Set-up and piece-moving episodes aren't that easy to pull off, since mostly they're hours of picking up characters and placing them somewhere else on the chess board in order to have them in position for the story the show really wants to tell, and the reasons for people up and leaving can be a bit of a tough swallow. And typically, penultimate piece-moving episodes are particularly a drag, since they deflate a lot of the tension that should be building as a show heads into a finale.
But hey! "East," the second-to-last episode of The Walking Dead's sixth season was pretty darned good at moving everyone around, aptly maintaining a high level of tension throughout the hour, incorporating mostly valid reasons for people to be on the move, peeking into the minds of some of its characters, and giving heart attacks to a particularly randy set of Walking Dead fans. Breathe deeply, Dixon's Vixens, Dwight (Austin Amelio) said, "He'll be alright." We can trust him, right?
People had the itch to leave Alexandria in "East," and a pair of departures left some characters scrambling. We knew from last week that Carol (Melissa McBride) was bouncing because she just couldn't deal with killing anymore, and while her motivations still confuse me, I've reached the point where I just accept it and move forward. And you know what? It's kind of a relief. Just let it go, Tim. In fact, there were lots of cases like this--Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) breaking up with Rosita (Christian Serratos) and getting together with Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) hooking up--that were touched on in an early montage and felt effective one I just accepted them. Life inside the walls of Alexandria was almost back to normal, and these glimpses of happiness were in direct opposition to what I complained about in last week's episode. The shower scene with Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) was cute, and said a lot without saying anything at all. They've suffered individually and together (and Maggie had the bruises to prove it), but they're there for each other to wash each other's backs. See? It doesn't always have to be doom and gloom on The Walking Dead.
Of course we all know these happy moments are only here to set up awful things in the future. With Carol on the lam, Morgan (Lennie James) and Rick took off to bring her back to safety. And Daryl (Norman Reedus) felt so much guilt about not killing Dwight and indirectly causing Denise's (Merritt Wever) death that he went out on a solo mission to correct his mistake. That sent Glenn, Michonne, and Rosita after him, and "East" was on its way.
The most nerve-racking scene of the episode came with Carol, who was driving one of Alexandria's porcupine-like walker-traps down Fury Road when she had her tires shot out by some passing Saviors. After a tense standoff where it looked like Carol was doomed, she pulled a trick out of her sleeve--literally--and shot up her attackers in another case of "don't snooze on the meek religious lady." We would never see Carol again in the episode, as her ghost wandered off, never wanting to be found.
That scene would set the pace for everything that followed, creating a sense of unease and dread that fuels The Walking Dead's best episodes. If you are watching The Walking Dead to feel comfortable and happy, then you're not doing it right. And I have to say that a few serendipitous events that happened in the real world helped amplify this. Supposed leaked spoilers about the finale, common knowledge about what happens in the comics in the middle of the Savior arc, and a trailer for the Season 6 finale that was released early are actually paying off for us now. Our anticipation is aflutter because we know something terrible is likely coming, but we don't know who it will happen to. Thus, "East" became an Easter Egg hunt to determine who has the worst times ahead for them.
Would it be Rick and Morgan, who came across Carol's carnage? Probably not. The two played detective and tracked Carol while having another one of their philosophical debates about the necessity of killing. It resulted in one of the better conversations this season has given us, as Morgan confessed to keeping a member of The Wolves alive inside Alexandria rather than killing him. But just as Rick did one of those things where his face scrunches up when he's mad, Morgan reminded him that the guy took Denise hostage, then saved Denise's life, and she was then able to save Carl's life when he got shot in the eyehole. Morgan got crunchy and implied that allowing the Wolf to live saved Carl's (Chandler Riggs) life, and that everything was a circle and good things come around. (It's actually flawed logic unless you ignore the fact that Denise would never be in danger if Morgan had killed the guy in the first place. She'd be in the house with everyone else!) That explanation hit Rick hard, and perhaps like Carol, Morgan's philosophy, which is the closest thing to "normal life" thinking, is beginning to seep in, because Rick looked a little shaken up and dazed for the rest of the episode as he digested Morgan's sense of cause and effect.
Glenn, Rosita, and Michonne eventually found Daryl, who wasn't into going back to Alexandria even after a passionate speech from Glenn, who seemed to be the only one with his head squarely on his shoulders. Glenn wanted to go back to Alexandria and, you know, not rush headfirst into danger in a blind rage. But I get it, Daryl, you're a sensitive guy and Denise's death lingered over you like bad cologne. Stubborn Daryl made up his mind and left with Rosita in tow, leaving Michonne and Glenn to wander on their own. And of course they got captured by the Saviors. Ruh roh!
Daryl and Rosita would quickly find Glenn and Michonne tied up against a tree, with Glenn furiously shaking Daryl off from doing anything stupid. But it was too late and Dwight got the jump on Daryl, pointing a gun right at Daryl's... head? Shoulder? Chest? We don't know, and as "East" ended, Dwight fired a bullet and blood splattered in the air. "He'll be alright," Dwight said over a black screen. DID THE WALKING DEAD JUST KILL DARYL?!
I've long wondered--nay, dreamed--what the Internet reaction to fan-favorite Daryl's death would be, and this is probably as close as we're going to get. The producers knew they had to throw in the "He'll be alright" comment, otherwise AMC's headquarters would be burned down to the ground by Daryl superfans. So is he dead? You can fear the worst if you like, but I'm betting it was just a crippling shot. I can't even fathom how masochistic The Walking Dead would have to be to kill Daryl off like that. There is no way they're killing Daryl off unless he goes down saving the world wrapped in an American flag while finding a cure for the virus and cancer. If he goes, he's going as a hero, not as a stubborn man who did the wrong thing over a guilty conscience.
With Daryl, Rosita, Glenn, and Michonne presumably captured by the Saviors, Season 6 seems headed towards a thrilling finale. And as Morgan told Rick, he started this whole beef, so we shouldn't expect any mercy to be taken on our prisoner pals. Something awful and horrific is going to happen in this finale, and hopefully it's not just the rumored cliffhanger. Pain is coming to Rick's group, and to be honest, they deserve it for inserting themselves into this fight. This should raise all sorts of questions that could elevate The Walking Dead to the next level.
-Daryl's point-blank shot wasn't as egregious of a fake-out as Glenn's near death in the first half of the season, thankfully.
-Kind of a cheap in medias res to start the episode, no? But then again, most are cheap. The technique--when an episode starts in the middle of a later scene--is almost always a lazy way to generate immediate interest from viewers. And this one, a peek at the scuffle between Carol and the Saviors, was placed at the beginning as nothing more than a tease. We need a petition to stop shows from using an in medias res when it doesn't foreshadow character motivation! Looking at you, ABC, king of the in medias res.
-Did you see the carving on the gun Carl grabbed? It sure looked like a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. Ahem.
-Oh Carol, did you really have to get together with Tobin when you knew you were always leaving? Poor guy.
-Michonne: "Maggie has us on a schedule and I'm not pissing off a pregnant lady." Rick: "Yeah, not THAT pregnant lady." Ha!
-Maggie hid some guns inside Alexandria so they weren't all in the same spot. Expect that to come into play later!
-Morgan: "There is no right, just a wrong that doesn't pull you down." I bet he's fun at parties.
-Rick: "Morgan, Michonne did steal that protein bar." Morgan: "Oh I know." See how much better this show is when it cracks some jokes every now and then? That was great.
-The other cliffhanger: Maggie is having some pregnancy-related pains! And after her new haircut, too. About that haircut: is she turning into the new Carol?
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.