This week sees the latest in the series of pandemic episodes for The Walking Dead, and this is the one that perhaps demonstrates the limitations enforced on the show by a global pandemic in which close contact is generally considered a bad idea. It’s back to fan favourites Daryl and Carol, who are growing more and more apart after their falling out at the end of ‘Find Me‘. On the surface, it seems like not a lot goes on in this week’s instalment, and I’ll admit that it’s probably the weakest of the pandemic episodes – but it hopefully marks an important moment for Carol going forward. She’s been floundering for a while now, and by the end of ‘Diverged’, she might just be back on track.
If you were to describe the events of the episode, you’d probably say that Daryl fixed his bike and Carol made a soup. And that is basically all that happened. People have been disappointed by it, with Forbes even calling it ‘the Worst Episode In Years’. But that seems unfair, because I haven’t really expected these recent episodes to be on the same level as normal episodes. Maybe that’s just me, but these episodes are bonus episodes, made on the fly to fill the gap before the final series and to tide fans over during the seemingly never-ending pandemic. Like with ‘Here’s Negan’, ‘Negan Lives’, ‘The Alien’, and the specials in the comic universe, these are extras. They’re just additional stories looking into the lives of the characters we know and love, examining what they’ve bene up to and how they’re dealing with things in the aftermath of the recent war. They almost feel like high-budget webisodes. Maybe AMC hyped them up too much? That’s possible. But I’m just glad to be getting extra stories and not having to wait a year for the final series.
But even with that in mind, and holding these bonus episodes in isolation, a slower episode like this can’t hope to compete with an episode like ‘One More‘, which showed that the limitations of a pandemic are merely the building blocks for creating a tense, atmospheric, and intimate episode, taking the action to new places. Unlike that episode, and ‘Splinter‘ and the aforementioned ‘Find Me’, which used the restrictions as an opportunity to create something great, this episode feels like an ordinary episode of the show that has been hampered by COVID restrictions. And that could be manageable. ‘Home Sweet Home‘ was a standard episode, but it still managed to do some really interesting things (and it saw the return of Maggie). ‘Diverged’ was always going to struggle.
So ‘Diverged’ is probably the weakest of the pandemic episodes. That’s the negativity out of the way. Because the episode still features some really important, quietly powerful moments for the characters, Carol in particular. She’s been around since season one, and she’s been on one hell of a journey in the past decade. From meek housewife to quiet survivor to the biggest badass in the apocalypse. From there, since finding relative safety in Alexandria and The Kingdom, she’s flitted back and forth from the group’s MVP to a woman struggling with the thing’s she done. In between she’s lost a daughter and a son, and almost everyone else she’s known. The one constant has been Daryl. The pair have weathered everything together, but it seems that time’s up for them.
The episode sees them taking different paths, literally and figuratively. The title (inspired by the Robert Frost poem ‘The Road Not Taken’) suggests that the pair, who have survived the very worst of a post-apocalyptic world, are finally parting. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. Because of AMC’s premature announcements, we know the pair will survive and reconcile because they’re part of their own spinoff. As far as spinoffs go, that good actually be really good. But it doesn’t change the fact that the drama around the characters has been completely destroyed. Of course Daryl isn’t going to die in a pit with one walker. Of course they’ll make friends again. Of course Carol isn’t going to leave.
But this episode is held together by the performance of Melissa McBride. Her struggle to make a soup while simultaneously trying to catch a rat might not be the most thrilling activity, but it’s not really about that. Carol’s trying to do anything she can to be useful, just as she has done in the past. Be that cooking something for the community, or trying to stop an annoying rodent. She’s desperate for a purpose, for something. We see when she venture outside to forage for ingredients that easily falls back into the role of badass zombie killer, proving that these two sides of her are always going to be present. She might not be broken, as she fears, but she needs to find her bearing.
And the episode is worth it all for a few key scenes. Firstly, Carol’s breakdown when she can’t kill the rat. We’ve drawn comparisons between these episodes and the Breaking Bad episode ‘Fly’ on this blog in the past weeks, but the rat in this week’s episode is the closest comparison yet. The rat is the unexpected element of life now, of the lack of control that she has over her surroundings. She can’t even make a soup without the power going out, Dog knocking over the ingredients, or the aforementioned rat causing havoc. The fact that it escapes the episode unscathed suggests that Carol is learning to roll with it, to stop trying to control her trajectory and just see where it goes.
Another excellent scene is the one between Carol and Jerry towards the end. He may not have the words of Ezekiel to soothe her, but he can offer a hug. And sometimes that’s all a person needs. Carol isn’t in it alone, and she definitely doesn’t need to run away, which is a state of mind that she always falls back on in times of trouble.
The episode might have been more successful with a better b-plot. The Carol stuff is great, even if it is a little slower and more cerebral than you might want from the show. But Daryl fixing his bike just isn’t that great. Don’t get me wrong, the zombie action is appreciated – and the scene of him leading the pack of walkers was incredibly impressive considering the restrictions that must have been in place. And seeing him take on a couple of US Army walkers was intriguing (as was the fact that he pocketed plenty of machine gun ammunition). But there are just no stakes with Daryl. We know he won’t die, so there’s no drama. Without another character or even Dog to bounce off, these scenes felt like we were watching old Daryl. And I like new Daryl. The one that actually interacts with other people.
As a look at Carol’s struggle, ‘Diverged’ is an interesting experiment. But as an episode overall, it’s lacking. I’d still give it a watch, McBride is phenomenal as always and I do really appreciate a bit more direction for Carol. And the episode also acts as a great showcase for the talents of Dog, played by an acting dog named Seven. Seriously, the episode could be about watching paint dry and I’d be smiling all the way through it if Dog was there. I’m also sure that the negative aspects of the episode are the sort of things that won’t even be noticed if you were binge watching the show. But watching it weekly, this episode felt like a noticeable slowdown in the momentum of the story.
Next week’s episode is very exciting. It’s the Negan focused episode, and I wonder how much it will follow Robert Kirkman’s ‘Here’s Negan’ miniseries. These are the sort of stories these extra episodes are perfect for. And more Negan is definitely appreciated.