I have a confession to make: when it comes to scenes of characters looting through the remnants of a once thriving society, the magic is gone. These scenes have always been one of The Walking Dead’s most essential pleasures, a kind of muted, post-capitalist fantasy of scrounging your way through the world, taking what you needed where you found it, and not giving a damn about cash or credit. The only currency that mattered was what you were willing to do to protect what you had. That’s a brutal metric, but it’s also a freeing one, especially when we’re not the ones engaging in it. No one on the show has to worry about saving for college.

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That’s still more or less true even with Alexandria, but the novelty has worn out. “Always Accountable” has Sasha and Abraham making their way through a town, finding what they can find, and when their story began, I had a certain sinking sensation. As good as the show has become at telling silent stories with the artifacts of a bygone age, there are only so many times you can see words scrawled on a wall, or a half-packed suitcase, or an overturned tricycle, before the symbols lose their impact. Our heroes are living in the graveyard of the world. That’s a potent, powerful idea, but it’s been there since the start, and at a certain point, being sad about all those dead fictional people we never met is just not enough to hold my interest.

Thankfully, Abraham and Sasha had a bit more to do than just grave-rob, and even more importantly, Daryl was off having his own adventure, one which tangentially introduced us to what’s sure to be the series’ next big threat. After successfully leading the main zombie herd twenty miles away from Alexandria, the three are ready to head home when an ambush (or else a run in with somebody else’s car chase) throws everything to shit. Sasha and Abraham total their car in the ensuing fracas, and Daryl is separated from the other two, ultimately crashing his bike in a burned out forest.

And when I say “burned out,” I mean that literally. There’s a story here, and everything that happens to Daryl in the woods feeds into that story. This episode is meant to tell us why it’s taken Sasha, Abraham, and Daryl to get back to Alexandria, but if it that was the only thing it accomplished, it would be wasted time. So we get some character building for Abraham, a potential new romance between him and Sasha, and, perhaps most importantly, we get an introduction to what’s sure to be a major foe in the weeks ahead.

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That introduction is a fascinating exercise in limited information. The show passed my limited knowledge of the comics ages ago, so I have no real context to draw on to try and piece this all together; instead of being frustrating, though, that made Daryl’s encounter with the Earners (sorry, best name I could come up with) all the more compelling. In general, The Walking Dead tends to spell out its story beats, often to the point of redundancy. Here, though, while it’s not impossible to figure out what happened, you have to work a little to figure it out. This mimics Daryl’s own position in the narrative. He’s stumbled into someone else’s plotline, and he’s as lost as the rest of us.

So far as I can tell, what happens is: Daryl finds a couple of women in the woods (one of whom is named Tina—she’s the only one who’s name I got, and the only who dies, which is less than helpful), before getting knocked out by a guy he didn’t see coming. The three tie Daryl up and treat him like he’s part of some group they just escaped from, a different colony of survivors with apparently far stricter rules than the folks have back at Alexandria. The trio is trying to meet up with some people they left behind, but the area is a wasteland; we learn later the burning was caused by an inelegant plan to clear the area of walkers, a plan that results in deaths of some innocent bystanders, including the pair that get Tina killed.

Daryl escapes from the trio, but inadvertently steals their supply of insulin in the process. Because he’s a good guy, he brings the insulin back, but manages to get caught up in their story once again when the real bad guys show up. We only get glimpses of them through the trees, but it’s enough to tell they’re well-organized. They know how to deal with zombie bites, too; one guy loses an arm. Between that, and various comments from the idiots who take Daryl hostage, a picture emerges; these Earners work on some kind of enforced labor system, with very harsh penalties for disobedience.

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Harsh enough anyway for the two idiots to get the drop on Daryl a second time and steal his bike. (Tina is dead from an earlier walker attack, reinforcing how poorly prepared all three of these morons are.) The idea being that as bad as things were back at their old camp, it was still better than wandering the countryside with no protection at all. While that’s not new information, (the idea that running around alone is a good way to get killed has been an important part of the show’s DNA from the start), it does help to set up stakes for when the Alexandrians and the Others finally face off against one another. Once again, we find two settlements with opposing viewpoints put into conflict, and once again, we’re reminded the cost of failure.

Meanwhile, we get inside Abraham’s head and see that he’s struggling to cope in this new, “safe” world; a world where every day isn’t necessarily a life or death proposition, where he might survive for long enough to have to plan for a future. It’s a decent concept, made more compelling by the largely silent sequence when he faces off against an impaled zombie, risking his neck to get a rocket launcher. It’s a great piece of work, both in the acting and in the eventual resolution. Abraham’s pushing himself because he needs that conflict, that clarity, but he’s finally able to step back—and when he does, the problem solves itself. It’s hard to tell how long he, or anyone else, will last on the show, but at least now he looks like he’s taking steps towards the long-term. As for him and Sasha hooking up, we’ll have to see.

We’ll have to see about a lot of things, really. Most of what happens in “Always Accountable” is about laying the groundwork for the future. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the final seconds. Daryl has found the fuel tanker the idiots mentioned earlier, and he and the others are finally driving back home. He turns on the walkie-talkie, and searches for a signal. What he gets in response is a single word: “Help.” Which isn’t an unusual word for this show, but that sure sounded like Glenn’s voice.

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Stray observations

  • Daryl’s big fight with a walker midway through the episode (after he’s escaped from the others) is one of the dumber suspense sequences the show’s done in a while. Maybe he’s just too tired to think clearly, but the fact that he stands there trying to yank his crossbow free when he could’ve easily just jogged a few yards away and bought himself some breathing room makes the whole situation more absurd than suspenseful.
  • On the plus side, his decision to bring the insulin back, and his insistence that the idiots give him something for his troubles, was hilarious and endearing.
  • I wonder if we’ll get the backstory on all those burned out locations. It seems to have some connection to this new group—at one point, one of the three who grabs Daryl says something to the effect of “We did this”—and I can see that making a certain kind of horrible sense.
  • “We earn what we took.” This is going to be important later on, I’m thinking. (It also helps to justify why Idiot 1 and Idiot 2 steal Daryl’s bike and crossbow at the end. Maybe it’ll help pay off their “debt.”)
  • An earlier version of this review failed to explain why the forest was burned; my apologies, it was sloppy writing on my part. Also, I don’t know the difference between a rocket launcher and an RPG launcher, although I feel less bad about that.

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