This review contains spoilers.
Bottle episodes can be a real mixed bag as far as television as a whole. In the case of a show like Star Trek, which coined the phrase “bottle episode”, they were a much-needed way to save money and use existing sets and actors while still filling an hour of television. For some shows, this is a recipe for disaster. The X-Files produced some of their best episodes when forced into a bottle, but The Walking Dead, thus far, hasn’t been the best at this sort of thing. Most of the farm season felt like bottle episodes, and not particularly good ones.
However, when you have a compelling central character, bottle episodes can work really well. For example, take Daryl Dixon. We know very little about him, all things considered, because he’s not the kind of character who’ll sit down and air out his grievances, nor is he the kind of character who’ll make a big speech talking about himself, his goals, and his dreams before dying – Daryl is too popular to die. On the other hand, we’ve got Beth, who is almost as much of a mystery, who isn’t nearly as popular as Daryl, and who apparently has an infinite knowledge of Tom Waits song lyrics.
It’s a pairing that really seems to work. They had a few good moments together earlier in the season, and when they went off on their own, it became pretty clear that it was going to create the potential for a lot of dramatic tension. After all, she’s a young, impressionable girl, he’s the dashing hero who keeps saving the day. He’s a brooding loner and she’s a bubbly, outgoing girl. He’s a killing machine and she takes care of babies. They’re like the Odd Couple, except with drastically more likelihood to end up having sex at some point. (Thankfully, they don’t. At least, not yet.)
Angela Kang has submitted a brilliant script for this week’s episode. No two ways about it, she got a very plumb assignment and she knocked it directly out of the park this week. The slow build of the episode from the opening onward, the way Daryl barely says anything while Beth tries time and time again to get him to open up, the fruitless search for alcohol (only to yield Peach Schnapps, the worst possible thing imaginable), and the inevitable opening up of the locked chest of emotions for both Beth and Daryl was just stunning, both in content and in execution. It’s kind of a silly, aimless quest for the two to undertake, but Beth is insistent and Daryl is unwilling to let her wander off to die. Considering the trauma they’ve underwent, and the fact that as far as they know everyone they’ve ever loved is now officially dead, why not have a walkabout?
Man, Norman Reedus, huh? Not only is he a fan favourite, he may also be the best actor in the regular cast. This is a really emotionally ripping performance from him, and I think the reason why it works so well is that it builds so slowly. As Daryl goes through his day, you can see him repressing, see him looking twice at Beth, see his patience begin to slip, and when the alcohol begins to take hold and he eventually gives up on Beth’s drinking game, he’s by turns legitimately scary and legitimately heartbreaking. Full credit for Emily Kinney, too, because she gives him a lot to work with and against, and she’s got a harder character in the sense that she’s supposed to be the positive one (and it’s very hard for positive people not to be annoying to those of us who aren’t positive).
Impressively, this is the first episode of The Walking Dead for director Julius Ramsay, who has a short film to his credits and a lot of experience in the editing bay. That’s probably one of the reasons why the show moved from scene to scene so smoothly. The fact that it was mostly set in two locations, a moonshiner’s shack and a golf course clubhouse, helped keep things appropriately claustrophobic, but nothing was quite as claustrophobic and impressive as the opening sequence. From the smooth tracking shot of the long-dormant car crash to the way the scene with Daryl and Beth crammed in the trunk was shot, it was a very impressive Walking Dead debut.
Even though Daryl and Beth aren’t going to die in the beginning of an episode, it’s still really scary to behold. The sound design was spectacular. More impressive was the set design, both of the accident scene after the horde passes – great attention to detail in the massing of footprints – and in the abandoned country club, where it’s clear that a lot of horrible things happened after Day Z. A bottle episode in the proper location can be an awesomely frightening thing; this is a great example of that.
As far as the closing half of this season of The Walking Dead goes, this may have been the best episode thus far of a pretty good run of television. Then again, I really like Daryl and getting an hour of him, plus some character development, is kind of like a treat. I’d imagine things will change pretty drastically when we get to Terminus, assuming we find it before the end of the season, so it’s nice to have a moment to step back and really examine what makes Dixon tick.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Claimed, here.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan would be willing to drink moonshine with Daryl Dixon, but only if there were no zombies trying to kill us. Then again, if there were, I wouldn’t be any safer with anyone else. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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