For half a second there, Alexandria had almost seemed like everything they were promised. Safety, security, community. Right away it was clear why they were needed in this apparent utopia; the inhabitants didn’t have a clue what it took to survive in this new world. Most have them had only seen the occasional walker from a safe distance. They don't know how to fight, how to shoot, don't even understand why they would need to. They're all just like so much cattle lining up for the slaughter.
Was that why Daryl had decided he wanted to stay; to try and help? He hadn’t cared about anyone outside of himself and his brother for most of his life; no one ever looked out for him, so why should he give a shit about anyone else? Most folks would just as soon spit on him as help him. Redneck trash. Still, he’d gone hunting for his group when they were holed up at the quarry, even though most of them had made it clear they didn’t like him and would prefer it if he wasn’t around. Even though he brought them meat. He’d worked hard to protect them, even though most of them couldn’t even spare him a kind word. Only Carol seemed to really see him; to think he was worth anything. Maybe that’s why he’d stayed; why he’d tried; because she was the first person to ever believe he was someone worth knowing.
He was different now, he knew. They all were. Those who had survived from those early days, and those who they’d picked up on the way, they were a family now. He’d lost Merle but found a brother in Rick. He’d put himself on the line for Carl and the Lil’ Asskicker a thousand times. He kept hunting and made sure they were all fed. And now, in their new safe haven, he’d go out and find more people like them, bring them back to safety, to join their community.
That was a big shift in him. It was one thing to be loyal to his family. It was another to accept this new community. Most of the people he’d never spoken to; they avoided eye contact with him, they looked at him with the same distrust that his family had back before they really knew him. So why this selfless drive to help; to be part of something?
He was trying to claw his way back from somewhere dark and desparate. After the prison, after he thought he’d lost everyone; after Beth disappearing and that group of assholes he was travelling with nearly killing Rick and Carl and Michonne; after nearly losing Carol when they went looking for Beth, being willing to leave Noah to be walker food because the kid had put Carol’s life in danger; after they’d got Carol back and lost Beth forever…
Carol was right; life now, it just consumes you. But he didn’t want it to. When Rick said they had to pretend like they were the Walking Dead, Daryl had felt nothing but revulsion. Rick was all about survival, and maybe Daryl was being unrealistic, but he had his principles. He wasn’t willing to do whatever it takes to survive; there had to be limits. The line kept moving for Rick, but there were some lines Daryl wouldn’t cross. Lines Rick and Carol had already gone past. Actions they’d already resigned themselves to committing.
For a minute there, back in Atlanta when he was ready to leave Noah to die, Carol had pleaded with him to help. Carol, who had tried to shoot the boy just a few hours earlier; who was willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe, never mind who got hurt in the process. But she didn’t want him to do whatever it takes. She didn’t want him to get burned up. She could be callous and calculating, but she wanted him to stay that same good man who had searched for her daughter non-stop even though everyone else including herself thought it was futile. She would have killed Noah, but she didn’t want him to do that. She would cross that line so no one else would have to.
Maybe that’s why he’s trying here; because it would be so easy to devolve into nihilism, but Carol had begged him not to. She saw herself as burned up and gone, but she’d pushed him to keep trying, like he was still salvageable. Maybe he’s trying now enough for the both of them.
He’s got to; Carol’s been different since they came to this place. Her false smiles and her conservative dress and her faux-housewife demeanor grate on him. She’s a chameleon, always adapting to her circumstances, figuring out who she needs to be to keep herself alive. To keep her family safe. They joke about it; this person she puts on every day, this weird caricature of her former self. But he hates it. It’s not who she is. She plays the part because she doesn’t trust anyone here. Right as he’s trying to really make a go of it; start over like they said they would. He’s going out with Aaron looking for people to bring back. He’s trying to build a community, even as the Alexandria locals look at him like he’s trash. And they smile at Carol like she’s one of their own, as she lies and manipulates to keep her family safe.
Daryl understands why she has to do it. It’s the same reason he can’t stay inside the walls; has to be out there doing something. They each have their own ways of dealing. But she said she was going to try. She said that. We ain’t ashes, he’d told her, and she’d nodded and said she’d try. But maybe what she’d meant was, you’re not ashes, not yet, and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you that way.
She’s not trying; not starting over. But she’s trying to make it so the rest of them can.
Carol used to have hope; even losing Sophia didn’t break her. Maybe it’s because she’d always kept her expectations low; had Ed beat it into her, the idea that she wasn’t worth anything, shouldn’t hope for much. Daryl understood that. He’d lived the same way for most of his life, first from his dad, then from Merle. He’d never expected much from himself. But now he has a family, and he can’t help but hope. He has something to fight for, and after losing Beth so brutally he’s just that much more determined to fight so they don’t lose anyone else.
Carol’s different. He doesn’t know what had happened to her after she was banished from the prison, but evidently it was a lot. He knew something bad had happened with Lizzie and Myka; something so bad she wouldn’t even talk to him about it. She’d told him about Karen and David; explained why. She wasn’t apologetic; she did what she thought she had to. She did it because her feelings- her soul- didn’t matter to her as much as ensuring her family was safe. She didn’t care if she went to hell. She’d make the tough calls so no one else had to. So what call did she have to make with those little girls? What was so bad that she couldn’t talk about it- not even with him? It was bad enough that she’d tried to leave again; of her own volition this time. Banish herself from their group. That's how full of shame she was. That's how little she thinks she's worth now. If he hadn’t caught her that night, he’s certain she would have disappeared without so much as a goodbye, and he never would have seen her again.
The thought makes his heart hurt. He misses the old Carol; the one who would tease him and flirt outrageously to make him uncomfortable. The one who was kind to him and gave him unconditional acceptance. The one who believed him when he promised that everything would be ok, and who stuck by him even when it wasn’t.
This new Carol was brittle, and sharp, and world-weary. This Carol wouldn’t- couldn’t- let herself feel the pain of everything she’d seen and done. This Carol had given up hope.
Once, she could tell him anything; now, he’s never sure which Carol he’s even talking to. He sees her true self less and less, masked behind fake smiles and cookies, and furtive plots to take control of Alexandria. He was trying to hope for the best, while she was planning for the worst.
He wanted her to try. He wanted her to trust him; to tell him what had pushed her to the brink and over the edge. He wanted to find a way to help her get back. He wanted them to start over. He wanted her to believe in all the promise and possibility of Alexandria.
But then, it had all gone to shit. She had been right not to hope after all.