[This is a review for The Walking Dead season 5, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]

One of the more fascinating yet little-explored relationships on The Walking Dead is the one that exists between Daryl and Carol. And in another strong episode of an almost frighteningly solid fifth season, ‘Consumed’ works its way back in time to give the audience the details of Daryl and Carol’s disappearance. It also (presumably) fills in the blanks of whom Daryl brought back with him, and how Carol wound up being brought into the hospital Beth has become an indentured servant of.

Right off the bat, the episode is fascinating simply because it’s nice to see Scott Gimple and his writing crew take another chance at telling these separated stories, these pseudo-bottle episodes that focus on just a handful (or, in this case, a pinch) of major characters, while still maintaining some sense of a larger connection between them. It seems like taking a non-linear approach to storytelling could wind up being a detriment – as it sometimes was during the latter part of season 4 – but here, rather than lose the thread, these individual chapters have worked to keep the larger arc going, and to build anticipation for when the group is eventually reunited. Moreover, in what seems sort of like a happy accident, ‘Consumed’ manages to retrospectively strengthen a weaker installment like ‘Slabtown‘.

Most of that newfound appreciation comes in the form of Noah (Tyler James Williams), who demonstrates one of the other noticeable improvements of season 5’s storytelling: drama and conflict can still arise when a character makes a smart decision. In this case, Noah’s decision to let Carol fall into the hands of Officer Dawn Lerner’s hospital staff, after having been struck by their car. The result of Noah’s decision may ultimately save Carol’s life, but, more importantly, it brings two solid threads together, just as the midseason finale appears on the horizon.

But ‘Consumed’ is has more to do than set the table or move pieces around the board; there’s some highly entertaining character work being done in the midst of a solid piece of genre storytelling. The episode is loaded with nice details and sequences that build around the rotting husk that once was Atlanta – which is only shown after Carol guides them to a women’s shelter she once stayed at. But then there’s the hallway filled with The Camping Dead, where the duo run afoul of Noah, and finally, the terrifically executed set piece of the van plummeting off the overpass as the only means of escape from a horde of walkers. All of it combines for a terrific, self-contained episode that still manages to ponder the question (on a character level and beyond): Can we start over?

Melissa McBride in The Walking Dead Season 5 Episode 6 The Walking Dead: Gimme Shelter

Surprisingly, Daryl is the first to voice this not as a question, but as a statement, while using himself as living proof. Daryl’s suggestion of the mutability of those he’s built a life with is a refreshing departure from his usual reticence and what seemed to be a wavering commitment to the larger group, powered by a feeling that he didn’t quite belong. But where ‘Consumed’ finds its emotional core is once again through the season’s MVP, Carol.

As with last week’s ‘Self Help’, the use of flashbacks help to color the choices of a character and demonstrate his or her frame of mind. This time, the episode takes a This is Your Post-Apocalyptic Life approach by revisiting a handful of truly bleak moments from Carol’s recent past – being exiled by Rick, the deaths of Karen and David (a.k.a. Murders in the Flu Morgue), and, of course, burying Mika and Lizzie. These moments show how the world has changed Carol into a pragmatic, and some might say, compassionless survivor, especially after the rumination on the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. But she manages to demonstrate that change hasn’t hardened her for the worse, when she convinces Daryl to save Noah from a hungry walker.

Episodes like ‘Consumed’ go a long way in justifying the non-linear technique that has helped the season spread its story across so many different groups. And although Rick and the others haven’t been seen for a while, their inevitable return next week is now something that gives audiences a sense of anticipation, rather than the usually weekly obligation to tune-in. It may have taken a long road in order to get (at least some of) the group back together, but The Walking Dead managed to build a solid, character-based foundation along the way, making the extra miles more than worth the trip.

The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with ‘Crossed’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:

Photos: Gene Page/AMC

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