And just like that, Horror Fans, The Walking Dead season four finale is in the books. I’ve written about this trendsetting smash of a series at length and the one recurrent unavoidable theme of that coverage has been my defense of it from those who don’t give much credence to things like characterization, human relationships, subtly, nuance, or any other elements of quality narrative drama. These folks would rather see forty-five minutes of grue-splattering zombie mayhem every Sunday, week in and week out. Never mind the fact that this wouldn’t be sustainable for a several-years-long television series. For the show to merely remain on the very surface of its broad conceptual framework is a recipe for fried TWD attention spans.
The show’s been an exemplary television drama featuring great writing and acting—and flesh-devouring zombies with tons of gore—but on The Walking Dead the shambling horde is a byproduct of the show’s scenario, not our heroes’ antagonist. No, the true sources of danger and deceit have been living human beings and that’s the case with every good zombie story from movies and video games to comics and television. But the refrain from the chorus of somewhat less than thoughtful horror hounds out there has always been that too much drama is boring.
Here’s the thing, though: this second half of season four has taken a simultaneously unique and risky direction, one that’s inspired these malcontents to complain louder and more vociferously than ever. And you know what? This time they may have a small, teensy-tiny bit of a point….
Now before any of you fellow Zombaniacs (yes, I just made that up)—those readers with whom I’ve gone to battle in defense of The Walking Dead’s sophisticated, methodical narrative; those readers that have fought the good fight with me these past four years—before you turn on me, please understand this:
While a majority of these past eight episodes have been slow-paced and plot-static, these episodes also have been something of an inspired revelation, especially within the context of a ratings hit. The direction the show has taken has been incredibly daring and it’s showcased some of the most challenging, brilliant work the series has offered yet. Still, the show hasn’t been able to completely avoid the pitfalls this approach has wrought—and I’ll get those later—but first let’s rundown what we’ve experienced since the midseason finale left us scrambling for cover.
So here’s the obligatory spoiler warning…DO NOT PROCEED lest you want to know what happened on season four of The Walking Dead!
Each episode since the hiatus has been comprised of character vignettes depicting the headspaces of everyone after the Governor’s assault on the prison. While our group of protagonists has been separated into smaller groups and isolated by their horrible circumstances, these episodes are neither striving to jumpstart the show’s plot nor hurrying to reunite all the characters, but rather they’re yielding deeper insights into our heroes. The results are frustrating at times but always fascinating.
We begin with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) as they scavenge supplies and look for shelter. They eventually hole-up inside of a house located in what was once a quiet suburban neighborhood. Rick is desperately injured and appears close to death. This situation seems to stir the latent teen angst and resentment in Carl who ends up leaving his father lying unresponsive on the couch and goes outside to wander around–a purposeful defiance of Rick’s over-protectiveness. After a close call, Carl makes his way home and unsuccessfully tries to wake up his father. Carl fears his father has died and he’s faced with the frightening realization that he’s not yet ready to survive in this post-apocalyptic world without him. But all is not lost when Rick finally awakens, weak and worse for wear.
In the meantime, Michonne (Danai Gurira) tracks Rick and Carl to the house and eventually joins them. But soon a group of dangerous ruffians overtakes the house forcing a harrowing escape by Rick after which he, Carl, and Michonne head out and eventually find a sign on the railroad tracks directing survivors to a mysterious sanctuary called Terminus.
Elsewhere, we learn that Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) has escaped the prison assault with baby Judith as well as young sisters Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) and Mika (Kyla Kenedy) and they’ve been travelling together. Keeping an infant and two young kids quiet and safe from walkers proves to be an incredibly difficult task. During one close call, Tyreese returns only to find that the kids have been rescued from a zombie attack by Carol (Melissa McBride). They also soon discover the sign directing survivors to Terminus.
Over time, it appears that Lizzie suffers from delusions and can’t differentiate between the living and the reanimated. In an episode called “The Grove” which, despite some melodramatic indulgences, will be remembered by fans long after this series is over, Lizzie suffers a psychotic break that leads to a tragic and heart-wrenching fate for both her and her sister. I was certain I saw a shark driving a motorcycle head-on toward a ramp early during “The Grove” but the episode somehow manages to elude this fate and leave us shell-shocked as Carol is once again forced to make an extremely difficult decision—this one regarding Lizzie.
When it’s all said and done Carol confesses to Tyreese in a leave-it-all-on-the-table moment that she’s the one who had killed Karen and David at the prison—Carol’s last “tough decision”—thereby wrapping up a major subplot from the first half of the season. And with that, the two of them—Carol and Tyreese—along with baby Judith continue toward Terminus.
