This show really knows how to press its luck. I’m about as tolerant as TWD fans get when it comes to these mumblecore episodes of self-discovery, but even I have my limits. I didn’t even bother with last week’s state of the union episode–in which Maggie waffled back and forth between Glenn theories like a perfect Reddit junkie–and now there’s this. The old adage about the journey being more important than the destination assumes that the journey involves some incident or series of incidents that inspire change in the traveler. It is an accepted quirk of the form that fiction, particularly on TV and in film, rarely confronts just how difficult it is for meaningful change to inhabit a person; we need the story told quickly and efficiently, and so the process of change is abbreviated to fit the time slot. But even within this simplified paradigm, “Always Accountable” amounted to a series of non-events that left the characters more or less where they were beforehand, give or take a chopper and some ammo. When the most significant moments of discovery involve a minor character screaming into a walker’s face, you know you’re trafficking in filler.
Sure, it’s a nifty turnaround to see Daryl in a position of vulnerability, even though we’ve known him long enough to expect nothing less than defiant grunts and thrifty escapes when he’s under the gun, as it were. That his capture is a case of mistaken identity only heightens the farcical nature of it all, as the upper hand flopped back and forth before our trio of renegades (unnamed save for the diabetic Tina) realized Daryl’s not even one of the bad guys! The bad guys are probably the Saviors, who we already know are looming just over the narrative horizon, given last week’s much-hyped casting of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, head honcho of the Savior squadron. All aboard the speculation train, I suppose, because that’s all we really got from “Always Accountable.” In an interview with IGN about the episode, Norman Reedus said that “there’s never wasted screentime on this show.” (He was sidestepping a leading question about whether any of the people Daryl came across in the woods will be seen again.) But the kind of passive-aggressive seed-planting we get in “Always” does not an effective use of screentime make.
Maybe I’m alone, but I’ve become largely desensitized to the sight of suspicious marauders roaming the woods in TWD. It was only several episodes ago, in the closing days of Season Five, that the impending invasion of the Wolves was foreshadowed. Now the invasion has come and gone and already we’re moving on to another group with another perverse ethos and another false prophet in front. This same song has by now amassed a Dylanesque number of verses (take yr curtain call Governor, Gareth, Joe, Dawn, Alpha Wolf…) but Herr Gimple ain’t no Bahb, and he’s already been trying our patience so long with this Glenn is-he-or-isn’t-he business that to ask us to feign curiosity toward the Saviors is borderline insulting. (Okay, they chop off bitten limbs–so what?) Part of it can be blamed on the hypeverse; the casting of Morgan (Jeffrey Dean, not aikido master Jones) put the world on high alert that the Saviors were not far. The leak of this factoid not a week before Sunday’s episode meant we were in for no alarms and no surprises. We know the Saviors are coming now, so any “mystery” surrounding the semi-driving attackers in the woods was gone before the opening credits. If they’re indeed the Saviors, there’s no need for the secrecy; if they aren’t, then this was indeed wasted screentime–a mini Western for our gruff antihero that culminated in little more than the loss of his most defining props: his crossbow and his chopper. This kept with the theme of identities in question–who is Daryl, after all, without his crossbow?–but it didn’t hold the mighty Dixon back very much. He escaped with his skin and and a gasoline tanker. Little was done and less was learned.
If anything did come out of Daryl’s excursion–besides the not-so-subtle quasi-introduction of our next band of villains–it was a heavy mistrust of outsiders. When Daryl got comfortable enough with his duo of runaways (RIP Tina), he mustered up the gumption to ask them the legendary Questions Three, the pass-fail test for incorporation into the Grimes crew. Daryl had championed the notion of recruiting new citizens back in the season premiere, to the temporary chagrin of a not-often-challenged Rick. Still, Daryl’s not immune to stranger danger; in that same IGN interview, Reedus talked about Daryl’s hesitance at recruiting the two:
I had tried to make it like those words were hard to come out of my mouth, not just because they are hard words to play but you’re risking all of your friends’ lives even just inviting one person back. You don’t know anything about anybody.
Sure enough, the invitation backfired, with the show once again offering compelling evidence that everyone outside the Grimes group is either weak, backstabbing, or pure evil. (With its fear of outsiders and its interest in wall-building, we wonder if TWD might be a favorite of Donald Trump.)
Still, we never really fear for Daryl. He’s too cool to get himself killed out in the middle of the woods, especially by a doofus like the guy who took his chopper. Meanwhile, Sasha’s so sure that Daryl will be fine that she’s content to scrawl his name on a door and wait. Abraham wants to go looking, but of course that has more to do with Abraham than with Daryl. Sasha calls out Abraham’s “bullshit” persona so breezily and with such effortless exactitude that she almost looks bored doing the scene. Maybe that’s the point. Sometimes it’s time to rest, but Abraham can’t rest, because if he stops moving–if he stops killing, stops marauding, stops reveling in the carnage–he’ll be forced to take an honest look at himself. His scream at the dangling walker is a scream for relief from the burden of playing the archetypal tough guy role that his baritone and his musculature had predestined for him. His moment of self-awareness and subsequent gratitude (and creepy overtures) toward Sasha was indicative of the kinds of quick character reversals at thrift store prices that we see in sitcoms. I don’t mind that they’re minor characters (although the line between major and minor on TWD is only as thick as the number of bodies remaining in the lineup), but their brief conflict was so blandly packaged (Abe has problems) and so neatly resolved (Abe recognizes his problems!) that this entire subplot may as well have been–to steal a line from the ghost of AMC programs past–written in steam. I doubt very much that we’ll ever return to the issues discussed here, and while I’m usually game to dive into the psychology operating beneath the carnage of TWD, this was a diet epiphany at best, and all the more indefensible in light of the vastly more important things that we’ve got to worry about.
I’m increasingly certain that we’ll be waiting at least until the midseason finale to know Glenn’s fate. (Norman Reedus has confirmed that the deadpan voice on the radio requesting “help” is not Glenn’s, and a close listen reveals that it sounds nothing like Steven Yeun.) I might not have been too bothered by that if the meat of this half season had more going for it in the meantime. Right now, in the absence of a compelling journey, all I’m thinking about is the destination.