At long last, my friends, I think we’ve found our third-party candidate.

I’ll do my duty and try to cook up some grumbles for you but my heart won’t be in it. Last night’s episode was one of the best of the series. And that’s true even though we all understood from the start, I hope, that a core character like Carol wasn’t about to be sent packing by the Saviors’ JV team. Somehow they kept the tension humming for the full hour anyway. How’d they do that? I can’t figure it out. No one was at any real risk except maybe Maggie’s unborn baby, whom I thought the Saviors might zero in on as a focal point for torture, but even this show apparently finds that idea too squeamish. I think the fact that they’ve softened Carol’s heart in the last few episodes, showing her baking cookies, sharing a kiss with Tobin, grieving over how many people she’s killed, introduced a strong enough note of uncertainty into how the hostage crisis last night might play out to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. Was she prepared to willingly sacrifice herself to save Maggie and her baby? She seemed to be in the right mindset. I could see her exiting the show that way.

Maybe the tension came from the fact that the show’s alpha males were nowhere to be found. If Rick had been there, it would have been just another chance to watch him go Rambo and agonize over the burdens of leadership. If Daryl had been there, he would have done what Daryl does — kicking ass and not saying much, TWD’s amalgam of a cowboy and Indian. If Morgan had been there, it would have been another hour of navel-gazing about whether to kill or not. All of the male characters long ago settled comfortably into their niches on the show. Only a few, starting with Carol, continue to have the capacity to surprise. She began as an abused woman, trained by her husband to be helpless, then learned to help herself, then learned to kill efficiently without remorse, and now she’s learning remorse again. You never know which turn Carol might take, which is why she’s the show’s most consistently interesting character. (And which makes it ironic that, although there’s forever chaos all around her, she’s unfailingly the most cool-headed member of the gang during a fight.) If I have any real grumble about last night, it’s only that they didn’t prepare us quite enough for her turn towards remorse. It seems like only a few episodes ago that she was insisting to Morgan that they kill their Wolf prisoner. Then, suddenly, she’s baking cookies and smooching the neighbor and now she’s aggrieved at having to execute enemies like Paula the redhead. I’m … not quite sure how that happened. The answer, I guess, is that a few months of domesticity worked its magic on her, just like it did to Rick and Michonne. For Carol, having reacclimated to a facsimile of civilization in Alexandria after the battle with the Wolves, killing just ain’t what it used to be.

As for Maggie, I continue to not really understand what her value is to the show except as a sort of visual cue to remind the viewers of their emotional attachment to other characters. Remember what happened to Hershel? Well, Maggie’s his daughter. Imagine how she feels. Remember what happened to Beth? That’s her sister. Awful! Remember those 800 times when Glenn nearly died? Maggie’s his wife. The poor girl. Now she’s got a baby on the way, a character we’ll instantly be attached to because, well, it’s a baby. (And because, if the show tracks closely to the comics during the Negan story arc, daddy Glenn may not be long for this world.) The show finally tried to give her something to do in the Hilltop episode by making her the lead negotiator, but I’m skeptical that they’ll invest a lot in that going forward. Maggie’s not on TWD to negotiate. She’s there to make you cry as the most relentlessly victimized member of the Grimes Gang. God help us when her baby eventually dies from something. Because we all know it’s coming.