And elsewhere still, Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) search for Glenn (Steven Yeun) who, it turns out, is still at the ruins of the prison along with Tara (Alanna Masterson). Glenn and Tara barely escape the hordes of walkers lurching about the prison grounds only to get intercepted later by three people driving an army truck—Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita (Michael Cudlitz, Josh McDermitt, and Christian Serratos respectively).
Dr. Eugene is a scientist who, according to Abraham, knows what’s caused the world to end and Abraham has made it his mission to deliver Eugene to Washington D.C. where he’ll meet with officials and try to resolve the zombification of planet earth. In a bit of laziness on the part of the writing staff, Abraham insists that Glenn and Tara accompany them on this mission because of some silliness about the benefits of more manpower. Glenn and Abraham end up fighting (natch!) because Glenn is determined to find Maggie and has zero interest in tagging along with these folks to D.C.
In the scrum the group is attacked by walkers and while saving themselves the truck becomes disabled. As Tara and Glenn head back to where they were intercepted, the three series newcomers tuck tail and follow them. This is one the most ham-handed and “plotty” of the subplots.
Meanwhile, Maggie finds the Terminus sign and believes Glenn would look for her there provided he’s seen the sign too. So she heads that way. However, Bob and Sasha have their own ideas which temporarily split up the three of them in what’s by far the least interesting subplot since the hiatus. Eventually, though, they reunite and follow Maggie’s lead toward the terminus. It’s around this time that we’re assured that Glenn has indeed seen the Terminus sign. Whew!
The most interesting aftermath coupling is that of Beth (Emily Kinney) and Daryl (Norman Reedus). The two of them go in search of alcohol because Beth wants to experience getting drunk which is an interesting way of mourning her late father by riffing on his alcoholism. They eventually settle into a dilapidated house and play drinking games over some moonshine. Here we learn some juicy psychological tidbits about them both and after some cathartic and rowdy over-doing it, they burn the house to the ground.
Next they settle into a funeral home wherein someone has been living and dressing corpses as if for proper burial. As the two of them settle in for the night, the mortuary is set upon by zombies. Daryl distracts them, allowing Beth to escape outside. This is followed by one of the best action set-pieces of the entire series as Daryl’s forced to fend off dozens of walkers from within the cramped confines of the mortuary’s belly. When he finally vanquishes the ravenous horde and escapes outside, he finds Beth’s backpack on the ground and watches helplessly as a car accelerates away, presumably with Beth inside. Daryl proceeds on foot in the direction of the car, but he’s overcome by exhaustion and then intercepted by the same ruffians that Rick had escaped from earlier.
These leather-clad cretins make life difficult for Daryl and it doesn’t take long for Daryl to realize that he has to play their game—and learn their ridiculous code of ethics—if he’s going to survive until he arrives at Terminus.
The seventh and second to last episode of the season—“Us”—is a fantastic, tense hour of television in which Daryl and the thugs, Glenn and his group, Maggie and her group, and Terminus are on a collision course. And when some of our survivors finally arrive at their destination this episode leaves us asking several compelling questions, but none more apropos than what’s really happening at Terminus?
With all subplots leading to Terminus and thus to the season finale, The Walking Dead fourth season capper doesn’t quite pack the type of gut-punch landed on us by the midseason finale, but it does manage to land a couple haymakers of its own along the way to a fairly telegraphed cliffhanger of an ending.
We take up with Rick again as he begins the finale episode a bloody, disheveled mess sitting in the middle of the road against an abandoned SUV. We flash back to Hershel at the prison insisting to Rick that they could make a relatively peaceful and prosperous life for themselves there. Then we jump ahead to just before the present as Rick, Carl, and Michonne are trekking closer and closer to Terminus when they decide to stop and rest. And it’s here that the finale has its biggest impact.
While Rick and the others are stopped for the night having set up a camp near the aforementioned SUV, they’re suddenly besieged by the gang of ruffians and an unwitting Daryl. Near the end of the last episode the gang’s leader had indicated to Daryl that they’d been tracking “a man” toward Terminus—Rick of course—and now that they’ve found him, they intend to avenge their cohort’s death at the hands of the former sheriff’s deputy back at the abandoned house several episodes ago.
This revelation hits Daryl like a ton of bricks and he immediately tries to stop the assault, offering himself up to the ruffians in Rick’s stead. This olive branch has disastrous consequences as the gang decides to beat Daryl to death, followed by Michonne, Carl, and finally Rick. The scene plays out with disturbing, squeal-like-a-pig intensity as Daryl, Carl, and Michonne are violently assaulted while Rick looks on with a pistol pressed against his temple.
