All intellectual pretensions aside, I find it difficult to imagine anyone who can’t get a vicarious thrill from watching someone (fictional or real) perform a feat of pure bad-ass machismo. Whether you’re a professional wrestling fan or not, it’s impossible not to walk away from the Undertaker/Mankind Hell in a Cell match and not think that Mick Foley is one of the craziest and toughest guys around. Whether there is a real story to the films or not, watching Tony Jaa show off his martial arts prowess is about as exciting as it gets. We love Han Solo because in the Star Wars galaxy he’s just an average dude with a gun and a pet Wookie who saves the day as much as the people with the force. The problem with bad-asses is that they aren’t always the most well-rounded characters as they are defined entirely by their legendary actions rather than psychological profiles. Daryl Dixon is the resident bad-ass of The Walking Dead, and tonight’s episode (the strongest of the season) places Daryl Dixon among the most singularly bad-ass characters in the history of television.

Since Rick and Shane have apparently inherited Wolverine’s healing powers (Shane is sprain-free and Rick is healthy enough to wander through the woods despite basically giving up most of his body’s blood), the whole crew re-commences the search for Sophia. Rick and Shane form one of the search parties and after the beginning of a playful conversation about Shane’s sexual conquests in high school, the mood quickly darkens as Shane’s growing cynicism takes over and doesn’t wish to dredge up a past that no longer exists. The darkness only gets worse when Shane questions Rick’s decision to continue the search for Sophia as he sees it as a waste of valuable group resources. When they return from the search unsuccessfully, the tension at camp only gets worse as Lori is hiding her pregnancy, and Hershel doesn’t take kindly to the group taking one of his horse’s for the search and allowing his step-son to join the hunt. Hershel is also aware of the attraction between his daughter Maggie and Glenn (though fortunately doesn’t know about their sexual encounter). When Maggie decides to rekindle their romance, Glenn tells her to meet him in the barn only for Glenn to find the mystery Hershel’s been hiding all season: around a dozen zombies caged in his barn.

I save Daryl Dixon for his own paragraph because no man has ever deserved it more. Daryl heads off by himself to look for Sophia on horseback. After finding Sophia’s doll in a river, Daryl’s horse is spooked by a snake and throws Darryl off its back. Darryl tumbles down a cliff face and lands at the very bottom to find one of his arrows impaled all the way through the left side of his stomach. After binding his own wound, Daryl tries to make it back up nearly sheer cliff-face; he makes it half-way up before falling and knocking himself unconscious. When he finally awakes, lo and behold, we get a feverish fantasy of his long lost brother Merle (Michael Rooker) that we haven’t seen since episode 2 of Season 1 when Rick left him hand-cuffed on a roof. Merle serves as a manifestation of Daryl’s most hidden insecurities and fears and we get a bit more of a look at Daryl, the abused little brother as compared to Daryl, the bad ass mother f*cker we’re about to see in total force. Daryl snaps out of his fantasy to see a zombie gnawing on his boots. He beats this zombie to death with a rock and stick, and then, when another zombie shows up, he pulls the arrow out of his stomach, loads his crossbow with the same arrow, and shoots the next zombie. He then guts a woodland animal and eats it raw, cuts off the ears of the zombies and wears them as a necklace, and crawls up the hill despite nearly bleeding out. To top it all off, when he returns to the camp, Andrea mistakes him for a walker and shoots him in the head (though she only grazes him). I’m not sure if he’ll ever be able to top his legendary feats tonight.

Last week I complained about the series unfortunate habit to attempt character development through faux-philosophical conversations that just dragged any of the dramatic tension of an episode to a halt. This week avoids that problem by framing the conflict as something far more personal than Rick raging against God or Andrea contemplating suicide. We’re starting to see the beginning of the interpersonal conflicts that form the core of the comics the series is based off of. For the first time in ages, legitimate tension began to boil between Shane and Rick and that can only grow when they learn Lori is pregnant (especially if Rick makes the logical connection that he couldn’t possibly be the father, though my dad and I both think that Jenner at the CDC told Rick that Lori was pregnant when he whispered to him). Similarly, all is not well in paradise at the Greene family farm. Hershel resents the growing presence and comfort that our group of survivors has found on his farm and warns his daughter not to get close to Glenn. Now that Glenn knows about the zombies in the barn, it’s only a matter of time til all of the tensions bubbling below the surface between these two groups simply explodes.

Norman Reedus had really cemented his legacy as an action hero with the cult classic The Boondock Saints. It simply has to be icing on the cake for his public image that he now gets to step in as Daryl Dixon week in and week out on the most commercially successful basic cable drama of all time. Where Rick slips more and more into the role of boring but effective leader and Shane may be morally ambiguous and complex but still a fairly unlikeable prick, Daryl is managing to hit that sweet spot of the loveable rogue. He not only channeled the film Deliverance tonight, but if you didn’t think of every Vietnam movie ever made when he started collecting his zombie ears, you need to have your pop culture knowledge beefed up a little bit. Although it all possibly boils down to a man who removes an arrow from his own flesh and then uses it to kill another being. That’s about the plateau of believable bad-ass heroics. The only thing that could potentially top that moment is if we ever see those moments where Meryl Dixon chopped one of his own arms off, cauterized his wound, and then escaped Atlanta. Hey, AMC, you really need to go down that route (though Merle will have to die to explain his absence for so long).

It’s getting to be nap time for me so I might draw this review to a close. I’m excited to see where the rest of this season is heading. We have two episodes left until the mid-season hiatus (a long break I am both looking forward to and dreading). While I have a rough guess of where the series will be when the hiatus hits (thanks to the comics), I also have enough sense to know how loosely this show follows the comics continuity and it has plenty of room to still surprise me. I seriously doubt that Daryl Dixon will ever be able to top himself after tonight’s performance, but once again, there’s plenty of chances for him to shock me as well. The only thing that I know for sure is that things are about to get really serious really quickly at the Hershel family farm, and the little moments of peace and quiet that this group has found these last couple of days are about to disappear as quickly as they came.

Final Score: A