Here's an obligatory spoiler alert for a book released over eight years ago. One of the first times I remember recognizing an obviously telegraphed character departure was Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore sits Harry down in a special after-hours "independent study" on Tom Riddle. If the aged Headmaster had decided to impart his knowledge of the man who would become He Who Must Not Be Named, he wouldn't have much use to the story—which meant his days were numbered.
"Indifferent" telegraphs Carol's departure from the moment she and Rick start talking openly about the consequences of last week's reveal, that she took it upon herself to kill Karen and David as a preventative measure, attempting to curb the virus outbreak. It's a narratively stripped-down episode that pauses the main conflict so far this season in favor of giving more time to a set of conversation pieces. It continues to follow Darryl, Michonne, Tyreese, and Bob as they search for the veterinary college for medicine to help the sick survivors in the prison. But the parallel plot has Rick, Carol, a brief appearance by Lizzie, and cameos from two other survivors. No Carl, Herschel, Glenn, Maggie, or anyone else. No action at the prison whatsoever. Just two missions—Rick and Carol are out to replenish perishable supplies lost when Block D fell ill—slowly building to Rick making an executive decision for the first time this season without consulting anyone else. He helps pack a car for Carol and sends her on her way, unable to allow her to remain.
Carol has been one of The Walking Dead's strongest developed characters, a sign that the show has grown from a discombobulated mess with seemingly limitless potential to a consistently average and exceedingly popular post-apocalyptic drama. Her evolution from abused wife and grieving mother to hardened survivor imparting harshly violent knowledge to kids is one of the best examples on the show of what living day-to-day life in a pressure cooker can do to a human being. Which is why it's so disappointing to have that entire arc reduced to some frank speeches about her time acting meek and hiding the abuse, or Rick killing Shane, or how he's dealing with Lori's death.
From the start, Carol is making the bad argument that she did the wrong thing for the right reasons. The council was waiting to make a big decision while the threat of illness spreading loomed, and Rick just wanted to be a farmer. But when she took action, it didn't have the effect she hoped for. More people got sick, and Tyreese suddenly became an uncontrollable volcano of rage. This is the problem with making the hard decisions and leaving out guilt. Carol feels indifferent to the deaths of Karen and David, because in her eyes, after so much pain and torment, it was the choice between a quick death to save lives or far more suffering, and even if she didn't get the result she wanted, the only way to get the better outcome was to do the dirty work nobody else wanted to face. In that way, it makes a lot of sense that she brings up Shane, the guy who for two seasons filled that role.
When confronted with the two young kids in a house on a cul-de-sac, Rick begins the council's now standard three questions about killing walkers, people, and intentions. They offer a glimpse of romantic idealism, a girl with an injured leg and a guy with a dislocated shoulder, wounded but bound together by love but doomed with hopeless naiveté and zero survival skills. The Walking Dead never takes long to snuff out these old world ideas in the new paradigm, and no sooner has Rick given his watch to the young man and told them to clear the other houses of walkers and obtain supplies before taking them back to the prison, then Rick and Carol happen upon a severed leg, then two walkers eviscerating the girl's body. The young man never shows up at the arranged time, and could theoretically be alive, but Carol doesn't give a damn.
Rick, despite his journey to the brink and back last season, still holds onto some shred of optimism, while any sense of compassion for strangers has clearly left Carol. It's a tense chess match of an hour as they pick at each other's judgmental standpoints. Carol whips the best barb at Rick: "You can be a farmer, Rick. But you can't just be a farmer." It's an accusation of complacency and abdication of leadership, and Rick is reluctant to pick up that mantle and unilaterally sentence Carol to exile. Rick has happy memories to dwell on about the past with his wife and son—that anecdote about crappy Sunday pancakes—but Carol just has a watch given as an anniversary present that she should've given away long ago. She has grown hardened and brutal, always looking forward. Rick wants to avoid a bloody conflict with Tyreese, and won't have her judgment style around his children.
Melissa McBride is also the last of the cast members from the start of the series who had previously worked with co-creator Frank Darabont on that director's films. Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja) and his family left Rick's group to head for Birmingham during the first the season, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) died near the end of the second season, and Andrea (Laurie Holden) died in the third season finale. There has been some speculation that slowly moving these characters out the door (only Rick, Glenn, Carl, and Darryl are left from the first season) gives the show distance from Darabont's influence and gives the new top creative talent the chance to keep the core vital and popular characters and add others. I don't really buy that, but some theorists really want AMC to keep holding a grudge against Darabont.
The shared theme between the two plots is letting go. Carol let go of her husband's death, his past abuse, and the crushing death of Sophie, and took the tough steps to move on. Rick still has dreams about his life before going into a coma. And the veterinary school mission reveals that Bob is more committed to quelling his demons with a bottle than he is about protecting his life or other people's. That larger mission succeeds: they find the college stocked with every possible supply on the list, but now require more gas in the new minivan to get back to the prison in time to help the sick.
At an abandoned gas station before the group arrives at their destination, they pass the tall pricing sign, which has been rearranged to read "hell" with upside-down numbers. That's a bit of a tacky way of setting the scene, but it's definitely where both Tyreese and Bob feel like they're trapped, by grief, anger, and regret. It makes Tyreese throw caution to the wind when fighting walkers, refusing to let go of one when fighting. And Bob won't let go of his bag during the eventual escape. We're led to believe it's books, something medical, something helpful for the group, and that Bob confessing his guilt to Darryl will somehow lift that weight so he doesn't view this group as just the next set of survivors he's destined to outlive.
There's still some pushback from the show when confronting these themes of guilt, letting go, and necessary brutality. Darryl swiftly kicks down Bob taking the blame for what happened to Zach in the premiere. Carol and Rick's conversations cut through a bunch of expository hurdles to deliver unvarnished scenes heady with history between the characters. I'm still wary of how clumsy The Walking Dead can be in these moments, but for a parting of the ways between two survivors who lasted a long time in the same circle, that final scene, where Rick keeps glancing in his rear view mirror for any sign of Carol, packs a small but impressive emotional blow.
AMC announced a while ago that the network is developing a Walking Dead spinoff, but the setting and timeline haven't been made official. I don't think this will be McBride's final appearance on this show (much like the Governor has to return at some point, in addition to those new characters announced before the season started). But if there is a way to keep her a significant player on the spinoff, I'd accept that.
Robin Taylor, who plays the young guy that presumably gets away with Rick's watch, will never remind me of anything other than Accepted.
The awesome song that closes the episode is an acoustic demo of Sharon Van Etten's "Serpents," from her wonderful 2012 record Tramp. I prefer the electric version that was used during one of the finales for Lost Girl, but it's still a great track for the show.