This week's The Walking Dead says goodbye to one of its most compelling protagonists. As Denise, Merritt Wever displayed a consistent lack of ego on The Walking Dead — so it's strangely fitting that her climactic monologue in this week's "Twice as Far" should come to such an abrupt end. When Dwight's arrow pierces her eye, interrupting her armchair psychology, the episode's weakest exchange suddenly transforms into a startling confrontation.
Until the moment of her death, "Twice as Far" belongs to Denise as much as last week's "The Same Boat" belonged to Maggie and Carol. In her swan song, Wever waltzes away with the episode by embracing the quality that distinguishes her character from Alexandria's fiercest warriors: She is captivatingly human.
The Walking Dead has always played with the idea that death shadows all of us, whether there are zombies around or not. Remember: In the series' premiere, Rick Grimes awakes in the post-plague world from a coma, having been shot by a distinctly human adversary long before the dead started shambling around.
But "Twice as Far" lifts this thematic underpinning to the level of text. The repetition of the opening montage suggests that Alexandria has once again settled into a familiar pattern, with the same morning inventories and changes of the guard duplicated day after day. But the images of the characters' various totems — Carol's rosary, Daryl's toy soldier — foreshadow the cruel twists to come, and the private regrets that continue to weigh on the residents, despite their collective agreement never to discuss the past.
It's Denise's failure to abide by this post-apocalyptic social code — chattering on about pre-zombie concerns like her parents' alcoholism and her brother's anger — that makes her so unusual and compelling. In Wever's able hands, Denise's neuroticism is at once the mark of her "unreadiness" for excursions beyond the wall and the proof that she has not yet lost touch with the vulnerable, empathic person she was before the outbreak. In fact, during the run to the apothecary, Denise emerges as a rooting interest for those of us who prefer our heroes with their humanity intact. She swings wildly from awkward humor — "Do you want me to hold your bags, or..." she trails off, as Daryl and Rosie attempt to break into the pharmacy — to fear and sorrow, unable to hide her emotions behind a disciplined scowl.
The result is a rich portrait of a woman struggling to derive strength from her bleak circumstances. The storage closet sends her reeling, I suspect, because she understands that the despair it suggests is never far off. Riddled with clues as if it were a crime scene — a moldy playpen, a child's shoe sticking out of the sink's water — the room conjures the image of a woman drowning her child before the walkers came through the door, a particularly potent expression of the psychological carnage with which even the strongest survivors still grapple. When Denise flees the building, clutching her own totem — a keychain bearing her brother's name — as she crumples to the sidewalk in tears, "Twice as Far" becomes a primer for the importance of pain. To feel it, to work through it, and to come out on the other side is a strength, not a defect. In a world devoured by mindless, instinct-driven zombies, hurting is human.
And the episode's most feckless character is the one who most obviously misunderstands this lesson. "The key to survival is allowing oneself to be shaped by the assigned environment," Eugene boasts to Abraham, forgetting that pain itself is a product of evolution. "In doing so, a broad range of capabilities are acquired, allowing one to flip the script and use said capabilities to shape said environment for maximum longevity... I've changed, adapted. I'm a survivor." That he proceeds to botch an attempt to put down a walker, dismisses Abraham's protection, and ends up Dwight's hostage would be delicious comeuppance for such arrogance — were it not for the side effect of Denise's untimely end.
But before the episode's creeping dread explodes into action, there's some solace, and even a macabre laugh or two, to be had in Denise's final moments. She manages to dispatch a walker, as the swaggering Eugene could not, and make light of her repulsion: "Oh, man, I threw up on my glasses!" It's not overcoming her fear; it's coming to terms with it.
And if it seems cruel of The Walking Dead to kill Denise off so soon after she says, "You wanna live, you take chances," the depth and grace of Wever's performance reinforces the sense that Denise had arrived at a point of clarity and contentment to which the remaining survivors can only aspire. Unlike Carol, who departs Alexandria at the end of the episode bereft at the compromises she's made to keep living, Denise leaves this world with a clean conscience. On The Walking Dead, that may be the greatest triumph of all.