This post contains spoilers through the end of Season 4 of AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.’
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Season 4 of The Walking Dead may have had some pacing issues. It may have plodded along a bit too slowly, failing to gain momentum at times, and perplexing us with odd character decisions.
But the Season 4 finale wipes the slate clean, giving us some of the best, most exciting and frightening moments in the show’s entire run. As dark as the show turned two episodes ago, with the death of two young girls, Sunday night’s episode is even more grim and unsettling.
Two major events unfold in the season finale, and both of these drive the focus of the show back onto its lead protagonist: Rick.
The first, and perhaps most harrowing, is the inevitable confrontation between Rick’s group of stragglers and the bandits Daryl accidentally joined up with a few episodes ago.
This is a pretty terrifying scene, actually. Rick and Michonne are both at gunpoint; Daryl, in an attempt to save them, offers himself up instead. He breaks one of the group’s rules by calling Rick, Michonne and Carl “good people” which, in the twisted logic of their captors, counts as a lie. As the badguys start beating Daryl to death, another drags Carl from the car.
The bandit leader, Joe, tells Rick they’ll have their way with “the woman, then the boy” and then kill him. Carl’s captor starts acting this out, and Rick snaps. It’s a scary moment. I’m a little surprised The Walking Dead took it this far, though I was right there with Rick in his fury and helplessness.
Rick snaps, grapples with his captor…and then proceeds to bite right through the guy’s jugular, zombie style. Spray of blood, Rick cool as a cucumber, everyone surprised into a moment of disbelieving inaction. Michonne acts quickly, shoots her captor with his own gun, and Rick takes a knife to the guy trying to rape Carl. We see him the next morning, drenched in blood.
I complained a while back that Rick’s character had lost his way, that he’d lost that quality that made him such a badass in the earlier episodes of the show. His flirtation with insanity, his moping about, his inability to lead, these were all understandable up to a point, but I felt like we’d lost the character somewhere in the mix. What happened to Rick?
This episode examines this question head-on. We’re privy to a number of flashbacks of the prison, wherein Hershel convinces Rick to set down his gun and become a farmer. And we recall the Rick laid low by his own acts of violence, the loss of friends and family, the shaken, broken man he’d become.
But not anymore. Far from being traumatized, there’s a new glint in the sheriff’s eye, a new purpose to his step. There’s an acceptance, finally, to what he’s capable of and why it’s valuable in this brave new world. “Last night, that wasn’t you,” Daryl tells him, trying to lend a bit of comfort. But no, it really is Rick replies. That’s why he’s survived, why Carl is still alive. Finally Rick is accepting that this isn’t a world for farmers or democracies; it’s a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword world, and only the fittest survive.
This realization comes just in time, because the next stop on our little outing is Terminus. Pretty much everyone watching the show guessed that this would be a cannibal fortress, and lo and behold that is the case. It’s also a well-fortified, heavily armed cannibal fortress.
Rick is on his game when they arrive. They don’t approach on the tracks and they don’t go in the front door like last week’s survivors. Instead, they sneak in over the fence, go in the back door—and still end up captured.
At first everything seems fine. Nice people. Barbecue! (Their guide makes a creepy cannibalism reference, but nobody notices.)
Still, Rick is smart. He notices the signs. The pocket-watch Hershel gave Glenn, the familiar poncho, the riot gear. He smacks the plate of meat away and takes a hostage.
It’s too late, of course. The Terminus crew has the guns and the numbers, and eventually the four of them end up locked away in a rail car with most of the other survivors. We still don’t know where Beth is, though signs point to a grisly demise, and Carol, Tyreese and baby Judith are still on the road as far as we know.
Now this is all very exciting, and I think The Walking Dead has established a really good enemy for Season 5. Good fiction follows a simple rule: Things get worse before they get better. And certainly things have gotten just as bad as they possibly could.
On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of the cannibal idea. Cannibalism isn’t particularly efficient, for one thing. In terms of pure economics, the Terminus crew would be better off utilizing human capital for any number of other purposes. There aren’t that many survivors out there, so relying on humans for meat is going to likely be more work than it’s worth. On the other hand, finding highly skilled zombie apocalypse survivors could lead to all sorts of other beneficial gains for the community.
So yeah, cannibalism is poor economics and I have a bit of a hard time believing that an entire community like this could be okay with the whole thing. Yes, we have instances of cannibalism in our history—the Donner party, once desperate enough, took to cannibalism. A few serial killers have as well. But an entire community, relatively safe in their well-fortified base, with plenty of room and resources to grow food and probably raise livestock?
It seems like a stretch.
Of course, for the sake of the fiction it’s a fun stretch. It makes for a great, tense cliff-hanger.
And it sets up Rick as the badass we’ve all wanted him to be for so long now. When Abraham comments on the fact that they might not survive much longer, Rick replies with a simple “No.”
“They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out,” he says.
“Find out what?” asks Abraham.
“They’re screwing with the wrong people.”
All told, a great finale, full of action and scary, tense moments. I’m surprised they went that far with the near-rape of Carl, and I’m curious how they’ll follow up with that in the future, but it certainly was a dramatic catalyst for Rick’s rebirth as the—bloody, somewhat ruthless—hero.
I’m also unsure how they’ll pull off the Terminus/cannibal angle, but I’m excited to find out how Rick and company escape, hopefully taking out as many of the Terminus crew as possible in the process, including their creepy leader, Gareth.
I’m also curious as to Beth’s fate. She was never a major character, but the show tried hard to build her up in the last few episodes. Was it all just to give her death a bigger impact? I’d say that’s likely.
We won’t have answers to any of these questions for six months, but I’m actually really looking forward to Season 5. There’s real momentum here, and a wholly different sort of villain from the Governor.