When season 5 is finally done, and we look back at the somewhat constrained reasons the group split up immediately after finally meeting back up at Terminus, one truth will stand out: That, whatever its issues, gave as "Consumed," an episode of Daryl and Carol being awesome. And that, my friends, will be enough.
It's tough to quantify how much the characters of Daryl and Carol make this episode work, or how much its powered by the quiet badassery/quieter desperation revealed by Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride. Certainly it's not exactly plot-driven, seeing as D&C basically only discover where Beth is being held before… uh, complications occur. It's not action-packed; most of the episode is centered around D&C hunting, hiding, looking, etc. It's also a very quiet episode, as neither Daryl nor Carol are the group's resident chatterboxes.
And yet "Consumed" is going to stick with me as much as season 3's "Clear", I think. I don't believe the writing in last night's episode matches up, but when you have two of the episodes best characters portrayed by two of the show's best actors, and you can let their relationship and history and past acts, well, you don't really need much dialogue. Daryl and Carol are comfortable with their silences, and more impressively, so is the adudience.
The episode begins with D&C following the station wagon with the white cross into Atlanta (with the complete lack of electricity, all Daryl has to do to follow them effectively is not turn his lights on. It's all also nicely creepy, too). But they lose the trail when the car dies, and they're forced to hold up in a place Carol knows… a shelter for abused women, where she hid from her shitty, abusive husband prior to the apocalypse. Given how far Carol has come since then — well, both her and her character — this place feels completely foreign to her and us. Since losing her shitty husband and her daughter Sophia, Carol has become the person she thought she'd always wanted to be — strong, reliant, a protector, even when — especially when someone needed to sacrifice her morality to ensure the safety of the group. She didn't think she'd had anything left of herself to lose.
Which is why it's so marvelous that Daryl is the key to her… I don't want to say "reawakening," but he really brings her back to life in a way she hadn't been since burning those two bodies back at the prison (and given the title and subject of the show let's not pretend no pun was intended). Carol's put on a hard shell in order to allow her to do the terrible things she's felt need to be done, and it's made her dead inside. But Daryl has a connection to her that completely bypasses that, and in fact has only been made stronger by their long separation. Carol and Daryl are open with each other in a way that when they talk life, the universe, and everything with nearly obnoxious portentousness — "I don't think we get to save people any more." — it works for those two characters, together, in a way no other pair on The Walking Dead could.
These conversations, as well as a few flashbacks to Carol's journey after Rick sent her away, and a few of her after he most traumatic events, fill the time as D&C journey through Atlanta, trying to figure out where the hell Beth is being kept. A journey through a parking garage leads to a group of zombies who turned in their camping equipment, and are now stuck in sleeping bags and tents. D&C just manage to spot an abandoned van with the white cross hanging precariously off an interstate bridge when they're accosted by Noah, the guy who Beth managed to help escape from the hospital!
Of course, it's not like they know each other, so Noah robs them for their guns and frees the tent zombies, less to kill them and more to give him a chance to escape (he's still hobbling). But Noah isn't particularly good at the apocalypse, and never thinks they might have more than one weapon; the only reason Noah gets away is because Daryl stops Carol from shooting him (Carol claims she was going to shoot him in the leg, but that probably still would have been an eventual death sentence for him).
Now Carol and Daryl are forced to navigate zombie-filled Atlanta knife and handgun, and then get in a van about to fall off an overpass to search for clues. Daryl spots the hospital's name on a gurney, but by then zombies have surrounded the van and they're no longer armed enough to take them. Suffice it to say, they buckle up and tip the van over themselves; Carol hurts her shoulder, but they survive the fall (and the literal rain of zombies that follows them).
Here's where it gets a bit goofy. D&C travel to a tall building opposite the hospital to stake it out, and somehow they end up pretty much down the hall from Noah, trying to desperately to escape a zombie. Suffice it to say, Noah ends up under a bookcase with a zombie trying to get at him, and D&C get their weapons. This time, it's Daryl who's ready to leave Noah for dead — he gave him one chance already, after all — and Carol who wants to help the poor, terrified boy. Of course Daryl relents and saves the boy at the very last second, which is good because Noah warns them that the gun fire will have probably attract the hospital "staff" — which means Daryl can ask him about the hospital, and Noah can confirm that Beth is being held there.
And that's about the last good news this new trio has. As they try to escape the hospital, Carol — who is still wounded from the van — is absolutely mauled by the hospital's car (it's brutal). Daryl's ready to rush out to get her, but Noah stops him with the obvious knowledge that the hospital is kind of evil they will treat her and they have skills and supplies Daryl can't match. So Daryl and Noah find a new car and head back to the church. The hospital has people and guns? Well, so does Daryl.
