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“Don’t be too hard on yourself. We’ve all wanted to shoot Daryl.” — Dale
“Chupacabra” makes two assertions virtually indisputable: one, that Daryl Dixon is part John Rambo, part Tony Poe, and all bad-ass; and two, that The Walking Dead is really, really bad at flashbacks.
This week’s cold open brings us back to those halcyon days, when Lori and Carl thought Rick was dead, Shane was playing dad, and Atlanta still held promise of safety. Snarled up in traffic on a secondary road, they fall in with Carol, her now-dead husband Ed and their daughter Sophia (remember her?) as Shane realizes radio broadcasts about the refugee center have stopped. He and Lori make their way to a wooded knoll, where they discover what seemed like lightning and thunder is actually the military dropping napalm on the Big Peach, by now overrun by walkers. Hotlanta, indeed.
As with virtually all of the show’s previous flashbacks — the Season 1 finale may be the sole exception — this one doesn’t offer any insight into the characters or new information about their situation. Shane’s protective of Lori and Carl? Ed was a controlling, abusive dick? We knew that. The Army firebombed Atlanta? While that delivers a nice, but brief, Apocalypse Now moment, it doesn’t enhance the survivors’ story.
Thankfully, the opening credits roll and we’re transported to the Greene farm, where Rick & Co. are, after four days, finally getting serious about the search for Sophia. There’s a map, a grid, color-coded cloths, and Jimmy, the teenaged boyfriend of Beth Greene, at last offering his services (without Hershel’s permission, we soon learn). Daryl borrows a horse to head for higher ground, where he can get a clear overview of the area, while Shane and Rick, the most experienced at search and rescue, inexplicably pair up, leaving Andrea and T-Dog with Jimmy.
Although their teaming doesn’t make any real-world sense, it ratchets up the tension between the two as Shane criticizes Rick for spending too much time in the hunt for the girl. “Sophia only matters to the degree that she don’t slow us down,” he tells his guilt-ridden friend. It’s a harsh, if pragmatic, sentiment underscored throughout the episode, most plainly by Hershel when he marvels, “It’s a wonder you people have survived this long.” There’s something else that comes out of the exchange between Rick and Shane, though, and that’s a little better understanding of their relationship. Rick, who in “Save the Last One” told Lori about Shane’s athletic prowess in high school, here recounts his friend’s legendary sexual conquests in an effort to get him talking. Having little luck with girls, good and wholesome Rick confesses he lived vicariously through Shane. Theirs, it seems, was an unequal friendship; Shane was Rick’s high-school hero. Now it’s Rick who is, more often than not, idolized by the group. Before Rick seemingly returned from the dead and stumbled into camp, Shane was the undisputed leader, the only thing keeping the larger rag-tag group together.
Shane’s not the only one with reservations about Rick and the thinning group, though. On horseback, Daryl looks every bit the Western … well, maybe not hero; let’s go with “antihero.” Killing a squirrel with a bolt from his crossbow, he’s a multitasker, hunting for dinner as he searches for signs of the girl. Alas, our Western antihero encounters a Western-movie cliche as his horse is spooked by a rattlesnake and he’s thrown down a ravine into a creek, driving his bolt through his side in the process. Bloody, wet and probably concussed, Daryl is visited by his long-lost racist, meth-addicted brother Merle, who offers the kind of support you want when you’re bleeding out into a creek: “Look at you, lying in the dirt like a used rubber.”
He’s a hallucination, naturally, giving voice to Daryl’s doubts about his place in the group — “I’ve got news for you, son” the Ghost of Merles Past says, “one of these days they’re gonna scrape you off their heels like dog shit” — while antagonizing him into action. (It’s also the first time we’ve seen the brothers interact, even if one of them is a product of the other’s head injury.) Daryl comes to his senses in time to realize that it’s not Merle standing over him, but a walker, which he dispatches with a branch through the skull before spying a second one making its way up the creek. Yanking the bolt from his side — yes, Daryl’s that awesome — he fumbles underwater for the crossbow and makes quick work of that zombie, too. It’s not all bad, though, as Daryl finds Sophia’s stuffed doll in the creek, and makes himself a necklace out of the ears of the two walkers. Jewelry and a solid clue? That’s a pretty good outing.
