Ever since zombies saved the protagonists from boredom by overrunning Hershel’s farm, the members of the Grimes group seem to rarely get downtime for one-on-one connecting. Instead, we usually find them fighting zombies or yelling about what to do next or ignoring Hershel as a group. That’s a shame. It’s their occasional two-minute dialogues that truly flesh out the characters and give us some modicum of sympathy for them.
This is particularly true this season for Daryl. We’ve learned a good deal about Daryl’s backstory and character from the one-on-one exchanges he’s had with other characters. When Daryl and Carl were clearing a cellblock together earlier in the season, we found out that Daryl’s mother was an alcoholic who died in a house fire. This didn’t just offer a greater glimpse into Daryl’s rough childhood; his attempt to connect with Carl illustrated his empathy, and you could just hear fans swoon at this demonstration of his daddy skills. Similarly, Daryl and Merle’s scuffle in the woods in “Home” revealed more than details about their fathers’ abuse. It’s why they’re so loyal to each other: They both endured the same abusive father, and they each resent the other for his abandonment.
Our interest in Merle relies entirely on little dialogues like these. Without them, he’s just a raving, racist redneck. With them, he’s nuanced: a bibliophile, even a devout man. These well-drawn dialogues tend to reveal a discrepancy between a character and his or her airbrushed group persona. Daryl seems the dispassionate zombie-killing machine, but he’s actually empathetic and wounded. Merle seems the shameless sociopath, but he’s actually remorseful. Rick seems the level-headed leader (well, not anymore), but he’s actually overrun with guilt.
There’s a psychological controversy known as the person-situation debate. One side argues that individuals’ inner personality traits determine their behavior. On the other side, the “situationalists” argue that people act so inconsistently across situations that it’s not very meaningful to ascribe personality traits to them. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I’m glad The Walking Dead is erring on the side of situationalism. It makes a show about zombies and Axel’s titanium, bullet-blocking corpse somehow realer. It’s not exactly subtle, but then The Walking Dead isn’t about subtlety. We do have zombies to kill, you know.