the walking dead, season 6, 614, denise, dr. denise cloyd, merritt weverA popular – and well-founded – complaint about "The Walking Dead" is that the show can't stop repeating itself, perpetually introducing Big Bads that our survivors must battle in between brief moments of stability and community-building. And with the conflict with the Saviors heating up over the past few weeks, it certainly seems like viewers are in for a lather, rinse, repeat with Negan and co., which is why creating characters that audiences care about has become so important to the series. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, "TWD" often strives to balance humor and heart with the series's inherent horror, doing its best to make some room for lightness in the midst of all the darkness. But after tonight's episode, I suspect the show has forgotten the importance of that.

Sure, making us care so much about Denise means her death is that much more heart-wrenching. And yes, making Carol question her morality makes her a multifaceted (and normal) human being. But honestly, what's the point? What is the point of killing someone as soon as they realize they need to – and want to, and try to – change? What is the point of banishing Carol yet again, making her relinquish her defining characteristics, and forcing her to take some moral high ground that viewers know is a recipe for disaster (and Carol herself would have scoffed at only a few episodes ago)? There doesn't seem to be one, and I'm struggling to reconcile this apparent ambivalence on the writers' part with my loyalty as a viewer.

I really am crushed by the loss of Denise. She was my favorite new character this season, and Merritt Wever's brilliant performance made the doctor a warm, awkward, funny, flawed, fully-fledged person who I enjoyed watching week after week. Wever is an Emmy winner and must have other acting opportunities on her plate, so I suppose her time in Alexandria was always meant to be brief. But the problem with introducing someone that viewers (or at least this viewer) love so much is that not only do they miss them when they're gone, but they question the point of giving her character depth or dimension at all, when she ends up nothing more than target practice for the villain of the week. We've seen similar progression with killed-too-soon characters like Bob, whose upbeat demeanor made him a welcome presence on the program early last season. So naturally, after he tells Rick he believes this nightmare existence will get better, he's bitten by a zombie and has his leg eaten in front of him by a band of cannibals. That's what you get for having a personality on "The Walking Dead." (Conversely, blank slates like Tara continue to roam free.)

As for Carol, I don't even know where to begin. I'm so angry about the direction the show is taking with her, but more than that, I'm confused. I outlined my annoyance with this nonsense last week, and I reiterate it tonight. I do find it kind of hilarious that she chose to break up with Tobin via letter (better than a Post-it, I guess?), but that's where my tolerance for this storyline ends. When even Morgan, the biggest pacifist in the universe, is confused by your random change of heart, there's a problem. If anything, Carol's reasons for leaving only serve to highlight the flaw that I pointed out above: This series is seemingly nothing more than an endless string of antagonists that must be defeated. That Carol thinks Rick's crew is becoming an antagonist itself is beside the point; the fact that she so easily distilled the predictable essence of the series in a few lines speaks volumes about how monotonous it's become.

"We have so much here: people, food, medicine, walls. Everything we need to live. But what we have, other people want, too, and that won't ever change," Carol writes in her letter. "If we survive this threat, then it's not over. Another will be back to take its place, to take what we have."

That's been true for six seasons, and with no end to the series in sight, I don't know how it ever escapes that plot device. Sure, maybe I'm demanding more than I should from a show about the zombie apocalypse. But as I've said before, the showrunners have been determined to make "TWD" as much about the people as the walkers roaming around them. Unfortunately, with the good ones either dropping like flies or dropping their personalities, I'm finding it difficult to continue caring about the rest of them.

And judging by precedent, it's almost better if I don't like a character – I thought the insipid Father Gabriel would die after two episodes, and yet he's whimpered his way through almost two seasons. (Can't wait for season 12, when he's the only current cast member left alive and becomes the Rick of Alexandria 3.0.) That's why I'm so nervous for Daryl and Eugene, who each had moments of self-actualization tonight that peg them as liable to bite the big one soon.

Eugene insists to a skeptical (and weirdly hostile) Abraham that he considers himself a survivor now, someone who has finally successfully adapted to his apocalyptic environment. He suggests the innovative idea of making his own ammunition for the community, since that's its most important commodity now, and has even started to grow out his signature mullet in a literal show of his development.

"I see you tied back your Tennessee waterfall there," Abraham remarks, adding another state-specific synonym for the haircut to viewers' vocabulary. Eugene responds with perhaps the best hair-centric soliloquy known to man.

"I won't lie," he says. "I liked it, I may very well miss it. The feel of the billowy curtain catching the breeze some days was straight-up bliss. But brass tacks, the hair doesn't make the man – the man makes the man."

That latter sentiment weighs on Daryl, who's tormented by his decision not to take out Saviors Dwight and Honey – who he met in the burned-out forest back in episode six, and who stole his bike and his crossbow – when he had the chance. He shares his frustration with Carol, who responds that he had no choice but to show mercy, because "That's who you are. We're still stuck with that." "No, we ain't," Daryl spits back. "I should have killed them."

It's this conversation that ultimately makes Carol realize that she needs to leave Alexandria. As best I can understand her warped logic, she seems to agree that it's necessary to kill in this new world. But she doesn't want to be in the position of having to do so, and thus decides to isolate herself indefinitely.

"I love you all here, I do. And I'd have to kill for you. And I can't. I won't," she says in her letter. "Rick sent me away and I wasn't ever going to come back, but everything happened and I wound up staying. But I can't anymore. I can't love anyone because I can't kill for anyone. So I'm going, like I always should have. Don't come after me, please."

