An already solid season delivers the best episode yet that somehow unites themes of surviving domestic abuse with surviving a zombie apocalypse.
The Walking Dead‘s original sin was, particularly during the first through third seasons, its incoherent and wholly inconsistent characterizations, coupled with the oft-mentioned tendency to force its characters to learn and relearn lessons, and make and remake stupid mistakes, simply for lack of a better idea of how to move the plot forward. One extremely unfortunate side effect of this problem was that several moments which should have conveyed a specific moral point were in fact undermined, because the writers appeared to have intended its exact opposite.
Example: When we first encountered Carol in the first season, she was the meek and terrified victim of abuse at the hands of her husband, Ed. Ed was a lazy, foul tempered asshole who refused to contribute to the community of survivors, and who brutalized Carol frequently, while their fellow survivors did nothing whatsoever to address the problem. One episode saw Shane, angry beyond belief at having been cruelly rejected by Lori*, stumble upon Ed as he’s flagrantly beating Carol in front of the other women of the camp. Shane flips out, rips Ed away from Carol and beats him to within an inch of his life.
It was a powerful moment, giving viewers the thrill of seeing someone finally take action to deal, justly, I might add, with a person who endangered the safety of the community as a whole not only by refusing to participate in its defense, but in destroying harmony by terrorizing his family. It also appeared to function as a comment on the most insidious way that abusers are supported and encouraged by their communities – “it’s a private matter, let’s not get involved”. The survivor camp was itself complicit in its own dissolution simply by giving tacit approval to Ed’s abuse.
Unfortunately, the writers wanted us to think that Shane, not Ed, was that scene’s real monster. It ended with all witnesses freaking out, more terrified of and angry at Shane than they ever were at Ed. Perhaps the point was simply to further emphasize how complicit and complacent people can be when confronted with abuse, but as Ed was soon bitten by a zombie and left to die, the matter was dropped from the show and never revisited. Which forced us to assume the writers had no idea they were even dealing with domestic violence themes at all.
Thankfully, that sin was mitigated in a big way in “Consumed”, the 6th episode of The Walking Dead season 5, a Carol-centric episode that made her personal struggle to overcome abuse front and center. It’s a powerful example of how to do effective character development within a show like this, as well as a total redemption for the show’s previous treatment of the issue of domestic abuse.
Framed by flashbacks to the time Carol spent wandering alone after being kicked out of the prison back in season 4, it picked up with Carol and Daryl, last seen taking off in a car after an automobile we now know came from Grady Memorial Hospital. Following the Grady ambulance to Atlanta, they’re soon forced find a place to hole up for the night until they can figure out where they’re headed. Carol knows a place, she says, and it turns out to be a women’s shelter she spent some time in before the apocalypse. While there, she and Daryl talk about his plea to her earlier in the season that they can all start over. Carol is clearly having problems accepting that possibility, though she and Daryl admit they’re both struggling with this. Carol tells Daryl that “I didn’t stay,” acknowledging that like many victims of abuse, she returned to her abuser.
As if to emphasize that tragedy, shortly after this they learn they’re not the only people in the shelter: a woman and her young daughter, having been there when the apocalypse happened, died and turned into walkers. Carol becomes almost passive in her resignation over this, their fate the symbol of the way she sees herself prior to the end of civilization. She can’t bring herself to kill the two, but Daryl, attempting in his way to help her, does the deed himself, and gives the woman and her daughter a cremation burial on the roof of the building.
Soon after, they make their way into downtown Atlanta’s hotel district (home of Dragon Con, btw), then to a skybridge connecting two of the hotels, where Carol begins to gingerly talk about what happened while she was away from the group last season. She also laments that “I don’t think we get to save people anymore.” Daryl disagrees, and offers that the reason he said they can, they have to start over, is because “we gotta”. In his way, he’s trying to offer Carol a way out of the spiral of shame and regret that, just as in real life, can become its own excuse never to move forward and improve.
* I’m assuming you’ve all watched this show by now and know who the hell I’m talking about.