This all sounds pretty straightforward, but there were a few individual moments that I thought helped make "Consumed" so special beyond the D&C Music Factory. Normally I put these more individual thoughts in "Assorted Musings," but these are important enough I felt I should mention them here:
• First great moment: When D&C hear a bump in the shelter, investigate, and the shadowed form of a female zombie begins pounding on the door… followed by the zombie shadow of a little girl. Given Carol's past tragedies, this should hit her unreasonably hard, but instead she goes blank and starts to head in to kill them. Daryl stop her in one of the episode's most moving sequences, despite Carol being unemotionless — because we and Daryl know that her blankness is far more anguishing that if she were truly upset. The next morning, Carol wakes to find Daryl has taken care of them, and is burning them on a pyre (in the scene we saw previewed last week). Carol is grateful, but between the lines, we know Daryl has spared his friend a world of pain. (Also it's still a delightful surprise when TWD does anything between the lines.)
• Second great moment: When Carol tries to hand Daryl his bag and the book about dealing with survivors of child abuse falls out. It's a quick moment, reasonably subtle, but the look it offers at Daryl — and a confirmation of how much he's changed (can you imagine season one Daryl being that honest with himself to pick up this book? Of course not) is wonderful. Even more powerful is Daryl's reaction, which is a mix of shame and embarrassment, tempered with the fact that if there's anybody he would feel comfortable sharing this with it would be Carol, because Carol would never judge him for it or think of him any differently. And she absolutely doesn't.
• Third: The van. Look, the moment anyone sees a car half hanging off something, be it a bridge, a cliff, or an overpass, we all know it's going to fall off, usually right after the heroes manage to escape. I was afraid TWD was going there, and was pleasantly surprised they kept Carol and Daryl in it, and had them drop it on purpose to escape a pack of zombies. When it hit the ground, I literally said aloud "Please let the zombies follow them," and then, from inside the van there was the wonderful sound of the first zombie hitting the roof, followed by a dozen more. It was awesome, it was funny, it was creepy, and it was perfectly staged.
One more thought: I'm guessing despite the fact TWD makes a zillion dollars, it doesn't have enough money to give us a believable post-apocalyptic Atlanta every episode, but man, seeing a city that large that destroyed sells the zombie apocalypse like no prison or Woodbury or Terminus ever can. It's one thing to watch our survivors poke around the ruins of various towns and buildings, but seeing the utter vastness of a dead city ups The Walking Dead's horror level considerably. It really helped set "Consumed" apart.
After the episode was over, I wondered if I felt cheated that it only featured D&C's journey to the hospital, and was slightly surprised that the answer was "no." I should have been annoyed how the show doled out information to Daryl and Carol that they audience already knew, that it should have felt like wasting time, but Walking Dead has gotten so much better with its character writing that I was perfectly content to watch Daryl and Carol reconnect after their long separation… only to separate again. If you have any question about why this episode was so great, go back and watch Daryl's face as he and Noah drive away from Atlanta. Not a word is said, we've just finally caught but seeing the anguish and self-loathing and anger flash back and forth across Norman Reedus' face is everything you need to know. Sometimes you can say more without saying a word, and Daryl, Carol and The Walking Dead proved it last night.
• Now for the random shit.
• It was not one of the episode's most powerful moments, but man I loved the camping zombies in the parking garage. I loved how it told it's own little story all by itself, I loved how goofy it was, I loved how it turned into an actual threat. It wasn't brilliant, it was just really well done and really creative, and I wish TWD did a bit more of that — using zombies to tell a story unto themselves.
• It wasn't enough of a moment to get mentioned above, but man that scene when Daryl says, "I know what happened. You're here and they're not," referring to the girls, and Carol replies with pain and sadness and detachment, "It was worse than that." …damn. McBride nailed it.
• I also loved Daryl trying to bluff his way to a "You're crazy, lady!" when Carol says she likes the dog-shit art when he's embarrassed they differ in opinion. That's how I read it, anyways.
• "We ain't ashes." Incredibly on-the-nose dialogue, still works because Daryl and Carol can have these kind of conversation and make them sound genuinely meaningful instead of like bad writing.
• That's a fantastically awesome zombie kill when Daryl puts his machete through about 3/4ths of a zombie's skull.
• Carol gets hits by the hospital's car almost immediately after exiting the building, so I suppose the car hit her accidentally. But I'm assuming the hospital bastards would have hit her intentionally if they'd been given a chance, so whatever.
• So I'm still foggy on how this whole hospital plan works. Find people, hurt them, kidnap them, heal them and make them work off their help… for what? Just to help kidnap more people it seems. It's like a pyramid scheme based entirely on beating people up.
• So I guess we can assume that it's Noah that Daryl tells to come out from the bushes in the cliffhanger a few episodes back, which isn't much of a cliffhanger, but I can see how it had to be held back. I guess Daryl's weird behavior is because he's a bit ashamed to have gone off after Beth, come back without her and lost Carol along the way, too.
• If the cigarette industry wants to make smoking look cool again, all they would really need to do is print ads of Jon Hamm smoking in Mad Man, and commercials of Daryl smoking while killing zombies. Everyone on earth starts smoking the next day. Boom.