Things are somewhat better back at the farm. For reasons unclear, Glenn apparently doesn’t participate in the search, and instead awkwardly tells an unimpressed Maggie that he still has 11 condoms, wink-wink — “You see 11 condoms,” she replies, “I see 11 minutes of my life I’m not getting back” — and briefly confronts Lori about her pregnancy before having a weird and uncomfortable sitdown with Dale that boils down to, “What, are all the women on their periods?” In the process, Glenn reveals he slept with Maggie (he kept Lori’s secret, though), upsetting Dale, who wonders what Hershel will do if he finds out.
Meanwhile, returned from the wilderness, gun-crazy Andrea is in the lookout post atop the RV, telling a questioning Dale, “I don’t want to wash clothes anymore. I just want to help keep the camp safe.” That, of course, highlights one of the problems of The Walking Dead, one that first arose back in the first season, in “Tell It to the Frogs,” when now-dead Jacqui wondered why the women are saddled with the “Hattie McDaniel work.” Although the not-exactly-stable Andrea is beginning to rebel against division of duties, we still have Lori and Carol fussing with Laundry Day and dinner plans while the menfolk venture into the woods. It’s understandable if Lori wants to remain near a recovering Carl, but Carol? She should want to search for Sophia from first light until sundown, not to rustle up a big “thank you” dinner for the Greene clan to take her mind off her missing daughter. Has she given up, too?
Hershel, in no mood for a communal meal, summons Rick to express his displeasure about the horse and the 17-year-old Jimmy, both of whom were taken off the farm without his permission. Rick, under the impression their host had been aware of both, suggests they could improve communication. Hershel, however, cuts to the chase: “Keep it simple. I’ll control my people, you’ll control yours.” He soon discovers that’s easier said than done when Maggie resists his efforts to put distance between them and the other survivors, and between her and “the Asian boy.” “We need to be settin’ clear boundaries with these people,” he says when he sees dinner preparations. “They’re gettin’ too comfortable.”
As tense as the situation is in the farmhouse, it’s worse outside, where trigger-happy Andrea spies a walker at the edge of the woods. The alarm goes up, with Shane, T-Dog and Glenn springing into action even as she offers to shoot the interloper. Rick calls out that Hershel wants to handle walkers — an aspect of their arrangement he’s apparently not questioned — before taking off after the others. It’s obvious to everyone watching that their visitor isn’t a walker but rather Daryl … who, in fairness to the characters, has seen better days. Surrounded, and with Rick’s revolver in his face, a bloody and exhausted Daryl finally speaks: “It’s the third time you’ve pointed that thing at my head. You gonna pull the trigger or what?” That, naturally, is Andrea’s cue to pull the trigger from her sniper’s nest, firing a shot that grazes Daryl’s head. “I was kiddin’!” he says before passing out.
Hershel patches up Daryl — Rick was quick to remove the ear-necklace before bringing him to the house — before everyone else sits down for a quiet, uncomfortable dinner where, at the kids’ table, Maggie passes Glenn a note setting up a rendezvous, under the watchful and disapproving eyes of her father and Dale.
After helping to clear the table, Maggie finally reads Glenn’s response, only to learn with horror that he’s meeting her in the hayloft. As she runs toward the barn, Glenn climbs the outside ladder and walks among the bales of hay, catching a whiff of something rancid. Shining his flashlight on the floor below, he sees the barn is filled with the world’s quietest walkers, the reason behind many of Hershel’s rigid rules. “You weren’t supposed to see this,” Maggie says as she arrives in the loft a little too late.
No, but we’re glad he did as, five episodes into the season, the revelation holds the promise that tensions will soon be brought to a head. Although I suspect Glenn will pledge to keep the Secret of the Barn, for a while at least, something will have to give. With the group at least relatively safe, and Carl recovering, there’s little on the front-burner, story-wise: Merle’s disappearance, Lori’s pregnancy, Shane’s resentment (and the emotional aftermath of his murder of Otis), Andrea’s suicidal tendencies, Rick’s self-doubt — they’re all slow-boil, back-burner threads. The search for Sophia is nominally the driving force of the story at this point, but only Daryl seems serious about that. So as the season approaches the halfway point, it needs this conflict to burst out into the open, if for no other reason than for too-trusting Rick to re-evaluate why he’s never paused to question the myriad prohibitions of their malevolent dictator Hershel Greene.