Things at the prison were pretty tense by the time we get to this scene. The group did not react well to Merle’s presence, and that discontent really overlapped everybody’s joy and relief that Daryl was back. From the moment they got back into the prison, Daryl faced nothing but anger and frustration from the others because of Merle. Daryl had never asked anyone for anything: not their friendship, not their trust, not their concern, not a spot beside them at the campfire. This one time he asked something of them—tolerate my brother—and they were barely agreeing to do it.
So, I’m guessing the first chance he got, he slunk away up to his perch, only to find that someone had moved his belongings to a cell. He didn’t go to be with Merle, didn’t even go talk to him after nearly a year apart, thinking he was dead. Daryl was caught between a rock and a hard place, but the others weren’t forcing him to choose again.
Enter Carol. She sort of sauntered into the cell, no doubt in my mind that she was the one who moved his belongings, so she knew just where to find him. She didn’t enter immediately, and he just looked at her for a moment. Everybody else had kicked him for bringing Merle back to the prison (even though Daryl had left Merle in the woods, Merle had merely followed him), and to top it all off, here came Carol to give her two cents and maybe some additional anger for leaving like he had without a goodbye.
Instead, she quietly welcomed him back: back home, back to the family, back to her. He had come back to turbulence, to ‘all this,’ but he had come back, and she was relieved and grateful for that, taking his gruff words as an invite and stepping into the cell for the rest of the conversation.
Carol argued that the prison was their home. They had fought for it, they had bled for it, some of them had died for it or nearly died for it. This was where Judith was born. This was where Carol thought she would die in a solitary confinement cell. This was where Daryl liberated her from death.
For Daryl, the prison was a tomb. It was where Lori and T-Dog died. It was where Hershel nearly died. It was where Daryl spent several days thinking that Carol was dead. Several sections of the prison were still infested with walkers. It probably reeked of death, blood, and rot. It was where Rick lost his mind. It was where the Governor had just attacked them.
Carol undercut that thought process with the simple statement that she used to agree with him, that the prison was a tomb, but that all changed when Daryl rescued her from that cell. She didn’t even say rescued, just ‘found.’ “I thought [T-Dog] was right, until you found me.” Her voice was so gentle and affectionate there, and the statement carried with it a lingering look that Daryl returned. He even gave the tiniest of smiles, like ‘yeah, there is that.’
He had just come off a terrifying experience in the Woodbury arena, rejoined his brother, seen what this world had done to his brother, voluntarily come back to the prison, only to have the group flog him for allowing Merle to come back with him, and eventually removed himself to a cell, and this woman had made him smile despite all that.
That moment cleared the air of any (and there weren’t any) ill feelings one might have had toward the other for their actions. A comfortable silence settled in, one they had probably shared countless times over the winter. Only then did Carol broach the subject of Merle.
She started by using the statement that Daryl had been bringing up as his primary argument for Merle: he was blood. She acknowledged that, as his brother, Daryl felt a deep sense of obligation to side with Merle, to defend him and choose him over everything else, but in the same sentence, she added that Merle was not a good influence on Daryl.
'He's not good for you. Don't let him bring you down…Look how far you've come.' In almost any other ship, this would be replaced by Person A smothering Person B in hugs, cuddles, kisses, and feels. But this is Caryl, our cuddles come in the form of eye contact and brief dialogue. This was Carol saying that Daryl had become a better man outside of Merle's influence, but she understood that it was a slippery slope that might turn Daryl cold again if he let Merle get back into his head. This was Carol saying that she was proud of the person that Daryl had become, and she liked him just the way he was, that he didn't need to be cynical and cruel and 'tough' to be accepted.
The group had continuously stated that Merle was bad news for the group, for their well-being, for their balance, for their stability, for their happiness and way of life. In this scene, Carol stated how Merle wasn’t good for Daryl first and foremost, and that was all she was concerned about.
It’s a testament to their relationship that Daryl heard her out on that. Almost every single time in season two, when Carol or anyone showed concern for Daryl’s physical or emotional well-being, he brushed them off, pushed them away, or sarcastically rebuffed them. Here, though, he knew by the third season that he wasn’t being baited or mocked. Carol’s concern and care were genuine.
But Daryl is still Daryl, and as far as he had come, he still couldn’t quite form a response to being shown that kind of affection. In a mad mental scramble to come up with something to say, he and Carol both got a slight reality check as to where they were, reflecting on her words.
Look how far we’ve both come, and we’re technically in a prison. The realization got a snort and a chuckle out of them both, and just like that, they were completely cool again and back on the same wavelength. It was a little moment of mirth to lighten the atmosphere, and though Daryl was the first to crack, he immediately looked back up at Carol when she started to laugh too.
Because whether the prison was a tomb or a haven, it was where the group was, where his family was, and wherever they were was home to him. Because even if the group ragged on him for bringing Merle back and Merle ragged on him for the way he was being treated, Carol had his back for no other reason than because she cared about him. Seeing each other smile and relax after such a tense day was enough for Carol and Daryl in that moment.
Their dynamic duo was back together; everything else would be okay.