First things first: did the writers really think a corny, Western-style one-liner like that was going to satisfy us? Rick Grimes is no Walter White, and Andrew Lincoln and the showrunners are frankly not capable of making something like “They’re screwing with the wrong people” into the stuff of legend. It is no “Tread lightly,” that’s for sure. The finale as a whole was clumsy and unsatisfying. Everyone in the episode was asking “Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?” But the age-old existential dilemma doesn’t power the action; it hinders it. And as they’re all wondering who they are, they don’t stop to think about whether they’re walking straight into a trap.
“A” bounces us from past (at the prison) to present (on the road), as the writers are wont to do these days. This episode’s jumps from past to present and back are effective; they reinforce the point that nothing gold can stay. In the opening sequence, we flash back to the halcyon days trapped between the chain link fences of the prison. Hershel’s still alive and Maggie’s smiling as they return from a run. Everyone’s content, pleasantly calm as the prison crew pokes the walkers through the chainlink with crowbars. A jarring cut to the present focuses on Rick’s bloody hands and face; he sits with his back against a truck, staring into the space beyond the camera. The last time we saw him like this, it was after he beat the hell out of Tyreese. He crouches in silence, and the camera lingers long enough on his face for us to wonder where Michonne and Carl could be.
Post-credits, we return to earlier that same day. On the tracks, Carl wonders aloud if they’re going to be able to tell the folks at Terminus who they are, like, really. Rick understands exactly what he’s asking, but he can’t answer that. How do you say who you are when this is who you are? None of them feel like they’re good people, and how could they?
Hey, here’s some foreshadowing! Rick gives Carl a brief lesson on trapping game: you lay a noose, then herd the animal between two rows of sticks poking from the ground like fence-posts. In its terror, the rabbit will hang itself in the noose. Literally in the next moment, Carl runs toward a man who’s screaming for help in a field nearby as a herd closes in on him. Rick pulls him back just before Carl can shoot – there are too many, and not enough bullets. The distraught stranger gets eaten alive, face first, as they watch. (Lovely!) Moral of the story: it’s always a trap.
In another flashback, we’re in the prison again. In Rick’s memory, Hershel tries repeatedly to convince Rick of his own humanity, that he’s got to retain and nurture his kindness. “Leave your gun behind,” Hershel tells Rick. “It’ll only get in the way.” Rick obviously ignores the old man’s assertions that violence is not the answer. In the present again, Rick and Michonne come across an (awfully convenient) abandoned truck on the road. Carl snoozes uneasily inside the vehicle as Michonne and Rick talk about Terminus by the fire. “They have to have a system,” Rick says. Michonne expresses what all of us are wondering: can the whole thing really be legit? Rick’s reliance on “a system” is unsurprising, as he was an authoritarian arbiter of “the system” before the shit hit the fan, but it’s kinda frustrating. People in this post-apocalyptic world keep trying to return to the past, to the methods that worked previously. They keep failing miserably. Woodbury, the prison, refugee camps – beneath the neat surfaces, all of these hid pain, sadism, death. It’s always too good to be true.
Speaking of pain and death, Rick taught his son the logistics of getting a rabbit to hang itself, but in so doing Rick and Michonne also allowed themselves to be led directly into a trap. After dark, Joe’s gang of thieves surprises them around the campfire. As they hold guns to the family’s heads, counting down from ten (because sadistic), Daryl ambles out of the woods. “These people, you’re gonna let ’em go. These are good people,” he says to Joe. Daryl offers himself up instead of the others (and the ladies swooned). This ploy obviously doesn’t work, but it does form a distraction. Joe explains to Rick, “First we’re gonna beat Daryl to death, then we’ll have the girl, then the boy. Then we shoot you and we’ll be square.” A giggling man, gleeful and moist-faced, hauls Carl out of the truck and crouches on him, slowing unbuttoning his and Carl’s clothes. Hearing his son moan, hearing the thuds and squishy noises of Daryl’s body as Joe’s gang kicks and punches, pushes Rick over a metaphorical edge. The ex-cop slams his head into Joe, knowing full well the resulting gunshot will render hijm momentarily deaf. Michonne struggles to fight back too, and the man sitting on Carl unzips his fly.