Of course, we know that someone – probably Daryl – inevitably will, and that pursuit will likely lead to someone (perhaps even Carol herself) getting killed, especially if the Saviors find her first. As we saw with Denise, Negan's crew is apparently everywhere these days, circling closer and closer to Alexandria in an effort to find Rick's gang, seeking revenge alongside a cache of weapons and people. We know that the Saviors like to introduce themselves to new communities by killing a random resident to instill fear and assert authority, and that was likely the plan for Daryl, the real target of Dwight's arrow. Instead, it hits Denise mid-speech. But there's no time to mourn, since Dwight and his henchmen have Daryl and Rosita surrounded, and then trot out a bound Eugene, who they've taken hostage.

A flurry of activity follows, spurred in part by Eugene deciding that the best way to subdue Dwight is to bite him in the crotch (?!?), causing the Savior to howl out in pain and giving Daryl and Rosita a chance to scramble for their weapons and open fire. Abe, hiding nearby, joins the fight, and once Eugene releases Dwight's junk from his jaws' clutches, the Saviors bolt, leaving Daryl's crossbow behind. Mr. Dixon, determined not to let Dwight get away again, takes aim, but Rosita talks him out of it. They need to attend to Eugene (only grazed by a bullet, thankfully – after surviving Abe's season five beatdown, and now this, it seems this guy has nine lives), and hightail it back to Alexandria before they're ambushed again. But you can bet that this isn't the last time Dwight and Daryl go toe-to-toe. I'm just hoping that the writers have the sense to make Daryl the one who comes out on top in that matchup.

Daryl eventually fetches Denise's body from the train tracks, and brings it back to Alexandria for burial. He clutches the keychain she snagged from the apothecary, which is inscribed with her twin brother Dennis's name. It's a mirror of the earlier scene in which Denise herself held the trinket and wept outside the store, and each moment is heartbreaking in its own way. I suppose the only solace I can take away from this episode is that Denise (and Wever) got an incredible showcase for her last appearance on the program. Despite having no experience outside the walls, she summoned the courage to suggest that Daryl and Rosita join her to check out the apothecary, scoring some crucial antibiotics that will likely save Eugene's life. Her triumph at finding that can of Crush to give to Tara was infectious, and her inability to keep down her breakfast was gross but endearing. (Loved her line, "Aw man, I threw up on my glasses.") And her final moments proved that she was on the path to becoming a more assertive person – and more importantly, more confident in herself.

After Rosita and Daryl chastise her for going after that soda – and tussling with that walker – when it was stupid dangerous to do so, Denise shoots back that it was stupid and dangerous for them to go after the Saviors, yet they did it anyway. "You wanna live, you take chances. That's what I did," she retorts. She also admits that she didn't tell Tara she loved her, or join her on her supply run, because she was scared, something that she now realizes is silly in these zombified times.

"That's what's stupid, not me coming out here and facing my s—t," Denise tells them. "And it makes me sick that you guys aren't even trying, because you're strong and you're smart and you're both really good people. And if you don't wake—"

And that's when an arrow is shot through her head.

It seems that Daryl gets the point, though, and Denise's demise does make him wake up a bit. Just what change it will inspire in him is forthcoming, but I hope that it doesn't lead to his own demise. But with the way things have been going so far, I wouldn't rule it out.

Other thoughts:

- The arrow comes out through Denise's right eye, making her now the third character that I can recall who's suffered an injury to that specific socket, after The Governor and Carl. What weird vendetta do "TWD" writers have against right eyes?

- Abe compliments Eugene's quick thinking during the showdown with Dwight, telling him admiringly, "You had him by the d—k, Eugene. I mean that with the utmost respect."

- The specifics are unknown, but we can see from Dwight's mangled appearance that the Saviors have exacted their punishment for his earlier escape. He sports some pretty significant scars on the side of his face and head, which look like the result of severe burns, and one of his ears appears to have melted off. Yikes.

- Loved the moment when Denise tries to give Daryl pointers on driving a stick shift, and Daryl just shoots her a silent, glowering look.

- Another awkward, well-played moment between Denise and Daryl and Rosita: The latter two tell her to hang back in the apothecary, and Denise offers meekly, "Do you want me to hold your bags, or...?"

- A unique problem that surfaced tonight: How do you kill a zombie whose head is covered with impenetrable melted metal? Solution: Stab him up through the bottom of his chin.

- Daryl refused to take the train tracks on the way to the apothecary, perhaps because the last time he followed some tracks, they led to Terminus. Unfortunately, the trio takes that route home, setting up the Savior ambush.

- Abraham finally declares his love for Sasha, sweetly telling her, "Could be 30 years for us here. That's still not enough." Commence all the "Awwwww"s.

- As for Abe's ex, after being unceremoniously dumped, Rosita has decided to hook up with Spencer, of all people. That questionable choice is followed by another, when she begrudgingly agrees to have dinner with him, despite Spencer's pledge to make a dish he's dubbed "beef jerky stroganoff." You may have been terrible to Denise, but you're still better than this, Rosita.

- An odd confluence of events ends the episode, where we see some Alexandrians wheeling out the community's guns and ammo from the pantry to the front gate. And as Sasha's back is turned on the watchtower, an RV pulls up. There could be any number of explanations for either scenario, though I got the impression that they were part of a flash-forward. Perhaps the ammo is being presented to the Saviors, who have wormed their way into the community after all. And the RV – which may or may not have been detected by anyone – could house whoever has come to collect. Of course, the vehicle could also be Tara and Heath, returned from their run. The repetition that began the episode suggests some time has passed, but that could also be meant to illustrate the monotony that's beset the community. Or I could be reading way too much into it. (The latter seems to be the safest bet.)

Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC