The opening scene of this episode sets the tone for what’s to follow: numerous failed attempts at kickstarting something exciting. Is that too harsh? Maybe. But considering we’re flashing back to a large portion of the five or six years Daryl spent looking for Rick down by the river, expectations were high. There is much ground to cover, literally and figuratively, as our favorite bow-hunting brooder grapples with his complex relationship with Carol in parallel with a mystery woman he met in the woods. A few interesting dots are connected, but without pushing the story forward much (and only a precious few zombie kills to liven things up). Perhaps the best way to think about this chapter is that it’s not really Daryl’s story — it’s Dog’s origin story.
The tone is set as Carol and Daryl head out to gather firewood or hunt deer or catch trout or whatever. They quickly fall into the rhythm of two pals who bust chops and finish each other’s sentences. Carol apparently has a weirdly specific strong right foot and even stronger spearfishing skills, the latter of which doesn’t prevent Daryl from delivering some fillet technique mansplaining. In a somber moment, Carol suggests their “luck’s run out.” That’s curious — how is she just now coming to that conclusion? What is your definition of good luck, Carol? Have things been looking up since your son was beheaded? Seems that the cycle of momentary optimism followed by depraved violence and soul-crushing misery was pretty well established a long time ago.
Dog’s discovery of an old ramshackle cottage in the woods catches Daryl off guard — also odd, as if an expert tracker didn’t realize they were so close to a location that holds so much significance to him. Apparently, Carol knows a lot more about Daryl’s MIA years than we do, including the existence of the shotgun-wielding woman. As they give the place a once-over, Daryl has the look of someone forced to remember something he’d hope to forget.
Thus begins a series of flashbacks, first jumping five years into the past, then ahead by months at a time. Daryl’s roughing it with a makeshift shelter and a map of the river; Carol occasionally stops by to drop off care packages. She almost seems guilty that she’s got to tend to Zeke and Henry back at the Kingdom — that free-spirited part of her seems to wish she was out here living off the land and looking for Rick. There’s also the hint of a complicated love they share that’s deep beneath the surface: a hint of romance, but more so just two people who understand each other deeply and have a sort of emotional X-ray vision when it comes to each other’s fears and bullshit.
But back to Dog! Daryl first meets him as a wee puppy who gives him some good-boy face licks and then scampers away. His mama ain’t so friendly, though; she ties Daryl up, holds him at gunpoint, and mocks the notion that she’s the one who needs saving in this scenario: “What kind of help do you think I need, Daryl?” (The extra stink she puts on his name really stings.) Six months later, Dog has grown and Daryl gets a slightly warmer response from the mystery woman. Apologies for all this time we thought Daryl was the one with no creativity when it comes to pet names — it’s Shotgun Sally who gets the blame for that.
Daryl and his new frenemy quickly develop the rapport of a couple celebrating 50 years of semi-happy marriage. After a (very) close call with a pack of zombies, they yell at each other and storm off. Three months later, he throws a fish at her door as a peace offering; she in turn throws it at his head, and somehow two people who barely know each other are in a fight. As unintentionally comical as their banter becomes (“Good!” “Great … bye!” “I thought you were going?” “I am!”), so is the speed at which that rapidly turns into a TMI session for the ages. Leah, as we now know, goes from impenetrable to open book and spills her life story: the little boy in the shattered picture frame (metaphor alert!) is her faux son, born to her faux sister, both part of the “squad” that felt more like a family than her real one ever did. I’m wondering if Daryl is thinking hey lady, a couple hours ago you threw a bass at my head and now we’re in therapy, can I just get the feeling back in my fingers before you download your entire biography? Not only did she lose her sorta-son, but Dog’s mama was pregnant when they were set upon by the undead. This literally could not get more tragic.
Some may say that Daryl’s crossbow or survival skills are his best weapons, but I submit that his superpower is active listening. (Show of hands among all you Daryl fans who think he’s at peak sexy when he’s intently focused on a woman’s story.) Eventually there’s the soft-focus scene by the roaring fire, which thankfully (and perhaps disappointingly for some) doesn’t devolve into a cliché sex scene. (We get it. They hooked up.) Ten months later, the honeymoon is long over as Daryl feels compelled to spend a few more years on the hunt for Rick. Leah delivers an ultimatum — your quest, your family, or me — and his response is to flee. Not sure why Daryl couldn’t split the difference and bring her back to A-town. If Leah’s ready to love this guy, why not meet his friends, especially when they live in a nice neighborhood?
Leah and Carol’s storylines come crashing together as we see one final flashback — Daryl returning to the love shack to find Leah was gone. If she’s alive, it’s a mystery as to why she’d leave Dog behind. So now we know it’s not just Rick that Daryl hopes is alive and blames himself for losing. (Rick’s fate certainly isn’t on him, but Leah’s? Maybe.) Carol tries to lift the self-blame from his shoulders, but Daryl lashes out with a nasty burn, targeting her for the possible death of his other crush, Connie. This is where he belongs, Daryl says, here with these people — but he should have let Carol hop back on her fishing boat and leave them all behind. Ouch.
That lands hard, prompting Carol to echo her earlier observation: “Our luck’s run out, you and me.” Something tells me that if Carol goes anywhere, it won’t be for long. And that both Connie and Leah are alive, which will make for quite a Daryl triangle (or rectangle, if you throw Carol in the mix).