“Still” finds The Walking Dead in stall mode, removing even the slightest hint of plot in favor of an hour long diversion about Beth and Daryl bonding over moonshine and arson. How you take this is in part dependent on how much forward momentum you need in your serialized television. It’s hard to ignore that the show’s writers are currently trying to balance the number of episodes left in the season against what plotlines they want to leave open for next fall; it’s entirely possible that next week could find Rick’s trio, or Tyreese and Carol and the girls, showing up in Sanctuary, or Maggie and Glenn stumbling across each other in a field of flower-strewn corpses, but something has gotta be left over. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see Sanctuary before the end, but any serious plotting will be hold off until next season. (I have no idea about Glenn and Maggie. I was hoping it would get resolved quickly, and maybe it will, but I’m worried this is going to turn into some kind of epic search of looooove, and that might be dire.) So that leaves, what, four episodes, plus this one, and no immediate focus to fill them with.
So we get slower storytelling, but then, slower storytelling has always been a major tactic for the series. The “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” style works well enough when a bunch of really terrible things happen in a row (as they so often do), but it falters when there’s nothing major to report, leaving ill-formed characters to squabble and circle each other with constantly shifting, and rarely compelling, motives. What’s been mildly impressive about this season is that at least people are starting to behave with more consistency. It doesn’t always work—see the attempts to explain the Governor, which pretty much did, but the guy was such a creep that who cares—but it least suggests that the people behind the scenes are working to try and create a better dramatic foundation; actions now exist within a larger framework of character, and slowly but surely, the ensemble is start to look more and more like individuals, and not just interchangeable pieces in a machine that chews up hope.
Where, then, does that leave “Still”? It’s well-intentioned, I think, and I’ll give it points for that; and sections of the episode do work well enough, in terms of helping us know Beth and Daryl better, and understand what they’re struggling with. But the episode also relies heavily on characters shouting what should be left as subtext. It’s an hour that I can respect more for its goals than I can for the actual result, but I wouldn’t say the results are a total loss, either. Basically, it’s filler; and filler is always a risky prospect, because if it’s not excellent, the lack of reason for the episode’s existence (outside the need to fill time) becomes almost like an insult. Plot isn’t a guarantee of quality, but it does at least offer the comforting illusion that everything we’re watching is heading somewhere. No plot is a bit like walking a tightrope without a net: it’s more impressive, but there’s a lot farther to fall.
Beth and Daryl’s quest for booze doesn’t entirely collapse, but it wobbles considerably, and a good deal of the episode is taken up with scenes that have become very familiar in recent weeks: there’s dodging zombies in the woods, and then there’s finding the remnants of some other story the heroes just happen to wander through, long after all the blood has dried. The latter is well past its sell-by date, as seeing characters hiding behind trees, or herds of walkers fumbling through endless green backdrops, just doesn’t have much of a charge anymore. (The episode’s cold open, which had Daryl and Beth hiding in the trunk of a car, was a decent variation on the idea, relying more on sound design and tight, murky close-ups for effect.) But it’s disappointing how quickly the clues to the past have turned into a routine. Our heroes break into the main house of a golf club and find soiled mattresses and corpses everywhere, suggesting the aftermath of some hellish, doomed community; there are even signs and messages in various places, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, a room full of hanged corpses that have long ago turned into zombies—they wait, suspended, grunting and shuddering in the dark.
It makes sense that the writers would try and use some of this background information (like, say, a mutilated corpse torso on mannequin legs with a “Rich Bitch” sign hung around its neck) in order to foreshadow some of the class issues that drunken Daryl rants about later on. And the reminder that other people are struggling and dying while our heroes have their own problems helps place events in a larger context, and also subtly reinforce the stakes. But while this hasn’t become tedious yet, it’s also doesn’t generate enough dramatic tension to justify the time spent. These people are, after all dead, and as fitfully interesting as it is to imagine what might have been, we don’t get enough information to form a coherent picture—it’s texture, not exposition, and while that has its uses, it should be the background, not the focus.
