Those viewers who’ve been with The Walking Dead from the very beginning will have experienced the heartache, horror and raw grief that has afflicted any number of the show’s characters. It’s one of the signature elements of a series premised on the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. A world-crushing catastrophe which continues to consume those fortunate enough to have survived the original onslaught of the undead. The impact of character deaths on the show can linger with viewers long after the credits have rolled. At times, The Walking Dead is a tough watch.
The six episodes of the extended season ten of the show have all been marked by imaginative and unexpected experiments with the format. Approaches that have turned the limitations of Covid-safe filming into an advantage. This latest instalment keeps the inventiveness coming. But “Diverged” is an experience unlike any other the show has yet produced in more than 150 episodes. And that distinctiveness is something that has immediately divided opinion amongst the show’s vociferous fanbase.
“Diverged” has an atmosphere marked by lightness and moments approaching humour. Writer Heather Bellson and director David Boyd quite intentionally push beyond the show’s familiar boundaries, asking fans to embrace a momentary reflective timeout ahead of the crunch-point cliffhanger certain to follow in next week’s season finale.
Making their way back towards Alexandria, Daryl and Carol are struggling to handle the unresolved tensions between them. At a fork in the path through the woods, the pair separate. Daryl is determined to continue the search for evidence of Rick’s fate a little while longer. Carol prefers a more direct route back to the settlement. Canine companion Dog opts to tag along with Carol, leaving Daryl alone once more. But renewed isolation leaves neither of them feeling content.
Before their paths diverge, Daryl makes the fateful decision to gift Carol his Swiss Army knife. It’s a spur-of-the-moment act of generosity that triggers a chain reaction of consequences after Daryl’s bike breaks down. Makeshift repairs far from base are all the harder without the right tools, and Daryl is forced to scavenge and improvise.
Arriving at Alexandria, Carol aims to make herself useful but, with all repairs and reconstruction in hand, she’s at something of a loose end. She decides to make soup to feed Jerry and the other members of the community but, just like Daryl, she’s forced to make-do-and-mend. Searching for the supplies they need, both Carol and Daryl battle zombies solo, but it’s a chore as unsatisfying as it is high-risk. Carol then begins a battle of wills with a rodent that has taken up residence in her property.
Whimsy and playfulness are not the kind of dramatic notes that The Walking Dead has struck before now, and there are elements of the approach here that jar. It’s just plain out-of-character to see Carol shriek and recoil as she spots a decent size rat.
It would have been more in keeping for her to have stomped on its head, and then maybe thought about skinning and gutting it as a possible ingredient for her otherwise meagre soup. There are other moments that are just too ‘on the nose’: like the real and metaphorical fork in the path along which the pair separate; or the rat vacating the building at the perfect dramatic moment.
But there are elements that work far better than that. The talents of Reedus and McBride are more than enough to hold the attention unaided. And each of them makes the most of the often-wordless focus on their solitary exploits. Daryl’s zombie encounters are small-scale, but they’re still of substance. There are some great character interactions between Carol and Jerry too, as he’s sufficiently empathic to recognise the brittleness lurking beneath the surface of Carol’s breezy demeanour.
With the commissioning of a new Walking Dead spin-off focusing on Daryl and Carol now confirmed, it’s understandable that the show’s creators would want to spend more time in the company of these fan-favourite characters. It’s odd then that this is an episode in which they spend so much time apart. On top of that, and in contrast to the fantastic “Find Me“, this is not an episode that adds much to the already compelling dynamic between these two. They end this dramatic interlude as they began it, recognising that they remain inextricably linked to one another yet unable to articulate their shared sense of need.
If the definition of divergence is ‘moving apart from a common point’, then “Diverged” delivers on its promise to step away from the familiarities of The Walking Dead world. But it ends with those long-standing sensibilities reaffirmed. This penultimate episode of season ten is far-and-away the least essential of the extended run. But having invited viewers to ‘take a moment’ to diverge from the jeopardy and horror, there are few indications that the upcoming season finale “Here’s Negan” will offer anything quite so whimsical.
The Walking Dead: Diverged, the twenty-first episode of season ten, is available now on the Fox network