Since The Walking Dead premiered four years ago, the show has benefitted from several positive factors: a good cast working with popular, solid source material; a visionary founding showrunner (even if that vision did go off the rails for a while); a resurgence in the popularity of zombies. Like Breaking Bad, Dead's run coincided with the era of Netflix, which allowed would-be viewers the easy ability to catch up on multiple seasons, helping more than double the audience. It is now the most popular show on cable television.
But the The Walking Dead has always suffered from a specific Achilles' heel — over time, as our characters have racked up zombie kills (I estimated more than 1,100 last week), the show's chief villains have become familiar pushovers. Sure, occasionally a weaker character falls victim to one of the nasty undead, but the weak, wimpy, slow and stupid people are long since dead. What's left are survivors — men and women who have been sharpened into efficient escapists and confident killers. Even when they get themselves into stupid situations (we're talking about you, Carl), we can be reasonably confident that the walkers will eventually die and our character will emerge from yet another close call.
The Walking Dead's writers may have realized they can't create the same tension just by tossing in a few walkers because the zombies just aren't that scary anymore. The solution has been to create tension in tangential ways — last week's home invasion subplot or a crying baby in the middle of the woods. There's been so much blood and guts over the four seasons that the most nerve-wracking scenes are the ones that subscribe to the horror movie maxim that what you see may be scary, but what you don't see can be terrifying.
In last night's episode, it took about 5 minutes before we even saw a walker and another 10 minutes before one was killed. But the opening sequence was solidly scary: Beth and Daryl trapped in the trunk of a car while a zombie swarm tried to beat its way in. The frantic lighting was a bit cheesy, but the sounds did the trick. Amid the snarling, the banging and the furtive glances, there was some palpable tension to the show's cold opener. We were pretty sure they would survive, but Beth and Daryl would sure as hell suffer in the process.
No other scene in the episode matched the opener's tension. Beth's search for booze took us to a country club that had turned into a house of horrors, complete with people who had hung themselves and turned into walkers, left to swing and snarl from the ceiling for all time. Both Beth and Daryl hit their own breaking points, which manifested in different ways: Beth taking stupid risks trying to find alcohol and Daryl beating walkers with golf clubs. Beth's obsession with having her first drink is a reminder that she, like Carl, skipped a big part of her adolescence. Daryl did her a favor by smashing the only bottle left at the clubhouse bar with a pitch-perfect grumble, "Ain't going to have your first drink be no damn peach schnapps." But by introducing her to moonshine, he probably helped ensure that her first drink had a chance to be her last (more on moonshine below).
The show continued the theme of this half-season, where our characters are exhausted from scraping by in a day-to-day existence and are once again searching for something more meaningful in life. Daryl's moment of guilt where he drunkenly blamed himself for not catching the governor is perhaps the lowest point for this tough character, a man hardened by a tough childhood who is now one of the sharpest killers out there. Now that Beth and Daryl have exorcised some of their demons and burned down the still house — to the upbeat tunes of indie folk band The Mountain Goats' song "Up the Wolves" — we can expect them to stumble across the sign on the boxcar and begin making their way to the supposed safe haven. Once they reunite with the other survivors (including Carol), they may wind up like the people they lost, but the best ending would be if they find the peace that has eluded them for so long.
And now for a hail of bullets...
Zombie Kill Report: After a slow start, there were a solid couple dozen walker kills as Daryl and Beth made their way through the Pine Vista Country Club. For the record, Pine Vista is no Bushwood (Harold Ramis, RIP), but it served its role. Daryl's teeing off against the walkers was a tough, but important scene where he hit a breaking point. Hopefully things will be looking up for him as they move forward.
Real White Lightning: I doubt if there's ever been a greater inaccuracy on The Walking Dead than when Beth took a decent gulp of moonshine and barely flinched. Nicknamed white lightning, Moonshine is booze that's nearly to 200 proof (close 100 percent alcohol by volume) that has no taste; it just burns like hell. Growing up in east Tennessee, I first tried a sip of moonshine when I was a teenager, and I can assure you it was a long time before I drank anything, let alone another sip of the strong stuff.
Prescient foreshadowing: Before his untimely death, Hershel was probably the most observant character on the show. He had lived a hard life filled with experiences that allowed him to see the world in all of its brutal glory. Beth hasn't had many opportunities to step into the the philosophical role, but Hershel's skills may run in the family. When she told Daryl that he was made for this time and place, that he'll be the last man standing, we should listen. It's a grim thought, one that he doesn't dwell on too much, but it may be one we'll look back on and see how right she was.