Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

The Walking Dead and the Long Road to Redemption

Dissecting "Consumed," the sixth episode of the fifth season

Gene Page/AMC

Lenika Cruz and David Sims discuss the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Cruz: David, before I say anything else, I have to say: We were right! As we speculated would happen a couple episodes ago, Noah crossed paths with Carol and Daryl, and it seems the next ostensible mission for the show now is to bust Beth out of Slabtown. And now we know who’s emerging from the woods back at the church with Daryl. Obviously, we’re not oracles for expecting the plot to unfold the way it did in the latest episode. Despite the show’s slow-burn, nonlinear turn these last few weeks, this fortuitous union seemed inevitable. In other words, there was no way I believed Daryl and Carol were going to let Noah die under that bookcase, no matter how close that walker got to his jugular, even if he stole Daryl's beloved crossbow.

Backing up a little, the Tormented Twosome Carol and Daryl make their way into Atlanta in hopes of finding Beth. While in the city, they spend a lot of time skulking around with guns, getting spooked by walkers, and staring side-by-side out windows, waxing philosophical about What It All Means and how they’ve changed. When Noah shows up as the episode’s pseudo-antagonist, we realize quickly what’s going on and hope someone says the word "Beth" soon. Interspersed are flashbacks to different points in Carol’s life that have been punctuated by fire, a nice little poetic motif. Fire cleanses and destroys. People use it to burn away disease, to put the dead to rest, as a weapon against enemies, to survive. For better or worse, fire consumes indiscriminately.

And now our suspicions have been confirmed that Grady Memorial Hospital will be the next locale for the group to stage yet another “let’s save our friends and take down another terrible group while we’re at it” scene. (The backbone of The Walking Dead is dystopia tourism, where each season offers a closer look at new way humans have found to build disturbing and twisted societies out of the anarchic rubble).

Sims: You’re absolutely right—we knew there was no way Carol and Daryl (Caryl?) would let Noah perish under that bookcase, and still that felt like the pivotal moment of the episode for me. Carol is wrestling with all of her darkness—killing Karen and David, the death of the children last season, bringing down Terminus in flames—each glimpsed in brief flashback throughout this fantastic, quiet episode. She’s also wrestling with her faith, an aspect of her character I’d sort of forgotten. Carol was, at least at one point, deeply religious, yes? Maybe that’s more part of her old identity as a mother and wife, but I remember her insisting at one point that her daughter was in heaven. Well, now Carol’s pretty sure she’s going to hell, which is quite a thing to think when you live in a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s enough to keep her (and the similarly gloomy Daryl) going.

Carol is radiating enough darkness that Daryl has to bat her gun down when she takes a pot-shot at Noah after he steals their weapons. He’s a kid trying to survive, Daryl says—he doesn’t deserve to die. Carol insists she was shooting to wound, but Daryl’s action clearly makes an impact, because when they incapacitate Noah later, she’s the one who convinces Daryl to save the kid’s life. Every time The Walking Dead looks like it’s about to get too dark, things like that happen—Carol and Daryl rescue Noah because it’s the right thing to do, and in turn Noah promises to help Daryl recover Carol, captured by Slabtown goons, and Beth, because both of them worked to help him. Fundamental human decency for the win.

This episode continues an A+ run for the show this season, which is increasingly showing that its recent run of success is no fluke (and other critics who had given up on the show are also catching on). The Walking Dead has always excelled at episodes like this—quiet, atmospheric hours with a lot of zombie-killing and snatches of dialogue that say more than an introspective soliloquy could. It helps that Carol and Daryl are probably my two favorite characters, but I have to applaud the mastery with which this season is being knit together.

Cruz: I’m glad you commented on Caryl’s dynamic in this episode. Though both are clearly the strongest of the strong—as Noah pointed out before he slashed open the tent of zombies for his getaway—that doesn’t mean they don’t need each other. But more than that, neither is above accepting help and admitting weakness around the other, which is especially meaningful in a world where such vulnerability typically comes at a cost. Daryl and Carol just get each other in a way we rarely see with other pairings on the show. Their intuitive synchronicity in navigating the abandoned buildings, or the way they sat in stunned silence inside the crashed van as walker blood streamed down the windshield (maybe my favorite shot of the entire episode), says more about their deep trust and affection for one another than any brooding window-side musing could.

While the first thing I did after finishing this episode was congratulate myself on having figured out the rough trajectory of the rest of the season, I also realized I got something else wrong. As I mentioned in our previous chat about “Slabtown” a couple episodes ago, I was worried that Carol would fit in too neatly—ideologically speaking—with the ruthlessly utilitarian hospital gang. This episode more than allayed my fears. I see nothing utilitarian about Carol saving Noah’s life after he stole all their weapons, and there’s certainly nothing utilitarian about the two of them wandering far from the safety of the church in search of Beth. No, this show has showed us the myriad ways in which different characters have seemingly reached the edge and stared down into the proverbial abyss, only to come back into their humanity. It happened with Rick after Lori’s death, it happened with Carl, with Tyreese after Karen’s death, with Michonne, and now it’s happened with Carol. No, I don’t doubt that she will wake up in the hospital and, like Beth, immediately begin scheming for a way out, eyes always on the exit.

Sims: Good point; this set-up is another testament to how well this show seems to be planning with more than just the next episode in mind. Earlier seasons felt like they had an endgame, but not much middle. Here, plot twists and character development seem much more connected and play into each other seamlessly. When the eventual showdown at Slabtown arrives, we’ll have all the information even if all the characters don’t (I know I shouldn’t be so excited for something that hasn’t even happened yet, but I am). I can’t wait to see what Carol makes of the hospital, or what Rick and company make of Noah. That anticipation is something The Walking Dead has never brought out in me, except for maybe wanting to know where Morgan Jones (Lennie James) is (when’s that gonna get tied in?)

Anyway, I think “Consumed” is my favorite episode of the season so far. Part of that is the characters; part of that is the spare, silent atmosphere, which really engrossed me. And there’s always the zombie-killing: It’s weird how much relief a nice bit of head-stabbing action can provide on this show, while all the drama and sense of danger comes from the evil people (the real tension will erupt when Carol wakes up in that hospital). Also important to note: As sad as this is, we only have two more episodes of The Walking Dead left before the show goes on its traditional break (it will return in February per AMC’s usual scheduling). For the first time it almost feels like the show has too much story to get through before what I assume will be the climactic mid-season moment of a Slabtown battle. As we head deeper into this arc, I get the feeling that the various characters’ narratives will remain splintered for a while before uniting again, but if that means more episodes like “Consumed,” I’m just fine with that.