A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as I visit the pro shop…
Over on “Justified,” Graham Yost once gave his writers bracelets with a governing mantra: “WWED,” or “What Would Elmore Do?” At a certain point, I think Scott Gimple might want to try a more familiar acronym for his writers: “KISS,” or “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
Though there have been exceptions to this, the better episodes and moments of “The Walking Dead” tend to be the ones that pare themselves down to the basics: Rick waking up in the zombie apocalypse and befriending Morgan, or Rick reuniting with Morgan on a compact road trip with Carl and Michonne, or Carl and Michonne coming to grips with what happens after the prison was destroyed.
The series tends to do a very poor job of servicing a lot of people and story ideas at once, and as a result it's built up this ensemble of characters that are half sketched-in at best despite being around a long time, which creates a vicious cycle: we don't care about most of the characters when the show is doing action stuff, but then when the show tries to focus on anyone who isn't Rick (or, more recently, Michonne), you half-wonder why they're bothering at this point.
The effort's being made in this half-season, though, with mixed success, and “Still” was probably the most successful of the character studies so far, because it stripped itself down as much as possible without simply being the show's equivalent of “All Is Lost.” One story, two characters, no real plot to speak of – even Beth admits on several occasions that she only wants to find some liquor because it's better than hiding in the woods and eating snake meat – and just a chance to finally get to know one of those hangers-on whom the show has struggled to use since she was introduced in season 2, and a rare opportunity to let Daryl be more than just the badass with the crossbow(*).
(*) And even there, I appreciated the acknowledgment that after this much time, some of those crossbow bolts Daryl has been using over and over again would start to break. I was half hoping the country club's pro shop would have more than just golf equipment to help him restock. With any luck, Terminus will have its own sporting goods store, and these two will end up there soon.
Now, there are some logistical things you can question in “Still,” like why Daryl would want to be hiding in the woods when he knew there were so many houses – many of which could be more easily defended than their spot in the clearing, or even the car trunk (which was itself a great advertisement for both the storage capacity of classic American sedans and for the value of economical storytelling) – within an easy walking distance. Even their big demonstration at the end of burning down the house that reminded Daryl of the terrible life he led before the apocalypse is one of those ideas that's harder to get away with on this show than on one where the characters live in less terrible environments. (At a minimum, maybe you wait until you've had a good night's sleep?) At the same time, though, so much of the episode was about Beth wanting something more than just basic, minimal survival, and if she could help Daryl set fire to this lousy piece of his past, then maybe that's worth another night of trekking through the forest, looking for new shelter. (It helped that The Mountain Goats' “Up the Wolves” fit the sequence, and the image of the two of them giving the burning house the finger, so nicely.)
In the grand tapestry of “The Walking Dead,” what happened here doesn't much matter. It has nothing to do with the search for Terminus, or the inevitable reunion with the rest of the group, or Abraham and Eugene allegedly having a cure for the zombie plague. It's just an interlude involving one of the show's richest (if strategically used) characters and another who until now has been one of its most forgettable. There's some zombie action, but more of the episode is silence, or dialogue or drinking. If I came out of it not knowing significantly more about who Daryl is than I did before, it was still an effective reminder of what an asset the show has in Norman Reedus. And in the space of an hour, Beth vaulted from a character whose name I often have to remind myself of to somebody I'm more interested in than a lot of more prominent people on this show.
I said a few weeks ago that Gimple probably can't get away with the “Lost” approach of giving each character or small grouping of characters their own spotlight episodes. But “Still” suggests he might want to try for a while. Because when things get big and complicated again, and perhaps when Beth winds up getting herself killed as she predicted here – always nice when a character on a show like this is self-aware enough to suspect that they're a redshirt – I'm going to care about her an awful lot more than I did at any point on the farm, or in the long prison stay. And perhaps if the same can be done with Glenn and Maggie, or Sasha or Bob or anyone of the show's other hangers-on, the whole experience will feel more satisfying, even when things aren't nearly this simple.
Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:
1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.
2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.
3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com