There’s a scene in “Consumed” that I’d rank among the most effective sequences The Walking Dead has ever done. It’s not terrifying, at least not in the most immediate sense of that word; neither of the characters involved (Daryl, Carol) are in physical danger, and the walkers we see are more pathetic than threatening. The whole thing takes place in maybe three minutes, and it’s largely wordless (the gap between the show’s visual storytelling and its dialogue is narrowing, but still large). It references information that hasn’t been a major issue on the series since midway through the second season, and even more impressively, there’s no effort to remind viewers of what’s going on. No one says, “Oh, this is affecting Carol because she used to be a mother and her daughter was turned, and we’re seeing a zombie woman and a little girl zombie.” You’re required to put everything together yourself, based on the few bits of backstory that had come out over the hour, Carol’s history on the series, and the expressions on both actors faces.

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That sort of trust in the audience is an incredibly valuable tool, and what makes it all the more impressive is how matter-of-factly everything plays out. This happens about halfway through the hour; it fits in thematically, as the episode’s focus is on Carol and the changes she’s gone through since the world ended, but it doesn’t move the plot forward or alter our perception of either her or Daryl. It’s just texture, and a reminder to the audience that no matter how good these characters have gotten at survival, and no matter how harshly the new world treats them, they’ve still got old lives lurking around every corner.

This is a large part of why The Walking Dead has gotten so good this season: The writers have found a way to exploit subtext and history in compelling, haunting ways. The constant threat of death keeps moments like Carol and Daryl’s encounter with the mom and daughter zombie pair (in another beautiful touch, Daryl takes care of the pair while Carol is sleeping; Carol and Daryl do a fair bit of talking through this episode, but the sight of him burning those bodies wrapped in blankets says more about their friendship than any words) from becoming completely stress free, but the real crisis is about trying to move on through an environment that seems to require you to be unthinkingly ruthless. Everyone has been thrown time and again into situations where the only way forward is to sacrifice some small part of your humanity—and yet those parts never really go away. And every walker is a reminder of what happens when you have no humanity left.

This concept lurks in the background for most of “Consumed,” an intimate, melancholy hour that fills in the space between Daryl and Carol leaving the group and Carol ending up where Beth is. From a narrative standpoint, the scenes of Carol and Daryl poking around Atlanta aren’t strictly necessary. Most of what happens here, at least in broad strokes, could’ve been inferred once we saw Daryl with Noah back at the church, and while it’s a clever twist to discover that Carol didn’t choose to get captured, that information could’ve been revealed in dialogue later on. This episode is mostly about mood and character work; and the fact that I can say that, and also say “It does a damn good job at both,” is impressive.

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This isn’t flawless. “Self Help” was slightly stronger, if only because the story focus was cleaner, and built to a stronger conclusion. Here, we have flashbacks to Carol at various points at her life; some conversation about what it means to survive, and the hard choices both she and Daryl have made, and will make again; and the occasional reminder of the person she was before the dead started to rise. There are good ideas here, but there’s not a lot of clarity to them, and too many of the conversations between her and Daryl sound like conversations we’ve heard before, two characters arguing in generic terms about what kind of people they need to be to move forward. As solid as the series has gotten, it still struggles a bit when anyone starts talking philosophy; there needs to be an immediate crisis on hand to give those exchanges weight.

It doesn’t help that the end of the hour is, by necessity, a cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve or really comment on Carol’s character arc. After running into Noah a second time, and teaming up with him once they realize he knows about the hospital and Beth, Carol runs into the street and gets hit by one of the white cross cars. The last scene is of Daryl and Noah driving back to the church for reinforcements. It’s an exciting moment, but as an ending, it doesn’t pull the disparate threads together so much as chop them off all at once.

But “Consumed” is strong because it’s haunting and melancholy throughout, and because it focuses on arguably the show’s strongest relationship. (It’s fascinating how there’s absolutely no romantic tension between Daryl and Carol; in theory they could hook up, but the idea is utterly irrelevant to what makes them so great together.) Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus do fine work as always, and McBride is especially great; while her character’s evolution came in fits and starts, the actress manages to pull all of that together into a consistent, and endlessly fascinating, persona. I could spend a whole season watching these two just wandering around, debating their past and the value of abstract art.

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Also, there’s a bit where they ride a van off a bridge which is amazing. So even if not every conversation rings true, the foundation is there. The dialogue is rarely the most important piece of The Walking Dead anyway. The show has become a mixture of terrific set-pieces, enjoyable characters, and heartbreaking visuals; there’s a feeling to it at its best, a feeling that’s at once hopeless and determined, of people struggling to turn themselves into stone. Despair is always going to be an element in their lives, but by finding a way to keep them moving forward, by creating a series of smaller objectives so that no one ever spends too much time focusing on the big one (i.e. staying alive in a world where you will almost certainly die a horrible death), the writers have managed to keep that despair at bay. It’s a neat trick. Even neater: I’m actually looking forward to each new episode. I did not see that coming.

Stray observations:

  • That van sequence was just fantastic. I have no idea if it would work in real life (they were lucky that the van did a somersault as it came down), but I don’t care; the build-up to the moment, the sudden plunge, and then the steady fall of walkers jumping off the bridge to follow them was really well done.
  • The encounters with Noah made sense, although it was slightly embarrassing to see him get the drop on Carol and Daryl so easily the first time. The ending was rushed, because it needed to get so much resolved at once, but I liked the idea of Noah still wandering around the periphery of the hospital. He has an injured leg, and he’s on his own; there’s no place else for him to go.
  • Carol and her daughter once spent a day in the temporary housing where she and Daryl spend the night. Given all that’s happened, it’s easy to forget that Carol used to be married to an abusive asshole (oh, and her daughter died horribly, can’t forget that), and the show’s occasional reminders of this have been gratifyingly empathetic.
  • Another reason this season is working so well: a smart balance of single-focus episodes and sprawling, multi-centered ones. Just staying on one group for an entire hour helps so much. It creates tension, makes it easier to invest in the characters, and makes for far more coherent storytelling. Episodes feel like discrete units, as opposed to just collections of scenes that will maybe matter once the whole season is done. It’s refreshing.
  • Daryl nearly leaves Noah to die after he endangers Carol. Moral: do not endanger Carol.

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