…and then Rick rips out Joe’s throat with his teeth. After a long, considering moment of utter surprise from both sides of the battle, everyone moves. Michonne and Daryl strike quickly, murdering their tormentors. When the guy who’d been trying to rape Carl begs for mercy, Rick slices him open, stabbing him again and again and again as Daryl watches. In Michonne’s arms, Carl listens intently, his eyes betraying once and for all that he is no kid. He knows what his dad is, he knows what this world is. We are nothing but barbarians.
We jump back to the prison once more. “What’s your life going to be? And his?” Hershel asks, and the showrunners zero in on what their lives became. As Rick recovers from their brutal encounter with Joe’s people, Michonne strokes Carl’s hair gently as he sleeps. Daryl brings Rick some water with which to clean his bloodied face. Rick starts to refuse, but Daryl says, “You can’t see yourself. He can.” They have the requisite conversation about what happened to Beth, why Daryl was traveling with Joe and Co., and about being alone on the road. Rick says, once again, that all that matters is protecting Carl (and hey, he’s screwed it up a few times but he’s still doing better than Lori did). Meanwhile, Carl listens attentively from inside the truck.
“We go through the woods. We don’t know who they are,” Rick remarks as they near Terminus. Nobody knows who they are in this episode, it seems. Nobody knows whether he’s good or bad, or whether everybody else is good or bad, and nobody knows who’s at the end of the line. As they approach Terminus, the cinematographer uses low angles, distorting our band of heroes; the bright, shimmering sunlight makes this place seem especially heavenly.
Michonne, sensing that Carl is afraid of his own father, explains that nobody’s a good person in this world, not even her. She tells Carl about how Andre died (“the ‘how’ is important”). She, her boyfriend Mike, and their friend Terry took Andre to a refugee camp. Michonne went on a run, Mike and Terry got high, and the place was overrun by walkers. She returned and the humans were no more. “I coulda stopped it, coulda killed them, but I let them turn,” she says. “I made it so they couldn’t bite or scratch.” She tells Carl, for the first time, about her pet walkers. “It felt like what I deserved.” She soon found out they kept her safe. She used them to self-flagellate, to remind herself the kind of person she really was, but they only served to save her. Carl opens up to her: “I’m not what he thinks I am. I’m just another monster, too.”
With little effort, Rick, Michonne, and Carl enter Terminus through the back door after burying a cache of weapons behind the compound “just in case.” The people of Terminus are arrayed within a large warehouse space, working at draft tables and perusing maps. A woman recites the “Sanctuary for All, Community for All, Those Who Arrive, Survive” speech through a loudspeaker and broadcast system. In the last episode, Mary (Denise Crosby) greeted Glenn, Maggie, et. al. with the words, “Looks like you’ve been on the road awhile.” In this episode, a young man uses exactly the same words to Rick and Michonne: “Looks like you’ve been on the road for a good bit.” The man, who introduces himself as Garrett, asks them to lay down their weapons in front of them. He’s amiable, pleasant. “I’d hate to see the other guy,” he says to the four of them, noting their war wounds. “Did they deserve it?” Carl asserts without a beat that yes, they most certainly did. Garrett hands them all back their weapons.
“The more people become a part of us, the stronger we get,” Garrett says. He hands Carl a plate in the outside corridor, and the lens pauses briefly on a woman wearing Maggie’s poncho, but the woman isn’t Maggie. In Garrett’s pocket Rick spots a familiar silver watch, and the four of them decide they’ve got to get to the bottom of Terminus: who are these people, and why are they wearing items that belong to Maggie and Glenn?