It appears there’s no way out of this deadly predicament, but watching Carl being assaulted overwhelms Rick who explodes in a frightening (though admittedly cathartic) rage that should make us all take pause. And just as suddenly as it started, the assault stops with gushing crimson finality as Rick crosses a line from which there’s no return. This primal transcendence—the kind we see in nature when a mother grizzly bear with cubs feels threatened—is something we can relate to even as its depiction here leaves us utterly breathless. To be clear, this scene is magnificent and it’s a vivid reminder of how this show’s effectiveness depends on living, breathing human “bad guys”.
The rest of the episode is fine, though less impactful. Daryl and Rick are reunited and they, along with Carl and Michonne, make it to Terminus. At Terminus things predictably go wrong though precisely how won’t be revealed until next season. As Rick’s group gets herded into an abandoned railroad car at gunpoint and locked up/reunited with Maggie and Glenn’s group, Rick’s transformation and essential refutation of the philosophy espoused by the late Hershel Greene is made explicit.
Rick has turned 180-degrees away from the man at the beginning of the season who had relinquished his leadership of the group and who had been coping with a growing unease with firearms around Carl and the other children. Our survivors—once again led by Rick—are dangerous because they need to be and they know it.
This all sounds pretty awesome, right? So where do these eight episodes fail?
First and foremost, the lack of a specific antagonist such as Shane or the Governor—human “bad guys” with clearly defined agendas—has left a large void in the action. And without a cohesive group of “good guys”, we’re also bereft of a protagonist. Without these two fundamental story elements it’s literally impossible for there to be much of a plot. And this, Horror Fans, is why the bellyaching has reached pandemic levels these past couple of months. And in this one regard, the complainers are correct.
The adventures of Maggie’s group and, to some extent, Glenn’s group exist mostly for the purpose of advancing what little plot these eight episodes do have to offer. However, the characterization revealed through the depictions of the rest of our survivors—Rick, Carl and Michonne’s group, Daryl and Beth’s tandem, and Carol, Tyreese and the kids in particular—is rich and profound if not narratively kinetic. These characters are being drawn with the finest details and realized with fascinating dynamics and contrast. The first six episodes are largely static but extraordinarily provocative nonetheless.
It’s not until the seventh episode when the plot finally starts to advance rapidly and we’re thrust forward in terms of the story. But having been given glimpses into the inner workings of our heroes’ psyches—knowing more intimately what makes these people tick, for better and for worse—the resultant confluence of plot and character creates a powerful tide over the course of the final two episodes.
This approach was not an accident. To be fair, there aren’t a lot of action-oriented places to go regarding plot immediately after an episode like the midseason finale. That episode ended the main plotline that had been developed over the previous season-and-a-half and definitively answered the question we were being asked to consider—would our survivors be able to cultivate a safe, sustainable community at the prison that could co-exist with the Governor and his people? The answer was a resounding “no.” That plotline was ended brutally and emphatically after an intense crescendo of action and emotion.
To try and sustain an equivalent level of action by way of a necessarily new main plot would have been a fool’s errand. So these writers did the smart thing and brought the momentum down several notches to allow the time and the pace necessary to develop the next major thrust of the series. If The Walking Dead were one long movie, these past eight episodes would have been the ‘sag-point’—a structural device found in nearly every conventionally composed film occurring just after a movie’s midpoint.
At the midpoint of most movies the circumstances force our protagonist to abandon their current strategy and recalibrate with an entirely new, usually very different strategy. And while this new strategy is coming into focus, the action (plot) lulls and we’re given some exposition. For example, in Jaws, once it becomes clear that using local fishermen to cull the shark population has failed to protect the beaches from our favorite monster Great White, Chief Brody—a man who’s terrified of the ocean—decides that he’s going to have to head out to sea and hunt the shark—a brand new approach rife with peril and made necessary by the failure of the previous approach. We see this decision being developed during a dinner sequence with Hooper in which we’re given lots of backstory while we watch them eat, drink wine, and chit-chat. Soon after this sequence, Brody, Hooper and Quint set sail on the Orca and the rest is history. A similar lull-and-pivot can be found at approximately the same point in nearly every movie.
The last eight episodes of The Walking Dead have served this same function by allowing the series to pivot from the prison plotline to the Terminus plotline while further developing the characters by way of exposition or backstory. In a movie this only takes a matter of minutes. Here, though, it took eight episodes and that comes with an inherent risk and one that the show couldn’t completely avoid.
So in the end, it’s true that for about five episodes no major story developments take place and for that reason season four ends up with a respectable A-. But what we’re shown over the course of those episodes is like money in the bank, the value of which increases after it’s been deposited. And now that most of our heroes have been reunited, I’ll be looking for the show to continue cashing out its investment in these characters next season.