Original air date: March 2, 2014

SPOILER ALERT

This episode of The Walking Dead was a blend of good, mediocre and acceptable.  That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but given some of the dreck that TWD has shoveled over the years, anything that isn’t “suck ass” – to steal a phrase from Beth – is a small victory.

Once again, the best parts of the episode are the horror elements.  I mean, that wordless opening with Beth and Darryl having to hide in the trunk of a Lincoln (just try to do this in a foreign car) was pretty tense stuff. The thumping of the zombies, the crack of light across their eyes, the need to be absolutely silent…  I was halfway excited at the prospect of them being trapped in there for the entire episode just to give us a different type of story.  But, that was not to be.  Eventually, they climbed out of the trunk, remarkably unstiff, and the episode began a steady decline into “acceptable.”

There were some other high notes as the duo scrounged the country club so that Beth could check “drinking” off her bucket list. There were also even a few good moments where the show used misdirection – like in the gift shop with the manikins.  I mean, if you see manikins in a horror movie, your sphincters immediately tighten… But the director just let the moment hang there and then dissipate…  That takes a lot of self-restraint and I love that they have enough horror ideas that they don’t feel the need to milk everything.

Where the show wasn’t as strong was with Darryl’s emotional journey.  All this speculation about Darryl’s past and it turns out he was just a derelict redneck up to no good, amounting to nothing with a lousy brother for his only companion: Trailer Trash.  The whole idea that Darryl has become someone better because of the apocalypse is very interesting and it would be affecting too, if it were not so clumsily and hastily handled.  The symbolism of Darryl pummeling a cashmere-clad golfer with a golf club was just a little too heavy-handed.  That zombie was basically Judge Smails from Caddyshack.  And it didn’t stop there.  The locker room where Darryl splattered those zombies is STILL nicer than anything that he lived in growing up… And the peach schnapps that Beth finds isn’t ironic just because it sucks, it’s ironic that the country clubbers camped out in their clubhouse and drank all the good booze.  They killed themselves because they’re not survivors like Darryl. Before even bothering to drink the schnapps, Darryl is left to get the mere scraps from a more affluent society that he was never a part of.  Even in death, they taunt him with discarded liquor and white cardigan sweaters and fine, wood-paneled locker rooms.  The only way the symbolism would have been stronger is if Darryl had gone out into the parking lot and started vandalizing the Porsches.

Of course, all along, Darryl is kinda being a jerk to Beth, which is way out of left-field because he wasn’t remotely upset with her until this episode.  Heck, it even seemed like you could see the two of them hooking up a few weeks ago.  Then Darryl goes on the worst and fakest angry drunk binge, before revealing his inner shame at being a loser and having let the group down with the Governor. Then they symbolically burn Old Darryl down (with stupid musical overlay)… Kinda like how Rick burned down his pig farming supplies.  Yeesh, I think I’d rather see what Tyreese was up to.

The funny thing is that this Darryl-arc is the sort of complex storytelling that I should like.  It is kinda nuanced and doesn’t spoon-feed everything.  It even involves a character that I generally enjoy. But, it fails because it is too stereotypical and because the writers underestimate the audience’s ability to handle something better.  I mean, if you had to speculate about whether Darryl had a good family life, you would guess “no” and if you had to guess whether he would admire the country-club set, you would again guess “no.”  I guess everything about Darryl’s story was cookie-cutter and easy to anticipate.  That robbed it of a chance to be excellent before the story even took place.

It’s also just too fast and too incongruous with the overall arc that Darryl has been on.  We’ve already seen Darryl struggling with the contrast between his unspoken loser past and his current nature.  There was a LOT of that theme during Season 2/3 as Darryl was kind to Carol, helped look for Sophia, dealt with the return of his brother, etc.  But, for the sake of drama, this episode had to send Darryl back to a dark place where he’s rude to Beth and reminds everyone that he’s a mean drunk.  Then, his turn for the good happens and takes him right back to a place where he’s already been for 2 seasons.  It’s not terrible, but it isn’t high quality television drama.  It’s very similar to what happened with Carl a few episodes ago where the writers rehashed a journey that Carl had already finished.  It just concerns me that the writers won’t let the characters really evolve– Carl will always be the young boy struggling to be a man of the apocalypse, Darryl will always be Trailer Trash making a turn for the better, Carol will always be a battered wife who is emancipated by the horrors of zombidom…  I want to see more of what the characters are now and how they change instead of being constantly reminded of what they used to be.

Interestingly, it was BETH who saved this episode and kept it in the “acceptable” range.  She had a lot of good and funny moments. “I’m not staying in your suck ass camp, eating mud-snakes!”  Love it.  Giving the middle finger to the symbolic burning of Old Darryl added a nice touch to an otherwise cliche moment.  I even liked the earnestness of her “I never…” drinking game.  So, she couldn’t quite nail the monolog about how Darryl should stay New Darryl and not go back to being Old Darryl.  That’s okay.  She’s not the first TWD actor to fumble a monologue.

The other slight problem this week is that we’re still bouncing around a little too much with the story.  It’s just hard to maintain momentum when we don’t see characters for a few weeks.  I’m not sure what the tone for this problem is, because bouncing from group to group is also distracting.  But, it’s hard to feel too sorry for them when they made this problem themselves.

Conclusion: Acceptable, there are some highs and some lows, but TWD has done a lot worse than this episode.  Unfortunately, Darryl’s transformative character arc is too cliche and too patronizing to qualify as anything more than mediocre.  More funny spunky-redneck from Beth, please!

Grade: B-

-Dean Stell

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Conclusion