And then we bounce back to the prison again. Rick asks Carl to accompany him on an errand. When Carl grabs for his weapon, Rick says, “Leave it behind. It’ll just get in the way.” Hershel approves. In the present, at the End of the Line, Carl’s gun comes in awfully handy as he trains it on Garrett. At Garrett’s sign, a sniper rains fire down from above as Rick’s family flees. They pass through a temple of some kind, candles burning everywhere, a concentric circle of names written on the ground. They sprint past an enclosure in which I’m pretty sure I caught a pile of human remains, guts splattered, in the middle of a tarp. They hear pleading screams from inside a train car as they bowl past it.
Finally Rick realizes there can be no more running: they’re cornered. “These people, I don’t think they’re trying to kill us,” he says. Nope, they’re herding them to Terminal A. When the animals have run themselves straight into the noose, Garrett makes his move. He forces them to walk slowly into a train car. At the foot of the stairs, Rick spots some empty packets of powdered milk – meaning Judith must be nearby. Inside the train car, who should they find, but Glenn, Maggie, and company? So the next question is, where are Tyreese, Judith, and Carol?
One last time, the writers jerk us back to the prison. Rick leaves behind the past, dismissing Hershel’s Utopian ideas once and for all. He’s thrilled to teach his son to farm, happy to have these moments of tranquility. But when Hershel tells him softly that it could be like this forever, Rick answers, “It’s like this now, that’s enough.” In the dark of the train car, trapped by people whose motives they don’t know, Rick utters a quiet battle cry: “They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out.” “Find out what?” somebody asks, of course. “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Seriously, though, that’s your badass season-ending line?
I am not amused. There’s probably no way the finale could’ve wrapped up all the loose ends, but it left some extremely glaring holes. Last season’s ender splintered our groups, and now they’re finding each other again – including Tyreese, Carol, and Judith, who must be somewhere close. Where’s Beth, though?
It’s pretty clear that the people of Terminus are cannibals. (I thought this a few weeks ago but didn’t record it because I try not to buy into the fandom/conspiracy theory stuff.) It’s obvious in the intense focus on food, in the way Mary stood over a smoking grill in her introductory scene, how they aren’t out to kill, but to herd, to trap other people. It’s clear in the immediacy of “getting you a plate” and the eerie echo of Garrett’s words: “The more people become a part of us, the stronger we get.” They’re eating people, making them “a part of us.” First a walker ate someone’s face, then Rick tore out another man’s throat with his teeth, and now they’re in a trap, waiting to be flayed and cooked. ETA: As to why they’re trapping people and not killing them outright: I think there’s a cleansing ritual associated with their cannibalism. I think that shrine was part of it. Pretty sure there’s going to be a religious component here. It’s literally a kill-or-be-killed, dog-eat-dog world out there.
Everyone’s a monster in this new world. But, well, some people are more monstrous than others. There’s been a lot of waffling about who I am, who you are, who we are together, and who we are alone. None of those questions can be answered, not easily, but the finale advances the theory that in the end, we are all savages.
I didn’t expect perfection; I just expected more than this. I’m amazed it took them the entire season to allude to traps. The characters saw the potential danger of Terminus, even as they ambled along those train tracks, and yet they all followed them straight into the trap, like the rabbit that hung itself. The finale hangs us on a witty one-liner, a cliffhanger that’s nowhere near as suspenseful as last season’s, and some shocking gore. The show has it in it to be better than that! But instead, as its characters struggle for “knowledge” of themselves and each other, The Walking Dead strives to understand its own tone.
Like our cast of characters, I’m not giving up yet. There’s good to be found here (last week’s episode was pretty sweet, actually). Maybe season five will offer a better balance of the ugly and beautiful, the action and the stagnation.
What did you think? I’ve got a feeling my opinions are controversial.
Next up for recapping: AMC’s other, other show about middle-aged white men in existential crisis (I jest because I’m a sucker for all of AMC’s best series), Mad Men.