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“New Best Friends” is the perfect example of the best and the worst tendencies of The Walking Dead. When the show is at its absolutely best (here, in the scenes between Daryl and Carol), it’s capable of creating heart-stopping tension with only the spectacular abilities of its cast and a few lines of dialogue. At its worst, the show continues to insist on introducing more one-dimensional characters to an already too crowded cast, while relying too much on a single characters (here, Rick) while leaving other, less developed characters (Aaron, Tara, and Rosita- who is now only defined by her anger) sitting quietly on the sidelines with nothing to do.
Let’s dive into the less successful section of the episode: the gladiator battle to get the Emo Crew to join in the fight against the Saviors. Roughly half of the episode was spent dealing with these new characters, who are led by the completely dull and ridiculous Jadis. In fact, with their stilted language and incredibly poor fighting skills (if Gabriel can get the drop on them, does Rick even want them in the fight as anything other than cannon fodder?), they were more of a joke than anything. I couldn’t take them remotely seriously. And Rick’s inability to figure out how to fight the zombie gladiator without an assist from Michonne (who, really, should be leading this group at this point, as Rick is hardly living up to his role as the leader of the alliance) was also pretty funny. As I mentioned last week: there are no stakes left when it comes to Rick in danger. He isn’t going to be killed until Andrew Lincoln wants off the series. Knowing that Rick isn’t about to die, any fight sequence that includes him is simply a brief break in the flow of the episode while we wait for him to kill the threat and move on. Without the tension of worrying if he will live or die, the fights become meaningless.
But that isn’t to say that the series has lost its ability to provide moments of tension. Oh no, they are still there, but just not in places the series normally likes to tread. I’ve made it no secret that I think Melissa McBride is The Walking Dead‘s strongest actor. And Carol is still the show’s most complex and interesting character (despite the decision to turn her into a hermit after giving her the best character arc the show has ever done). But Carol and McBride are always at their best when working alongside Norman Reedus’s Daryl. The writers aren’t stupid (despite some of their boneheaded storylines), and know that absence makes the audience’s heart grow fonder, so I understand the decision to keep the show’s two best characters and actors apart for nearly a year. And I understand that this was necessary to give both characters a chance to grow separately (whether that decision really worked or not is a whole different conversation, although I would vote no). But man, how wonderful was that reunion?
Those scenes between Carol and Daryl were the best plotted, best written, and best acted moments the series has had this season. The emotional pay-off from the reunion felt earned- these are two people who love each other above all others left in this world- and the bond between the duo remained just as strong as the last time they shared the screen together so many months ago. The chemistry between McBride and Reedus remained as well- whether you read it as a possible romance or simply a deep, soul-linking familial bond, it’s undeniable. But the highlight of the reunion was seeing Daryl’s decision to protect Carol from the truth. It was a gutsy move on the part of the writers, as everyone has been waiting for the spark that will send Carol into the fight (and I have no doubt that it’s still to come down the road), so to delay it only delays something fans desperately want to see. But, for a series that often eschews characterization for the sake of blood and fights, it was a surprise to see Daryl make the right choice for both him and Carol.
Leaving Carol in the dark was the best thing for Carol. For the first time since Carol made her decision to become a pacifist, I really understood what fighting had cost her, emotionally and mentally, as she broke down just asking if everyone at Alexandria was alright. Kudos to McBride for another stellar performance throughout that scene, but kudos also go out to Channing Powell for crafting a sequence where we finally got to see evidence that Carol is broken. And not simply that- she’s broken and hanging on by a thread. Her reason for escaping from this violent world was that she couldn’t bring herself to continue fighting and losing her humanity, but she knows that she will do anything she can to protect her family- and especially to protect Daryl. And Daryl . . . That moment of silence before he lied had me on the edge of my seat, warring internally over whether or not I wanted him to spill everything. But, even though it means Carol doesn’t join the fight yet, I’m glad Daryl lied. I’m glad Carol gets some more time to heal. Because we all know the truth is coming- whether it’s in the form of Negan’s men attacking the cabin, or someone else spilling the beans about what is really happening at Alexandria. Killer Carol will be back, but I hope it will be once she has a fully realized arc that brings her to the fight.
— While I generally dislike the show splitting up the cast so frequently, there are times when small scenes really pay-off in a big way. Unsurprisingly, most of the moments throughout the series involve Melissa McBride, Norman Reedus, and Lennie James (Morgan).
— So, Rick and company need to get lots of guns. I wonder where Tara saw lots of guns? Oh yeah.
— Considering how well the show introduced The Kingdom, I’m a bit surprised at how poorly the series executed the introduction of the Emo Group. I honestly have no desire to learn more about these people, while I would gladly spend more time with the residents of The Kingdom.
— I do have to call out that ridiculous dialogue bookending the opening scene of the episode (the bit about the dress). This is the second week in a row the show has used that same trope (last week was Rosita and the dynamite not looking right). It’s cheesy, it takes away from the scene, and the delivery from both characters was just plain awful (and that’s not a knock on either actress, as both have proven they can be fun and light with dialogue).
— While I don’t normally like to watch previews for the next week, I caught them this week, and let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the episode.