In Variety this week, co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein gave the stinkeye to critics who’ve argued that “The Walking Dead” is in the midst of its best (half-)season yet. “Showrunner Scott M. Gimple must be so gratified his series magically stopped sucking only once the fifth season began in order to earn these generous reappraisals,” Wallenstein snarked. “If accepting this fresh wave of critical acclaim is tantamount to conceding that the show wasn’t plenty awesome all along, let’s just all go back to ignoring ‘TWD.'”
Given that I’m among the critics Wallenstein is looking askance at, along with Grantland’s Andy Greenwald and Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, I’m admittedly not particularly likely to be sympathetic to his argument. But even if I weren’t, I’d cast a dim eye of my own on the unargued equation of liking “The Walking Dead” — or, in Wallenstein’s phrase, thinking it’s “plenty awesome” — with taking it seriously. I might even argue the contrary: that taking a show “seriously” often means being critical of it, as well as noting when it’s changed, “magically” or not, for the better.
To amend my original argument slightly, I’d say what distinguishes “The Walking Dead’s” fifth season so far is not a surfeit of strong episodes — the show’s always had those — but the absence of weak ones. For the show to go five episodes in a row without falling on its face is a rarity worthy of note.
With tonight’s “Consumed,” the streak stretches to six, and it also extends what is now the longest consecutive stretch of episodes in the show’s history without more than a glance of its ostensible protagonist. Although he’s grown over the course of the series, Rick has long been the show’s weak spot, a hollow void where its heart should be. Andrew Lincoln, who’s also grown more secure in the part, and gotten a better hold on his Southern accent, is fine as a member of the ensemble, but he’s not strong enough to build an entire show around.
In fact, “The Walking Dead” is better when no one character its at its center. Over the course of its fifth season, it’s been rebuilding itself as a show about community, rather than a show about one man’s struggle to forge that community — a subtle but important difference. In “Consumed,” Daryl and Carol walk the deserted, debris-choked streets of Atlanta in scenes that inevitably, and maybe purposefully, feel like a callback to “The Walking Dead’s” pilot; we even see a tank like the one Rick took shelter in. (For all I know, it might even be the same tank. I’m sure someone on the internet will have that sorted out by morning. Update: I was right about the tank.) The two survivors’ conversation returns them to the subject of whether or not they can “start again”; it seems as if “The Walking Dead” might be wondering the same thing.
A series of flashbacks take us through the aftermath of Carol’s darkest moments since the zombie outbreak — burning the bodies of Karen and David, who she killed to prevent their illness from wiping out the prison settlement; burying the bodies of Mika and Lizzie, one killed by her sister, the other by Carol herself; being expelled from the group by Rick — and her path through the city returns her to a dark place in her pre-outbreak life: the battered women’s shelter where she took refuge with her daughter, Sophia, before returning to her abusive husband. But we see that even though life has hardened her immeasurably, she still has her limits: When Daryl wants to leave Noah, who helped Beth (almost) bust out of the hospital in “Slabtown,” pinned under a bookcase to die, Carol forces him to relent; she’s killed people, but she’ll only do it if she believes it’s for protection, not for vengeance.
Given that we’re still working our way back up to the moment at the end of “Four Walls and a Roof” when Daryl steps out of the woods with persons unknown in the darkness behind him, we might be in for yet another largely Rick-free episode: My guess is he runs into the formerly D.C.-bound splinter group of Glenn, Maggie and Abraham on the way back to the church, they rescue Beth and Carol, and Daryl brings the whole mess back to Rick’s doorstep, restoring the status quo ante with a newly forged sense of purpose. It might seem counter-intuitive to spend half a season sending characters away from the group only to have them all trickle back, but it’s part of rebuilding the show on a more solid foundation, and from where I sit, it’s working.
Reviews of “The Walking Dead,” Season 5, Episode 6: “Consumed”
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:
More than any episode so far this season, “Consumed” felt like a throwback to those wandering hours from last spring: two characters isolated from the rest of the group, musing on who they used to be and how the apocalypse has changed them, occasionally running afoul of walkers, and slowly but surely making their way towards linking up with other lost members of the flock. In this case, our group in miniature was made up of two of the show’s most interesting characters, played by two of its best actors, and even if there hadn’t been car crashes and fighting and whatnot, I think The Carol and Daryl(*) Power Hour would’ve been pretty darned compelling.
Zack Handlen, A.V. Club:
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 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.
Matt Fowler, IGN
For a terse Carol/Daryl adventure, “Consumed” triumphed in both landscape and tone, though it was hindered a bit by us knowing that nothing all that big was going to happen. It was, essentially, the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place after episodes three and four. It was mostly quiet, but rewarding nonetheless.
Rebecca Hawkes, Telegraph:
It would be fair to say that nothing particularly significant happened, plot-wise. Darryl and Carol travelled to Atlanta, located the hospital where Beth was being held prisoner, and met escapee Jonah (Tyler James Williams). Shortly afterwards, Carol was injured and captured, something that we already knew was coming. There was a sense that the show was holding its breath, building up to an action-packed mid-season finale. But while Consumed wasn’t a “big” episode in any sense, it was possibly one of this season’s most impressive: a reflective, rather melancholy two-hander that showed its actors at their best.
John Saveedra, Den of Geek!:
While last season’s Daryl and Beth duo didn’t make a lot of sense to me, this new dynamic duo are so great together. The two most silent characters on the show forced to talk to each other about their feelings? Now there’s something I want to see every week.