You didn’t really buy into the whole “arrive/survive” bit, did you? Don’t you know by now? Don’t you know that there can be no sanctuary?
That’s how we arrive at the end of Season Four of The Walking Dead. We leave just as we started — with the knowledge that nothing is safe, that no one except those who have become your family can be trusted. It was a grim and deeply cynical episode, but at the same time, it was also replete with the truths that we’ve known all along. The ones next to you, the ones you came up and lived through everything with? They are your family, and they are the ones you can rely on, the ones that you need with you.
We opened with Rick, bloodied and dazed, setting the tone for what’s to come. It’s apt that we got to see Michonne, Rick, and Carl as close to a family as can be. It’s Carl, too, that asks the question that will become the central theme of the episode — who are we? After what they’ve done, what they’ve had to do, who are they? What are they? And through a series of grisly vignettes, we see that they are what they’ve always been — survivors. Most importantly, we see why Rick was made the leader so long ago, something that the show seemed like it lost sight of. Rick leads because he does what needs to be done, and when he’s at his best, he does it without flinching. And that includes all of the terrible acts that come with it, the least of which was leaving a man to be swarmed by walkers.
But for a moment, all was well. As Rick and Michonne sat and talked of Terminus and what the future holds, as Carl slept peacefully, it seemed like their road would be an easy one. And then, the marauders came (FYI — the group that Daryl fell in with is a version of a group from the comics that came to be known as the Marauders. It feels apt). We see now what not even Daryl realized — that they are men of sheer id, of venom and hate and utterly without limits or conscience. Even as Daryl offers himself as sacrifice, they give no quarter and the depths of their savagery is truly revealed. It’s here, in those dark moments as the unspeakable is threatened, that Rick finally comes back and once again becomes the man he needed to be, and repays that savagery in kind, while Carl sees the animal that Rick has always hoped he could hide.
The aftermath of that struggle was a peculiar one, though I enjoyed the brief scene with Daryl and Rick, strengthening the bonds of family, and showing how Daryl understands the difference between what Rick did because he had to, and what the marauders did simply because they wanted to. Theirs was a path carved out of the basest of desires, whereas Rick’s was one carved out of the simple will to live and protect.
And at last, they arrive at Terminus, and it doesn’t take long for us to see that something is amiss, that something is rotten and wrong with that bucolic-seeming exterior. Once again, it is Rick who realizes the truth and takes action, even if it’s ultimately for naught, and they’re herded, like cattle, through a labyrinth of bones and candles and names and corpses, to finally be united with their friends in a dark, locked prison.
It wasn’t until those final moments that I understood the purpose behind the flashbacks to Hershel, and I have to admit that while there was a weird pacing to the episode, it was those moments that grounded it. This was probably Andrew Lincoln’s strongest episode of the season — his character’s plague of self-doubt and guilt hasn’t been particularly well-written or effective, even if it was at times understandable. Yet here, in the last minutes of this season, we see the truth — that Rick is ultimately reflective of the group itself. In times of peace, that’s where we’ll find him, and when they’re fractured and broken and lost, so is he. And when their backs are to the wall, when desperation fuels them, then Rick can — must — be that man, the one who tears out throats in the night and strangles men in secret. That’s been the problem all along, I suppose — that the character has been the most well-written when he’s had a clear path, a sense of focus and purpose. The writers have not excelled at casting that pall of doubt and uncertainty over him.
Well, be grateful, because it appears that those days are gone. We’re finished with this season of The Walking Dead, and we have a long time to wait and contemplate what will happen to those trapped inside that car. This was a solid season overall, even if it had a bit of a bumpy start. Rick’s arc was a bit of a mess, but they finally took the time to pause and dig down beneath the surface of each of the main characters, and while that took a while, it was worth it. However awkward some of the scripting was, however clumsy some of the plotting may have been (with this episode being no exception — particularly Michonne’s confession to Carl, which was brutal in how stilted and mistimed it was), we feel like we know them all a little bit better now, like we have more invested in them all, instead of just a few of them.
It’s not the reunion you may have hoped for, but then again, if there’s one thing we should have learned by now, it’s that hope is a rare commodity in this world. It’s fitting then, that just as last season ended in fire, that this one ends in darkness. And that’s where we’ll stay, until next time.