“East,” the last episode before The Walking Dead introduces its skull-bashing villain Negan, is mostly an hour of half-baked heroics that devolve into contrived crises. One after another, six survivors barrel out of Alexandria (all at the same time, leaving the town dangerously vulnerable to attack) and maneuver themselves into harm’s way. Morgan chases Carol and Rick chases Morgan, while Daryl storms off and Glenn, Rosita, and Michonne follow. Everyone nearly gets killed, four people end up captured, and nobody gets what they came here for.
With heroes like these, who needs villains?
Carol and Daryl’s decisions are especially confounding in this hour—they act impulsively, even irrationally, showing an uncharacteristic carelessness that puts members of the only “family” they know in danger.
Carol leaves Alexandria because, by her own twisted logic, loving people means having to kill for them, which she is no longer willing to do. Fair enough. Though it’s understandably bothered others to see the unstoppable Carol back down from her no mercy killer’s mindset, I do buy into the foundations for this shift, which have been quietly laid out over the past season—from that first cigarette drag after the Wolves attacked Alexandria, to the events of “The Same Boat.”
But that’s where the logic ends. Carol packs some to-go snacks and hits the road alone. Does she mean to protect someone by leaving? If so, who? Herself? The Alexandrians? We certainly know the Saviors would benefit from her absence. (In fact, the ill-fated bunch she runs into reveal they were on their way to the town already.)
Carol also knows better than to think striking out on her own might grant her respite from killing. With the Hilltop Colony and the Saviors’ compound within a day’s traveling distance (albeit in the opposite direction) there was always a non-negligible chance of running into hostile human enemies. The only way to avoid killing that we’ve seen so far is either to become a hermit, like Morgan’s old mentor Eastman, or team up with someone willing to kill for you. Carol left town alone, with a gun!
Most bothersome, however, is the implicit assertion that Carol wouldn’t care if people from Alexandria put themselves in danger to come looking for her. She’s been part of Rick’s group longer than anyone except Glenn and Daryl—she has to have known they’d send someone to bring her back, no matter what instructions she left in that letter. Sure enough, Morgan and this episode’s tough-talking, trigger-happy version of Rick chase after her—and soon find themselves outnumbered by the walkers infesting a farm.
Still, Walking Dead MVP Melissa McBride does her darnedest to communicate Carol’s anguish through her reprisal of the “little bird” act from “The Same Boat.” This time, the tears are sincere. And when she begs those Saviors to stop, we know she’s begging for their lives, not hers. Turmoil is clearly consuming her and she feels trapped by her own guilty conscience. It’s not a foolproof explanation, but it’s the only one we get.
And now we come to the curious case of Daryl Dixon, who functions this week as a kamikaze bundle of angst and spectacularly bad judgment. Daryl rockets away from Alexandria like an angry teenager (“Where are you going?” “Out!”), alone, driven by guilt over Denise’s death, directly toward Dwight and his crew of Saviors.
Daryl knew from their last encounter that he’d be outnumbered. But he runs off anyway in order to…what? To deliver an impassioned speech? Magically fire arrows into all 15 or so men? Nothing he does here makes any sense. Daryl has a big heart but he’s not a moron, and he certainly isn’t suicidal—at least, not unless the show suddenly wants him to be.
The Walking Dead has struggled for a while now to find a role in the main narrative for Daryl. (This is one reason some theorize Daryl will be on the receiving end of Negan’s baseball bat next week.) But rather than have him serve some practical purpose, like being the person Carol opens up to about her guilt, thus offering both characters an alternative to leaving town like lunatics, the show sent Daryl into a self-sabotaging spiral.
And again, like Carol, Daryl’s been around long enough to know that two or three of his friends would inevitably come after him—but he “doesn’t give a shit,” to use his words. Glenn, Rosita, and Michonne, three of Alexandria’s most essential defenders, end up at the mercy of Dwight and the Saviors because of Daryl’s personal, pointless vendetta.
And for what? As voice-of-reason Glenn points out in the middle of Daryl’s rampage, Denise is long gone. She was sacrificed to the same cause last week that claims so many of TV’s lesbians: death by shoddy plot device to pump life back into a male character’s story. “You’re doing this for you,” Glenn tells Daryl, underscoring his selfishness. Sadly, Daryl doesn’t listen.
He charges ahead, gets everyone captured and quickly finds himself on the wrong end of Dwight’s gun. In the episode’s startling last image, Dwight shoots Daryl (or at least, shoots at Daryl—we all know how poor Dwight’s aim is) just as he’s turning around. Blood splatters all over the camera, making it impossible to tell exactly where the bullet lands, or how serious the injury is.
While this almost certainly isn’t how Daryl dies—as reluctant as I am to take Dwight at his word, he probably will be all right—it puts our heroes at a disastrous disadvantage for next week’s finale. After a short, sweet moment of bliss in the shower, Maggie and Glenn are separated again—with two-months-pregnant Maggie now in frighteningly premature labor. Morgan and Carol are off on their own, Team Alexandria is down six of its best fighters, and now the Saviors have four of our heroes in their (and soon, Negan’s) clutches. With luck, next week these characters will begin acting rationally again—they should, at least, if this show wants us to root for them to survive.