This review contains spoilers.
There’s something to be said for The Walking Dead‘s expanded season finale episode from a sheer television standpoint. A 90 minute finale just feels like something special for a show that is already something special as far as television goes. There’s room in the episode. While the set pieces aren’t as impressive as Carol’s assault on Terminus in No Sanctuary, there’s more space to actually build up anticipation, and the multiple close calls all worked this week because it felt like, at any point, someone was going to die. On a show like The Walking Dead, Joe Bob Briggs’ drive-in rules apply (anybody can die at any moment), but that goes doubly in a season finale.
From the very opening of the show—a brilliant cold starter where Morgan makes himself some oatmeal and then uses a walking stick to beat the stuffing out of two members of the Wolves who jump out and attack him—The Walking Dead is clearly aiming high with the season finale. Morgan has been teased all season, but the when the hints come to fruition, it’s clear that the addition of a figure from Rick’s past is a great choice. Sure, it’s essentially placed there to let us know about the antagonists Alexandria will face next season, as well as to explain just who has been harvesting torsos and carving into foreheads, but there’s a style to it that makes it work. It’s a simple conversation, never mind the fact that one of them is holding the other at gunpoint, and it doesn’t feel like exposition, just two people trying to have a normal discussion in a really messed-up world.
The tension built up in the opener isn’t blown off when Morgan wipes blood from his walking stick after displaying some wicked wuxia fighting skills. Instead, it only increases when we get to Alexandria and its suburbs. No matter what story line you want to follow, from Daryl and Aaron to Glenn and Nicholas or Carol and Phil, there’s never any real blow-off. Even the scenes in which zombies are killed, or there’s some sort of retribution or settling of accounts, the tension never completely bleeds. It’s build, plateau, build, plateau, until the climactic scenes of the episode, and it’s nerve-wracking. At very few points does the episode get to exhale, mostly when Abraham talks. His speech praising Rick’s ability to teach them about shit ends up being really funny, as does any scene in which Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt have what passes for a heart-to-heart discussion.
That’s a credit to both actors, who are great, and the writers. Co-written by Scott Gimple and Seth Hoffman, this episode is phenomenal from a writing standpoint. There are multiple speeches both for and against Rick, and at no point do any of them feel like something someone wrote for a character to say. There have been times on The Walking Dead when the exposition has been clunky or the talks have been too on-the-nose. The show does still occasionally lapse into that, but not this week. This week, the speeches make sense, given the trial function of the latter half of the episode. If there’s ever a place for Rick to give a big speech, it’s at a forum to decide if he needs to be thrown out or not.
It seems like every other week, this write-up becomes somewhere to praise Greg Nicotero. He’s the man behind the special effects, an executive producer, and he’s become one of the show’s most prolific and accomplished directors. He’s always had a keen visual eye, and there’s no better evidence of this than his shorts of a battered Rick rolling out of bed, or Daryl and Aaron hiding in a car surrounded by hundreds of zombies. However, it’s the way he’s grown as a handler of actors that’s impressive. Gabriel goes for a weaponless walk, then suffers a complete sobbing breakdown before appearing to break from reality. It’s great work from Seth Gilliam, particularly when Gabriel and Sasha meet up later in the episode, but everyone seems to raise their game this week under Nicotero’s handling. Simply put, there’s a reason he’s been the director for four episodes this season, and it’s not for a lack of interest on the part of everyone else. Nicotero has been killing it, literally and figuratively, this season, and this brilliantly conceived movie-length episode is a testament to his abilities behind the camera.
Five seasons in, and The Walking Dead has never been better. That’s a pretty staggering achievement for a television show, considering most shows start strong and then trickle out as seasons progress and staff gets bored. Perhaps it’s the behind-the-scenes churn. Perhaps it’s strong handling from Robert Kirkman and Gale Ann Hurd. Maybe it’s just because of the obvious chemistry the cast has off-screen, and the churn that comes with sacrificing characters to the hungry hordes of rotters.
No matter what the reason, The Walking Dead is showing no signs of rot in its fifth year of shambling around, and the mass consumption of brains seems to have led to a smarter show that makes more of what it has been given. The fifth season shattered records throughout its run; look for the sixth season to set a new high watermark for both viewers and critical praise if the trend holds.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Try, here.
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