This review contains spoilers.
When a show does foreshadowing, the payoff can be either good or bad. Sometimes, it’s subtle enough that it’s only caught by the viewer on a second or third viewing, or once the trap has been sprung. Other times, it’s blatant enough to give the audience a warning about what’s coming up, so the surprise isn’t all that surprising to the home viewing audience. The Walking Dead is a show completely incapable of subtlety, but when it’s time to delivery a blow to the viewing audience, the blows land like hammer falls, one after the other.
That’s a good description of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead – a series of punches each more violent than the last, countered with lulls that last just long enough to remind you how long it’s been since something happened to the core trio of Rick, Carl, and Michonne. Each event, from the gnawing hunger to the maze-like chase, only serves to increase the tension throughout the episode, and the cuts back to a more idyllic past (something that has never been said about time spent locked in a prison) only serve to make that tension even more profound. In a fight, there’s getting hit, and then there’s waiting to be hit.
That’s the beauty of Michelle MacLaren’s direction on this finale episode. There’s tension that builds until it bubbles over into an expression of spectacular violence, but that violence doesn’t feel like a blow-off moment; it’s simply adding to the bubbling pot. For example, Rick and company set a trap for a rabbit, and after they fetch dinner, they find themselves pursued by a surprisingly large and determined group of walkers. They escape them somehow, only to find themselves camping out in a wrecked car until, out of nowhere, Joe and his gang overtake Rick and have them held at gunpoint while Joe rails on and on about how much fun it’s going to be to get revenge on Rick for their dead friend.
One of the defining characteristics of Rick Grimes is his single-minded dedication to keep his son safe. That’s been Rick’s only real motivation this entire time. That and his struggles with his own baser instincts. They make a point of mentioning that later in the episode, but right now, Rick has a gun to his head while a gang of men are threatening to beat Daryl to death, rape both Michonne and Carl, and then finally execute Rick. Rick is in an impossible situation, so he takes a hero’s action and it fails pretty spectacularly.
That was a brilliant move on the part of episode writers Scott Gimple and Angela Kang. Rick tries to be a hero and fails. Rick goes to fight with Joe and understandably gets punched down—Rick’s still nursing his injuries from his beating at the hands of the Governor. Daryl tries to fight off two guys and he’s getting beaten to death, too. Carl can’t get to a knife just inches away. Michonne tries a hero move and it doesn’t work, either, until Rick decides to give into his baser instincts once the ravagers threaten to have their way with Carl’s youthful body. It wasn’t that Rick so much gave in, but that he snapped and tore Joe’s throat out with his teeth during a hug (amazing work by the special effects team this week, both on the throat-ripping AND the eyeball gag on the eyeglasses guy who gets torn apart by walkers).
In a moment of sick, crazed, desperation, Rick does the only thing he can do: survive. He survives, and that allows the rest of his group to survive. He might have taken a swing at normalcy during the farm earlier in the season at Hershel’s insistence (I’d say as much for himself as for Carl, with Hershel serving as a necessary spiritual adviser for the broken Grimes family). Call it a necessary respite, much like the one it provides during the episode, and it’s clearly something Rick can keep to himself as a reminder that while he’s capable of impressive brutality, he can also grow his own cucumbers. Rick seems to come to that realization as the episode goes on, much the same way Carl figures out that he’s not going to be a disappointment to his father for his violence provided he doesn’t completely surrender his morality in exchange for a delicious meaty plate of “food” and a life of leisurely slaughter.
The Walking Dead is very much a show about people in a hopeless situation who simply refuse to give up hope despite all the trauma and failing and disasters that have befallen them. Rick’s ruined two strongholds, yet he’s still hopeful for more normalcy. Michonne has been there for the deaths of her family and loved ones, yet she still hopes for something normal. Rick has run from himself before, but it seems like, when he arrives at the storage boxcar full of the only friends he’s got left in the world, he’s done running. Indeed, it seems that being cornered and captured might be what turns Rick’s resolve into steel.
It’s rare that a show can turn a pretty resounding defeat into a moral victory, but with his friends at his side and steel at his back, it looks like a cornered Rick Grimes without a gun might be the most dangerous person in the post-apocalyptic universe. He’s lost a great deal, but he still has a lot worth fighting for and he doesn’t need a gun or a knife to end a life, so long as he keeps his teeth brushed and flossed for maximum deadly effect. It is as happy an ending that this show can manage.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Us, here.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan was very much impressed by the action this week, though he has to admit to being glad when the episode finally ended, if only because that meant a break from the tension. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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