people, isn’t it?) It’s a powerful moment, as Carol seems to realize there’s nowhere to go, no safe harbor, and no running from the things she’s done. She returns to the prison only to find it in flame after the showdown with the Guv. Carol probably thinks she’s alone again for good.
The big theme in this chapter is identity, as Caryl struggle to reconcile past and present. The flashbacks really drive this point home, showing us snapshots of the pivotal moments that transformed this battered wife and grieving mom into the Malcolm X of the apocalypse — surviving by any means necessary. There she is, digging a grave for a child she killed. Standing over Tyreese’s girlfriend at the prison as her corpse burns. Alone in the woods, covered in zombie guts, lugging around Daryl’s crossbow and ready to save them from Terminus.
We now know Carol better than the other survivors do. That’s made clear when Daryl mocks a painting in a high-rise office. (“Bet this cost some rich prick a lot of money. Looks like a dog sat in paint and wiped its ass all over the place.”) Carol laughs and says she likes it. “You know me,” she says to Daryl. “”Yep,” he replies. “You keep telling yourself that.” The sarcasm seems a bit hypocritical on Daryl’s part, considering he’s not exactly an open book. Speaking of which, the book that falls from his knapsack — Treating Survivors of Childhood Abuse — proves Daryl, in his own private way, is serious about the notion of rebirth. We knew he had a tough upbringing with an abusive father, but those scars still run deep. If there’s the slimmest silver lining in the fall of civilization, it’s the chance to hit the reset button and start over.
That’s something Carol still struggles with, as we see when she finds the zombies at the women’s shelter. Safe to assume it’s a mother and child growling at her — and a reminder of her stay there with Sophia a lifetime ago. Ever the gentleman, Daryl gives them a proper good-bye with a rooftop funeral pyre. And did anyone else think that, during the scene on the bunk beds, there was a chance these two would hook up? The camera lingered on them just long enough to wonder if someone would make a move. I was relived nothing happened; I get more of a mother/son or big sister/little brother vibe from them.
But enough with the emotional turmoil and psychological mumbo-jumbo — how about that tank? I geeked out when we caught a glimpse of the intersection where we first met Glenn as he saved Rick from certain death in the start of season one (in the fall of 2010, for those of us who’ve been watching since the start). Had the same geek-bumps as Caryl drove into the city down the same highway pictured in the season one poster: Rick on horseback, a traffic jam on the outbound lane, and nothing but desolation ahead of him. Being back in downtown Atlanta is a frightening proposition, as we’re quickly reminded of how many friggin’ zombies lurk around every turn. There’s a tense moment on the overpass as an undead mob sends Caryl on a rough joyride. The van plummets to the ground, and there’s one last scare, as a few walkers land on the roof with a series of loud thuds. (Wouldn’t they all have followed the van off the bridge? A zombie waterfall would have been even better.) They escape, banged up but alive, undeterred in their mission to save Beth.
(Brief aside: This week, The Hollywood Reporter asked Walking Dead creator and executive producer Robert Kirkman about Maggie’s apparent lack of concern over Beth’s disappearance. “Maggie is aware that her sister is out there,” Kirkman said. “Because of the nature of this world, she is probably a little bit more willing to admit that she is more than likely dead than Daryl is.” Fair point. But then show us Maggie admitting that she thinks Beth is dead. Without seeing that moment play out onscreen, her behavior on the road trip isn’t just strange — it’s a plot hole.)
Caryl find yet another bizarre tableau on their way to Grady Memorial — a squirming hallway full of urban campers who turned in their tents and sleeping bags. (Credit to the writers for a seemingly endless variety of walker scenarios they dream up.) That’s where we learn the mysterious figure watching them was Noah, who ain’t playin’ — he steals their guns and lets loose the tent zombies while he escapes. Daryl stops Carol from blasting him as he runs away; Carol claims she was aiming for his leg, but she sure seems like a “head shots only” sportswoman these days. When they catch back up with Noah, Daryl isn’t so kind — laying the kid out with an NHL-worthy hip-check and leaving him to die a cruel death (stuck under a bookshelf, munched by a zombie). Now it’s Carol pleading with him for mercy. Moments earlier, Carol told Daryl he’s changed, too: He used to be a kid, and now he’s a man. True to her observation, Daryl controls his anger and saves Noah.
Daryl’s mercy, of course, is the key to saving Beth. But before they can discuss strategy, the Grady security patrol makes a most unfortunate entrance — plowing into Carol as she makes a run for it. Now we know why she was wheeled in on a stretcher. It’s not exactly how they would have planned it, but at least Daryl has Noah’s intel on the hospital. Note the look on Daryl’s face as he drives away with Noah riding shotgun — presumably back to the church for reinforcements. Daryl was pissed off plenty when Beth was the only captive he needed to rescue. Now that Carol’s in jeopardy, too? Expect the intensity to ratchet up en route to the mid-season finale. As Daryl said before the van took a nosedive: “Buckle up.”