Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Lenika Cruz: When you gotta go, you gotta go. And on this week’s Walking Dead episode, “East,” it seemed everyone had to go—and leave Alexandria and its people undefended even though the likelihood of a Savior attack could not have been more imminent. Carol and Daryl’s separate but simultaneous departures felt like obvious contrivances to scatter everyone outside the community’s walls once again. Why did Rosita, Michonne, and Glenn all have to go look for Daryl? Why did Morgan and Rick both have to go look for Carol—at the same time? These are not two helpless individuals who need a cavalcade of backup.
I’ll be blunt: This was a capital-B Bad episode. The Walking Dead has had plenty of passively bad episodes—episodes where nothing really feels different by the end, where the dialogue is uninspired, where the plot retreads old themes. But “East” was the kind of bad where almost everything that happened felt blatantly illogical or stupid in some way, and its badness was made even more apparent by the fact that recent weeks have given viewers three really good episodes. To go through every single thing that went wrong would be like trying to kill a zombie by stabbing it in the chest with a noodle—why bother?
But ... I will try. If I had to pick one thing that doomed this episode from the start, it was the central storyline itself: Carol and Daryl running off on their own—Carol because her guilt about killing is consuming her and she can’t kill for others anymore, and Daryl because he wants to get revenge on the Savior who killed Denise. Okay, fine. But The Walking Dead seemed less concerned with their respective reasons for taking such drastic measures, and more concerned with the way their actions could be a useful way to get as many people out into the field and spread out as possible. How this could seem like a rational idea to a group of people who have survived by making tough, strategic choices, always weighing the risks and advantages of any path, was beyond me.
Even if we allow that the decision to go after Daryl and Carol was more influenced by emotion or ego than reason, how is it that there wasn’t even 30 seconds worth of debate on the issue before they left? How did Rick so easily choose to leave his son and daughter behind? And once Morgan and Rick were out on the road, why did they ditch their car? Why, probably hours after leaving the car, did Rick decide it was time to call it quits and let Morgan go after Carol on his own instead? If Morgan found her (and all signs indicate she’d be injured), how was he going to get her back to Alexandria safely without a vehicle?
Sorry—I forgot that I had already decided pursuing each logical inconsistency in this episode was pointless. But the same problems apply to Daryl’s storyline. Why, after following Daryl all the way out to where Denise was killed, did the group decide to split up? Michonne and Glenn should have known better than to assume they could convince Daryl, with words, to abandon his crusade. Why, after a total of four recent skirmishes with the Saviors (the road explosion, the compound raid, the slaughterhouse incident, the railroad-track firefight), did it seem like a wise decision to return to the last place the group ran into the Saviors, with relatively minimal support? Did they forget the bazillion times that a hostage situation has occurred over the course of the show?
I will take a break from asking answer-less questions to praise the one good thing in this episode: Carol singlehandedly taking down that group of Saviors with the machine-gun she jerry-rigged inside her coat sleeve. Her tearful pleas with the Saviors intensified the satisfaction of the actual shootout—the audience knew that her begging gave the Saviors a sick pleasure (ugh, those leering, sneering faces!), but she wasn’t trying to save her life. She was trying to save theirs. Poor Carol realizes she is an effective killer, and to the extent that survival is of paramount importance, she feels she has no choice but to continue to take lives. People will keep trying to kill her, so she will be forced to keep killing them—as much as it destroys her inside. A side note: I liked how her rosary and Father Gabriel’s clerical clothing highlight how differently they’ve come to relate to religion as a way of meaning-making in the apocalypse.
Now, to end on a final note of frustration. I know I wasn’t alone last year in thinking the show bungled Glenn’s almost-death. I respect the creative license of the writers to play with expectations and narrative linearity and all that. Even if that choice was a big risk that didn’t 100 percent pay off, you’d think The Walking Dead would know better than to tease the deaths of other characters in cheap ways. But nah. In “East” alone, the fates of Carol and Daryl were both dangled over a fire, but to no real payoff in terms of story or suspense. The show, I think, knows better than to actually kill a major character off-screen. And if someone like Daryl or Carol is going to actually die, it will milk the hell out of it.
