Warning: Spoilers for all five seasons of The Walking Dead below
Since their introductions in the early days of The Walking Dead, the relationship between Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) has grown from indifference into a caring, familiar, occasionally flirty back-and-forth. While it has helped give the generally grim show some necessary moments of levity, it also provides a metric of how these two characters have changed as a result of the world around them. When they first appeared, Daryl was a wiry, high-strung survivalist tweaker covered in squirrel pelts, and Carol was little more than a marginal character defined almost solely by her abusive husband who relegated her to gossip-free laundry duty.
Over time, their stories continued to intertwine well beyond that of two people who share a desire to survive this new world, and over time Carol and Daryl, (or Caryl, if you prefer), have evolved into a kind of platonic power couple ideally suited for the zombie apocalypse.
“It’s for your little girl.”
Carol’s daughter Sophia spent the first half of the second season missing, only to be discovered staggering out of Hershel’s barn, having long since turned. As Carol runs toward her crying amidst the massacre started by Shane (Joe Bernthal), it’s Daryl who holds her back. “Don’t look,” he tells her, as he tries to shield her from the carnage. It’s their first hint of camaraderie, and Daryl’s first indication that he cares more for those in his group than he’d been letting on.
Daryl even stays with Carol afterwards, up to the funeral, which Carol refuses to attend, explaining that “Sophia died a long time ago,” openly expressing her relief that her daughter never went hungry, never went to sleep scared. The end of the world has been hard on everyone, but Carol finds herself overwhelmed with hopelessness, having lost her entire family so early on.
Once her mourning subsides, knowing that Daryl had been trying to pull away from the group himself, she tries to convince him to stay. In the process of trying to reassert himself as an angry loner, Daryl berates her, even blaming her for the loss of her daughter, while she swallows her feelings, telling him to “go on.” It’s the first real moment between the two, and with Carol’s learned resilience to constant abuse, she doesn’t succumb to his accusations, even though it clearly affects her.
“You’re his henchman, and I’m a burden.”
The interpersonal drama is cut short once walkers overrun the farm and the survivors start to scatter in all directions. Daryl, hearing Carol’s screams, goes back to save her but not without a “I ain’t got all day” remark, providing an early glimpse into their rapport. After rendezvousing with the others, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) reveals a truth he’d kept secret: Everyone is infected, and everyone turns when they die. Though Rick’s leadership comes into question, they both stay in the group after this revelation, despite Carol’s wish to be led by a “man of honor,” which Daryl assures her they have.
The months on the road that follow seem to sweeten their rapport, and the night after they take the prison courtyard, Carol dutifully brings Daryl food as he stands watch. She gives Rick credit for getting the group this far, as Daryl jokes about his new-found take on leadership, before turning down her offer to get romantic and “fool around.”
Despite his rejection, their bond is again brought into focus after Carol goes missing and is presumed dead after an attack that takes the lives of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and T-Dogg (Irone Singleton). When Daryl later finds her knife stuck in a walker’s neck, it leads him to a cell where he assumes that she’s since died and turned. Sitting in the hallway, brooding and plunging his knife into the concrete floor, he prepares himself for the worst, only to find her alive but weak from exhaustion. He then carries her back to safety, the first of many heartfelt reunions between the two.
“This is a tomb.”
Their second reunion comes when Daryl, having deserted the group to be with his brother, Merle (Michael Rooker), decides to return, realizing that it’s the only place he’s ever belonged. After the first failed attack on the prison by The Governor (David Morissey), our protagonists take in the Woodbury survivors, and as a result their community thrives. Carol becomes a part of the council, while Daryl becomes a popular figure, smirking while trying to maintain his gruff demeanor.
By now, Daryl has long since come out from the shadow of his brother and into his own identity, while Carol, who began her cathartic transformation from meek housewife to utter badass by smashing in the skull of her half-eaten husband, works to help her community survive. She teaches children about knives and the importance of survival, she cares deeply for her students — though she’s quick to scold them should one accidentally call her mom in a kind of hard-hearted compassion that becomes her defining trait.
Carol maintains her soft-spot for Daryl, calling him pet names like”pookie,” but though their rapport remains in place, their conversations tend to be about their ever-growing concerns for the prison, the buildup of walkers outside the walls, the dangerous supply runs, and before long, the flu. Her willingness to protect those within the walls is so great that she kills the first two stricken by a fatal, infectious disease before burning their bodies. While Rick strongly disagrees with her approach, his main concern after banishing her is how he plans to tell Daryl.
“You said we get to start over — did you?”
The two are reunited once again after Carol’s Commando-like takedown of the Terminus compound, revealing that she’d kept watch on the prison from afar after being banished, then traveled with Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and Rick’s infant daughter, Judith. While Rick and Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) reunion with Judith is the focus of the scene, it’s the hug between Daryl and Carol that really resonates. Once Carol’s back, it’s Daryl who talks about the chance to start over, and a chance to belong again. It is, in part, a way to console her over the deaths of Mika and Lizzie (the latter by her own hand), losses she’s still not willing to talk about.
While on a supply run, the two get sidetracked when Daryl believes they have found where Beth has been kept. Following their lead back into Atlanta, the city that was once their home, their conversations keep coming back to Daryl’s notion of starting over. Carol acknowledges how they have been changed by the world, which makes the notion of starting over seem like some kind of redemption she no longer feels she deserves. “I don’t know if I still believe in God, or heaven,” she tells him, “but if I’m going to hell, I’m making damn sure I’m holding it off as long as I can.”
“You have to let yourself feel it.”
As they continue to look for Beth, Carol reflects about a time she’d left her husband and gone to a battered woman’s shelter with her daughter, only to go home after a day and a half, getting beat up, and carrying on as usual. Believing herself a burden early on, it wasn’t until the group had taken the prison that she admits to becoming the woman she imagined she could be, before getting “burned away.”
“We ain’t ashes,” Daryl replies, still playing the role of the optimist, until their rescue of Beth goes tragically wrong. As he once again tries to close himself off, going into a downward spiral of blaming himself, it’s Carol who forces him to acknowledge his grief.
By the time the group ends up in Alexandria, Carol suddenly reverts to a meek homemaker, blending in to their community while secretly plotting with Rick, who’s ready to take the neighborhood by force at any moment. At first, Daryl goes along with them (though he still refuses to look the part), but begins to second-guess their decision after befriending Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Eric (Jordan Woods Robinson).
By the end of the fifth season, these two characters whose paths would otherwise have never crossed had become each other’s source of encouragement, and even their reason to survive. Without one another, Daryl might have long ago retreated into solitude. Carol might have become overwhelmed with sorrow. With tensions running high in Alexandria, and the two holding opposing viewpoints on what to do next, their dynamic is set to become even more compelling — and possibly more volatile — in the upcoming sixth season.