The season finale of season 4 opens and closes with hope and in between the search for hope, Rick finds peace with his inner demons.
This episode is flashback heavy, a choice the keeps this dark story moving and serves as a framework for Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) state of mind. The flashbacks, which consistently feature Hershel (Scott Wilson), remind the audience, and Rick, of the hope that he once had for the future of the world and more pointedly, the future of his family.
Since Hershel’s death and the loss of the prison, Rick has been too focused on surviving to have hope. Carl is the first one to question the ramifications of a life without hope; when discussing Terminus he asks:
“Are we going to tell them everything that’s happened to us. All of the stuff that we’ve done? How do you say that? Who are we?”
Carl’s character growth is one of the things this show has done very well. It’s believable. It’s honest. It’s real. He has his moments of rebellion but the writers (and Chandler Riggs) have grown him into a fully realized character with wisdom beyond his years.
Wise as he may be, Carl is still driven by his heroic tendencies. When he sees a man being torn apart by zombies his immediate reaction is to help. His father knows that there are too many walkers and helping this man would only lead to their own deaths. But Carl’s question of “who are we?” hangs in the air. What kind of person does it make you when you watch a person be eaten alive and do nothing to help?
There are more flashbacks of the “good life” at the prison, as Rick contemplates the value of a world where everything is about survival and there is no time for life and living.
There’s not much time for contemplation, as Joe’s gang gleefully descends on the campground. The scene that follows is chaotic and dark, but it gives Rick an opportunity to clearly see what happens when you live only to survive. Yes, Rick has done some bad things, including murdering a member of Joe’s gang, but he has never taken joy in any of those actions. They haunt him.
Joe’s gang, on the other hand, is downright joyous in the terror they are causing. They are joyous when they beat Daryl near death. They are joyous when they threaten to rape Michonne. They are joyous as one of them pushes Carl’s face into the dirt and threatens to rape him.
It is this act that causes Rick to make peace with who he is and the things he has done. It is this act that causes all of the things that have happened to Rick to crystalize inside of him. He wants Carl to have hope. He does not want Carl’s life to end on this campground. He will protect Carl and that hope at all costs.
So he bites Joe’s throat out. It seems odd to say that hope is what drove Rick to become like a zombie and rip out someone’s insides with his own teeth, but sometimes to protect what you love, you have to become what you hate.
Rick doesn’t stop there. He eviscerates the man that was attacking Carl. Michonne tries to shield Carl from the violence, but Carl sees it all. In his eyes you can see his earlier question flicker across his face
“Who are we?”
We cut to another flashback with Hershel and see why these flashbacks are so crucial. Even in death, Hershel is Rick’s anchor so that he doesn’t lose himself or his hope for the future amidst the violence of this world.
“Carl needs his father to show him the way. Which way are you going to show him? What’s his life going to be? What’s yours?”
What Rick has shown Carl is that they won’t give up. They will survive with hope, strength and each other.
While Rick is finding peace, Carl is still coming to terms with what happened. Michonne tells more of her story to Carl. We learn that her son Andre, her boyfriend Mike and their friend Terry all died at a camp while she was out on a run. She blames herself for their deaths. The two walkers Michonne dragged with her in the beginning were Terry and Mike.
“It felt like what I deserved, dragging them around, so that I would always know…. I was just another monster. I was gone for a long time.”
Michonne’s tale isn’t about what happened to her, it’s about what’s happening to them all and that without each other they’ll lose themselves in the darkness of their reality.
Carl doesn’t believe that. He tells Michonne that he’s not a good man, that he’s “ just another monster too.”
As I’m watching this, I want to tell Carl that we all feel like monsters sometimes – or all of the time. Most of our realities aren’t as violent as the one that Carl faces, but we all feel this way. Every single one of us feels like a monster made of regrets. What this story shows us is that despite all of our mistakes and all of the violence that might exist in our past, we are more than that. We are more than the monsters that we believe ourselves to be.
We also have to accept our monsters, which is what Rick does in this episode. That is his journey. He accepts the monster inside of himself so that he can use it to fight the greater monsters outside. Andrew Lincoln says this episode irrevocably changed Rick, but i don’t think so. Rick didn’t change, he just accepted who is and what he has to do in order to build the world he wants.
Rick hopes that world exists in Terminus, but not long after his group arrives things go awry. He goes on alert when he sees Glenn’s backpack and Hershel’s watch. His instincts kick in and he realizes this is not a time to ask questions, this is a time to fight and flee.
As they run through Terminus, they hear people screaming and banging on walls hoping for someone to save them. They also run into a creepy room filled with candles and the words “never again,” “never trust” written on the walls.
The Terminus group has them outgunned with snipers strategically positioned everywhere. There’s nothing for Rick and the group to do but give up. Gareth, Terminus’ leader, herds them all into a train car, as if they were cattle.
But hope is not lost, as they are not alone in the train car. Glenn, Maggie, Sasha etc.. are in the train car as well. The group is almost entirely reunited. Seeing his family solidifies Rick’s resolve. He doesn’t lose hope. Instead, the episode closes with this one line:
“They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out they’re screwing with the wrong people.”
While this episode was near flawless, this show has always had pacing issues and those issues were prevalent in many episodes this season. While we are meant to experience the emotional ramifications of the group’s journey, much of it felt like filler as we waited for the finale in Terminus.
For many characters, the journey didn’t feel all that emotional. Rick, Carl and Michonne are the most changed, but the others don’t seem very different. Daryl is still the hero. Glenn is unchanged. Despite the death of her father and the loss of her sister, Maggie has had no emotional journey, other than to pine for Glenn. We never saw her mourn.
The characters of Bob, Sasha and Beth have all received more screentime but the writers failed to make me care for them. Beth’s fate is left untold, but if she turns into a dropped plotline, the show wouldn’t suffer for it. She wouldn’t be missed, not even by her sister.
Carol and Tyreese have both made peace with their past monsters and created new ones with the deaths of Mika and Lizzie. That’s an emotional journey that I’m interested in seeing, especially against the backdrop of Terminus – as I’m sure Carol, Tyreese and Judith will make their way there.
There’s no doubt that what awaits the characters in Terminus will be brutal. Those of us who’ve read the comics already have an idea of what will happen. But whatever occurs in season 5, I hope the show is able to establish more consistent emotional connections with their characters and the audience than they were in the latter half of season 4.
What are your thoughts on this season and what do you hope to see in season 5?
The Walking Dead returns in October on AMC.