So, yeah, it looks like Daryl got shot at the end, but he’s most likely not dead (who knows though, maybe he didn’t even get shot). The gun going off and the blood splattering on the screen was nothing more than a dumb trick. I think my disillusionment at this point with any efforts to toy with the audience’s emotions has been amplified by the Glenn fiasco. With the show’s current track record of feigning death, why be moved by anything less than a brutal, onscreen end (that can’t be explained away by tricky camera angles)? As someone who has shed a lot of tears for characters this show has killed over the years, I resent the The Walking Dead’s growing comfort with this kind of cynical manipulation. (That said, I really am worried about Maggie’s possible miscarriage. If that’s a fake-out too, I might have to set everything on fire.)
Am I being too harsh, David? What did you think about this whole mess—and the other B-plots? I feel like there’s more to unpack here, but mostly I’m excited for this season to be over, and for Negan to get here and shake things up.
David Sims: You are not being too harsh, Lenika. This was a befuddling episode, both in story and execution. Much like last week, there was a dreamy, impressionistic tone, from that opening in medias res that focused on a static shot of blood dripping from a stake as Carol executed her attackers on the road. It reminded me of some of TV’s best, most unheralded shows, like the Southern Gothic drama Rectify—but there, the dreamlike tone is part of a whole, whereas with The Walking Dead, it’s being deployed to mask odd story decisions and a general lack of forward narrative momentum.
Why did Carol leave? Last week’s episode was supposed to give us that grounding, as she recovers from the horrible events at Negan’s base and decides she can’t live the domestic life anymore. It didn’t make much sense last week, and this week just underlined how baffling her decision was, to pack a bag and drive into the wilderness alone. Days ago, she waged violent war against the Saviors, a society that supposedly governs several settlements in the area. Why on earth would you pick this moment to strike out alone, in a car no less?
Her showdown with those bandits, and that beautiful piece of acting as Carol pleaded with them for their lives, would have worked better if Carol’s motivations had been justified. Instead, I just couldn’t get over how quickly things went wrong for her. Within a day of leaving, her car was taken out and she had to murder four people just to keep surviving! No amount of clever filmmaking or good acting can get my mind past the foolishness of her move, especially on a show that’s still so heavily indebted to comic-book storytelling. These character decisions need to make sense, or the story twists will just feel cheap.
The same goes double for Daryl. I refuse to accept premise that the burn-scarred Dwight, who killed Denise last week in his shocking return, represents a major villain, or the conclusion of some master stroke of plotting that began with Daryl’s decision not to kill Dwight last year. If the show is trying to reinforce Rick’s “kill or be killed” philosophy, which he continued to espouse this week while trying to clean up all this mess with Morgan, that’s not really necessary.
In fact, the show’s attempts to have an ongoing philosophical debate on the nature of killing and evil in a world ridden with zombies and warlords are becoming increasingly ineffectual. The Walking Dead has been airing for six years now. People tune in for action, gripping suspense, and gory violence. The idea that the characters are going to be able to stop waging war with other humans is nonsensical from a story perspective. I appreciate the work actors like Melissa McBride and Lennie James have done to illustrate Carol and Morgan’s internal crises over this fact. It is, indeed, a horrifying world to comprehend, and it’s worthy to explore that. But when the show can’t figure out new ways to tackle this subject, it stops being profound and starts getting desperately boring.
Back to Daryl—he’s a master tactician and pretty much the best fighter in the entire cast. What is he thinking striking out alone, again, days after the raid on Negan’s camp, in search of one random person? The Walking Dead doesn’t work if these characters make such stupid decisions, and the endless tease every season over which main cast member is destined for the chopping block is an infuriating chore, as you mentioned, Lenika. Perhaps Daryl is dead at the hands of Dwight, shot for his infuriatingly thick-headed decision-making. More likely, this week’s cliffhanger ending was a fakeout, and next week we will finally meet Negan and have the whole thing teased all over again. Who will live? Who will die? I just don’t know that I care anymore.