Editor’s Note: Although this piece can still be considered speculative, it could also hold GIANT spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 5. You have been warned.
How the Show Set This Up
Dude, that’s not deer meat.
That was the first thing that came to mind, as I watched the penultimate episode of season 4 of The Walking Dead. Glenn, Tara, Abraham, Eugene, Rosita, Maggie, Sasha, and Bob — two groups that finally found each other after the terrible massacre at the prison — entered Terminus, the safe haven most of Rick’s broken group had been searching for most of the second half of the season. The confused, yet relieved survivors were welcomed by a woman named Mary, who was busy BBQing mystery meat for the newcomers. She offered them something to eat.
NO, DON’T EAT THAT.
But before we could see what happened next, the episode faded to black, as its oft to do. The next time we joined this particular group of survivors, in the season finale, they were already locked in a boxcar, presumably ambushed by the Terminus group. Rick’s declaration of war at the very last minute (“They’re screwing with the wrong people”) wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I was still worried about whether anyone had eaten the meat.
Those steaks were most likely a human once.
Although neither AMC nor showrunner Scott Gimple have confirmed that the Terminus group are the show’s version of The Hunters, they are more than likely the much-awaited cannibals from Robert Kirkman’s comics. Not to mention that the season’s tagline is “Hunt or Be Hunted.”
There’s also this trailer, which involves butcher aprons and humans on metal slabs:
Rick’s declaration that (presumably) the Terminus group “doesn’t get to live” is very much along the same lines as his massacre of The Hunters in issue #66, the culminating chapter of the “Fear the Hunters” storyline from Kirkman’s book. A moment that forever changed Rick and the others in terms of how they dealt with other groups of survivors, the execution of The Hunters stands as one of the bloodiest moments in the bload-drenched comics. Rick justified the murders — chopping the bad guys up with sharp objects and burning their dismembered corpses — as a necessary evil. After facing the horrors of the Governor TWICE, you have to forgive a guy for growing wary of outsiders, especially when they’re trying to cook you over a fire.
These villains test Rick’s resolve as a leader and finally reveal his true nature as a violent man who will do anything to survive and keep his family safe. We see this transformation at the end of season 4, when Rick bites off a piece of Joe’s neck. It is always pretty scary to see Rick at his most bloodthirsty, and it’ll be interesting to see how the audience reacts as he becomes more and more violent on the show. Point blank: Rick is pissed.
What Happened In the Comics
Let’s a take a look at this story arc, as it stands in the comics:
Rick and the group are already on the road to Washington by the time they become The Hunters’ prey. They’ve just faced the horrors of the Governor — which are much worse in the comics, if you can believe it — and have met up with Abraham and friends, who are on a mission to escort scientist Eugene Porter to a secret military lab where he can develop a cure to the zombie epidemic. The group, despite the countless deaths they’ve already faced, including Lori’s and baby Judith’s, are hopeful.
Along the way, Ben and Billy (the original Lizzie and Mike Samuels) meet their doom. Turns out Ben is psychotic and kills his little brother much in the same way and for the same reasons that Lizzie killed her sister. Rick and the group are faced with a tough decision. Luckily for them, Carl’s the one that ends Ben’s life, a moment that will scar the young Grimes forever.
While all of this is happening, the group also meets Father Gabriel, a character that has already been confirmed for season 5, who offers them sanctuary in his empty church. Gabriel has a dark past that we won’t get into too deeply. Just know that he’s gained some demons since the outbreak.
The group is attacked by zombies and Dale (yes, that guy) is bitten by a walker, although he keeps it a secret from the group. After the attack, he walks off into the forest to die alone. That’s when the crazed cannibals decide to have him for dinner. Little do The Hunters know that Dale is infected. Not noticing the bite marks, the cannibals proceed to cut off Dale’s remaining leg (he was the inspiration for Hershel’s amputation in season 3) and feast. It’s too late when Dale regains consciousness. He manages to taunt them about the tainted meat before The Hunters beat him half to death.
The Hunters’ leader Chris (aka Gareth on the show…maybe) plans an ambush against the remaining group. Knowing that the survivors have taken shelter in Gabriel’s church, they leave the unconscious Dale in front of the church. They lure Rick and the others out and manage to wound Glenn, who’s had his fair amount of near-death moments in both the comics and the show by this point.
Unfortunately for The Hunters, Rick tracks them back to their campsite, where he tries to negotiate a truce with them. No more eating Rick’s people. Chris doesn’t see much of a threat in a lone man, and refuses to cooperate. Instead, he decides that his people should have Rick for dinner next.
