It is no easy task to be the episode before the finale. Let’s face it, viewers watch you because you are the episode before the episode that counts. Writers need to give you something to make you interested, but not too much because they save the great ideas for the “favorite child” of episodes, the “finale.”
“Us” may have the “Stepchild” role of episodes label on it, but like Cinderella herself, it has its moments of brilliance. And that brilliance has consistently come from Scott Gimple’s writing.
There were no great changes in where the story is headed. Everyone is going to Terminus. What’s left to do is to focus on those subtle moments and let the writing do its magic. Nowhere does this come through than Gimple’s handling of Daryl’s storyline.
It is painful to watch Daryl throw away the “civilization” he found with Rick. With Joe and his men, Daryl is drawn back to the world of Merle. This time, Merle comes to him in the form of Joe, played by actor Jeff Kober. Kober is brilliant as the charismatic sociopath and is one of those actors who briefly shows up for an episode of a series and leaves after making an indelible mark on the show. Let’s hope he stays longer than usual.
Kober does justice to Gimple’s writing as he taps into Daryl’s fears and insecurities. As Joe, he reminds Daryl that men like him were outcasts in the world before the walkers. This is a source of tremendous shame for Daryl. In a previous episode, he told Beth he was nothing before the apocalypse. He just followed Merle around. His life meant nothing. He learned this as a boy when a drug addict pulled a gun on him because of an argument over a TV show. Daryl’s shame about his past is always there, just beneath the surface.
Joe reshapes that shame by making it a source of pride for Daryl. He tells him that men like “Us” were made for the world after the apocalypse. In this world, he will be valued and he can be powerful. He includes himself in that group as a way to forge a bond with Daryl. He teaches Daryl the rules of the group, and proves he is a man of his word when he punishes Len for stealing. Len’s punishment is horrific. He is kicked to death by the group. But what is most disturbing is that Daryl does not flinch when the man is beaten. He turns his back to it as if nothing is happening.
The next day he comes across Len’s body and he is about to take a sheet to cover it. For a brief moment, the audience thinks that Daryl’s humanity is still there. Also, it’s a scene reminiscent of when he helped Beth cover the body of a woman with a sheet of white cloth. But in the last second, he crumples the sheet and throws it aside. He runs off to joins Joe’s group. In throwing away that sheet, did he throw away what he learned with Beth? The finale will do the job of letting us know. “Us” did a great job of getting us to want to know.