However, before this can be realized further, Daryl looks out a window and sees one of the Grady vehicles on a highway overpass. Leaving to go check it out, they encounter Noah, last seen having escaped from Grady Memorial Hospital with Beth’s help back in “Slabtown”. He has no idea who Carol and Daryl are, of course, only that they have weapons and he doesn’t. Having gone undetected, he manages to steal Daryl’s crossbow and his rifle and leaves, clearly feeling very bad but telling them he thinks they look tough and can survive, while he can’t. Carol tries to shoot Noah, but Daryl stops her, putting his money where his mouth is vis a vis the question of whether they have to simply kill everyone they encounter. Noah escapes, but he’ll be back.
Cut to the van, which appears to have crashed through the guardrail and now balances precariously over the edge of the highway. Inside, they discover equipment revealing the connection to Grady Memorial Hospital, but are soon surrounded by walkers. Without their weapons, they’re quickly overpowered and so attempt a desperate survival gambit: they climb into the front, fasten their seat belts and rock the van so that it falls to the street. Luckily, seat belts and airbags (and the van miraculously landing on its wheels) saves them, though Carol’s collarbone is broken in the fall.
They make their way to a building across the street from Grady, where they have another moment to talk. Carol admits to Daryl that she hates the person she used to be, she despises herself for being weak, for going back to her abusive husband, for not being stronger. She is thankful for having gone through the experiences at the prison, having finally become the person she needs to be, and states plainly she intends to live however long she can, whatever it takes. But that apparent nihilism is tested when the two encounter Noah, again, in the same building and attempting to turn a bookshelf into a barricade to keep out walkers in one of the other offices.
Daryl rushes to attack, and Noah is pinned under the shelf. Screaming for help as a walker advances on him, this time Daryl decides to leave him to his fate. However, Carol now argues in favor of saving his life, reversing their dynamic from earlier in the episode and revealing that, as we’ve seen all season, the survivors repeatedly demonstrate their love and support for one another by keeping each other from losing their humanity. Daryl relents, they save Noah, and it’s revealed Noah stole their weapons because he intends to try and rescue Beth.
At this point, the noise they’ve made has attracted the attention of the Grady Hospital fascist police, whose cars soon pull up outside the building. Leaving to hide somewhere else, Carol runs ahead of Daryl and Noah, is hit head-on by the Grady cops’ vehicle and knocked out – we now know how it is she ended up on a stretcher at the end of “Slabtown”. Daryl is keen to race out and save her, but Noah quickly explains the situation. The building is swarming with dangerous people, he says. “What’s it gonna take?”, Daryl asks. “A lot,” says Noah. “They got guns. They got people.”
Daryl: “So do we.”
Cut to the two of them, having stolen a delivery truck, headed back out of town to rejoin Rick and co. at the Church.
- Typically, stories about domestic violence often treat the victim of the abuse as an afterthought. In focusing on would-be rescuers, in focusing on the reactions of people around them, it makes the victim into nothing more than an object of discussion of abuse rather than a person. But ultimately, the story of domestic abuse is that of the struggle of the victim to survive it and recover, to find it within themselves to rise above the situation. By putting Carol front and center in this episode, it conveyed excellently how she rose above things, how she’s changed since then, and how she has to deal with feeling so much guilt and shame for not having been “stronger” before. It also showed us how the support she DOES now get from her community was a part of that. Not bad for a show where zombies walk the earth.
- Now we know for sure it was Noah that Daryl asked to “come on out” back at the end of episode 3.
- Once again, we see how previous seasons’ excuses to meander aimlessly have been repurposed to build character, advance the story and create genuine tension. I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes, but I remain stunned at the dramatic increase in quality this show has demonstrated all season.
- I really like Noah, played excellently by Everybody Hates Chris‘s Tyler James Williams. He manages to pull off a combination of being in over his head and still attempting to remain level headed that doesn’t suggest greater competence than he has. I hope he isn’t unceremoniously killed off in service to the show’s precise allotment of black male actors.
Bottom Line: my personal favorite of the season, it addressed real, meaty issues connected to survivors of abuse and magically connected them to survivors of an apocalypse. Great performances all around from a tiny cast, without a single wasted scene.
Recommendation: The best episode so far of this shockingly good season. Watch it now.
Next week, we’ll see most of our survivors reuniting to save Beth and Carol from Grady Memorial Hospital in “Crossed,” written by Seth Hoffman.[rating=4.5]