All of this does inform Daryl’s eventual blow-up, when, drunk on moonshine, frustrated with a game of “Never Have I Ever,” and dealing with all the grief and rage he’s kept at bay for the past few days (weeks? Daryl isn’t really the emotive type), he rants at Beth about how he didn’t have all the special wonderful things she had. Then he tries her to force her to learn how to use the crossbow, which goes about as well as you’d expect. It’s unsettling to see Daryl, who’s arguably the show’s most stable, consistent character, take a turn for the shouty; while he’s struggled before (mostly in trying to handle his relationship with Merle—remember ghost Merle?), this time he’s alone with someone who’s vulnerable and doesn’t have anyone else to turn to. It makes for some queasy, dangerous tension, a level of unease that may be darker than even the writers realize. A rant like this needs to play as the culmination of a lot of building, stymied emotion, and while Daryl’s usual reticence suggests he’s holding something back, the sudden explosion here feels forced, contrived; the alcohol he’s drinking is a passable excuse, but he turns on Beth so forcefully that it makes him a bully, in a way that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Beth isn’t enough of a presence to really register as an opponent, and she makes a ludicrous stand-in for, say, Rick, a person whom Daryl has a legitimate grudge against.
The problem isn’t so much that the sequence is completely impossible—the problem is that it’s so clearly designed by the writers to serve as an emotional crux for the entire story that the intention distracts from the effect. This kind of storytelling is more challenging than throwing together a group of people and a group of monsters and seeing what happens. It requires events to develop as naturally as possible (I mean, people vs. zombies is pretty “natural,” but the objectives on both sides are so clear that it doesn’t take much work to get to the fireworks factory). Sections of “Still” manage this, but Dary’s brief turn into asshole territory is too much of a jump; it’s disturbing, but in an unsatisfying way, just as Beth’s decision to stand up for herself and yell at him about how he needs to accept grief fails as an effective catharsis. It’s just too direct, too familiar, and too melodramatic. Much of the rest of the episode had been building to a scene like this with a patience that bordered on stalling, but when the explosion arrives, it doesn’t earn the build-up.
Thankfully, their final conversation is more relaxed, to much greater effect. Turns out Daryl didn’t do a whole lot before the end of the world; he mostly just got drunk and high and hung out with Merle. Which isn’t a revelation or anything, but it at least comes from a natural sense of his character, and not just a need to drum up intensity. The decision to burn the house with the still in it (and thus, I guess, put Daryl’s redneck past to rest or something) is a strong conclusion that comes a bit out of left field; apart from the pleasure of random destruction, the symbolism of the house itself feels flat, and forced. Plus, starting a raging fire in a heavily wooded area when there’s no working fire department strikes me as a pretty dangerous and stupid thing to do, but hey, they did flip off the blaze at the end, so I’m sure that will keep it in check. “Still” has its moments, but the lack of forward progress, and the failure to turn authorly ambition into effective results, keeps it from being a success.
- It’s impressive that Beth turns out to hold her booze better than Daryl. (Also, drinking moonshine? I’m amazed she didn’t just vomit and pass out. The lady has gifts.)
- Beth finds peach schnapps. “Is it good?” “Nah.” (I still have awful memories of trying to do shots of peach schnapps at a party in college; it did not go well.)
- “I sure as hell never cut my wrists ever looking for attention.” Wow, Daryl’s going way back here, and referencing Beth’s suicide attempt way back in season two. Considering this hasn’t really come up in the time since then, I’m not sure Daryl’s decision to bring it up now makes a lot of sense.
- “I never needed a game to get lit before.” But it’s such a good way to bring up simmering resentments, y’know?
- The song at the end is “Up The Wolves” by the Mountain Goats. It’s good enough that I liked the final scene almost in spite of myself.