But before they can get the fire ready, the rest of Rick’s group pops out of the bushes and proceeds to kill the shit out of The Hunters. Before massacring them, Rick threatens to cannibalize them as a form of torture after what they did to Dale. Seriously, Rick doesn’t pull any punches when he decides The Hunters have to go. Gabriel, who helps lead the group to The Hunters’ campsite, is horrified as he watches the murderous night unfold.
In the morning, the survivors are remorseful about what they’ve done. Add the fact that Dale is still dying from the assault and zombie bite. Andrea (who is also still alive in the comics at this point) puts a bullet between Dale’s eyes as he succumbs to his injuries.
Unsurprisingly, that’s where the arc ends: in a hopeless and mournful place. With a 131 issue and 4 seasons to its name, not much has changed in terms of The Walking Dead‘s tone. It still holds the title of highest-rated misery porn.
Dissecting “Fear the Hunters”
Now that more people are dead and I’ve washed the blood out of my fingernails…
The most interesting aspect of the story is the way it handles change within the characters. For all the massive bloodbaths and massacres that have taken place before and after this arc, “Fear the Hunters,” as part of the connective tissue between the Prison and the Alexandria Safe-Zone arcs, slows things down a bit. It focuses on how the most recent events have affected the survivors and sets the stage for big shifts in the series:
Ben (Lizzie) has finally gone psycho, believing that Billy (Mika) will come back to life after he kills him (her). Carl interprets his own definition of justice by executing Ben. Father Gabriel opens his doors to people in need for the first time since the apocalypse. Dale becomes a martyr. And Rick does what’s necessary to survive.
We get The Hunters as villains at a time right before the series turns to a bit more cartoonish, “superhuman” approach to baddies. Soon, we’ll be in the land of religious zealots with pet tigers and baseballs bats named “Lucille.” But first, we get the last “human” villains — a bizarro group of survivors that show what Rick and friends would be like if they had completely turned to the dark side.
The Hunters aren’t all that different to the “good guys” in the story, except they’ve succumbed to the desperate need to survive. Chris reveals to Rick before the massacre that his group was forced to eat their own children, which he likened to bears that eat their young when facing starvation. This justification allowed The Hunters to continue to eat human flesh.
This triggers a thought: what if Rick was forced to eat Carl someday? Here, you get to see how the character of Rick works. The only thing that really makes him the good guy at all anymore (the dude has murdered most things in his path) is his justification for doing so: keeping his family safe. He remains the protagonist and the series’ definition of a good guy because he doesn’t stray from that path.
If he falls to the carnivorous insanity of the times, undoubtedly the rest of the group will. They will eat, they will die, and be reborn as horrible monsters. When Rick decides to slaughter The Hunters, we see this reality for a brief moment.
In this arc, once and for all, it is established that the biggest threat humans face in zombieland is themselves. Rick is pushed to the edge when he orders the torture and slaughter of his enemies, and each panel of the comic does a great job of showing the survivors becoming more and more animal-like after each swing of the hatchet. By the end of the story, the group have had their fill of the slaughter.
Fans should expect the ultimate challenge to Rick’s moral code in season 5. If the comics are any indicator, we’re going to see the survivors overstep their boundaries a bit, as they continue their fight to survive.
Is This a Red Herring?
Whether Gareth (Andrew J. West) is the show’s version of Chris is still anyone’s guess. The clues above make a good case for it, although the showrunners have been known to remix some stuff before.
In an interview for TV Guide, Kirkman told the site that Gareth would not be the villain of season 5:
Gareth was a little Governor-like in his execution when it comes to being overtly nice. How similar are those two villains? Not very. There are certainly some similarities, especially in this episode. But those similarities go away pretty quickly. His façade has a much more clear purpose that will be revealed in Season 5 and definitely sets him apart from The Governor in a big way. I would state emphatically that he is definitely not the villain of Season 5. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that this is a Rick vs. Governor face-off. Gareth and the people of Terminus are going to be a very big threat. They’re definitely going to kick Season 5 off in a big way, but the Rick Grimes that we’ve left this season with is not going to be allowing a Governor-like figure to be such a thorn in their side moving forward.
That, of course, just means that Gareth won’t be the type of sociopathic mastermind that the Governor was. Gareth could be a bit more sloppy, and what better style for a leader of crazed cannibals? Still, the way he lures survivors to his camp, tricks them into letting their guard down, and then has their way with them sounds pretty Governor to me…
Whoever the villain of season 5 is, things are going to get pretty nasty. Rick is pissed.
The Walking Dead returns on Sunday, Oct. 12 on AMC.