The Walking Dead – Season Finale 2014 – Recap: Just Another Monster
Recap video and review of The Walking Dead – Season Finale 2014 – A:
The purpose of The Walking Dead separating all its primary characters in this second half of the season finally becomes apparent in the season finale for 2014, “A”. Yes, the show was looking to flesh out each individual set of characters, providing a window into the respective psyches of these survivors in a way that we hadn’t really gotten to before.
But beyond that, it allowed us to see that, individually, these people are survivors, capable of overcoming the daunting scenarios of this post-apocalyptic wasteland, independent of the communities in which they were a part in the past. These separate stories have proven the capability of these characters as a way of actually building up to the climactic final line of the season. When Rick (Andrew Lincoln) declares, of the sickos inhabiting Terminus, “They’re going to feel pretty stupid when they find out. … They’re screwing with the wrong people,” we believe him. Because we’ve seen these people handle their business in individual groups. And now they’re all together again? Forget about it. Granted, it’s a bit of an anticlimactic way to end the season, particularly after AMC released all those finale posters emblazoned with the words “WHO WILL SURVIVE?”. But I’d say “A” is the best episode of a season that is just a hair shy of last year in the race for best overall.
In an interesting departure from last week, nearly the entirety of this episode centers on Rick’s group, including Carl (Chandler Riggs), Michonne (Danai Gurira), and Daryl (Norman Reedus), who makes his break from Joe’s gang. That moment is an absolutely harrowing scene that ranks among the most deeply-unsettling, and pulse-pounding of the entire run: after coming to a rest for the night and setting up camp beside a ruined truck, Carl and co. are immediately caught off-guard by Joe (Jeff Kober) and his Deliverance brigade. Rick was the man who strangled Joe’s friend way the hell back in the midseason premiere, and Joe is out for blood. Daryl, however, realizes whom Joe has at gunpoint, and steps forward without thinking. In a moment that shows how far Daryl has come as a character, and echoing his earlier feelings of guilt in “Still” about his own culpability in what he perceived to be the death of everyone in Rick’s old group, he steps forward and offers his life in exchange for theirs. He offers no plan of escape, no tricks, no opening to allow for Rick and co. to take charge. Daryl simply offers himself, saying that if Joe is out for blood, he can take it from him. As he later tells Rick, he had no idea that Joe’s group was like that. He simply joined them because Beth vanished, and he was alone. Moreover, they had a code, and such things aren’t too far removed from the way things used to be with Rick, in the days of rules and relative peace back at the prison. We even get flashbacks throughout the episode detailing the quotidian aspects of life at the prison, particularly how Hershel (Scott Wilson) encouraged Rick to embrace community and disregard violence as the sole aspect of living, arguing that Rick needs to show Carl that there’s another way. This episode is more or less an affirmation of that “other way”: a community is only as good as its individual members, and the values they practice and preach.
In many ways, it’s an episode about selflessness and putting the group ahead of oneself. Daryl and Michonne, both perennial loners, affirm their commitment to things beyond themselves. Daryl comes first, and he pays the price for it by getting the ass-kicking of his life from Joe’s group. While all this is happening, Rick and Michonne, and Carl is forced onto the ground, squirming underneath one of the sickos who’s got rape on his mind. Joe boastfully declares that they’re going to make Rick suffer, first by killing Daryl, then by having their way with Michonne and Carl, and then by finally putting a bullet in Rick’s head. Rick, whose commitment to Carl is a running theme of this episode, launches into a fury at the threat against his boy. In one of the most desperate, gruesome acts of violence in the series, Rick goes full walker on Joe, biting deep into his neck and rupturing his jugular, spouting blood everywhere. Michonne takes advantage of the distraction and kills her assailant, and it isn’t long before everyone in Joe’s group is as good as dead. Except for Carl’s would-be rapist, whom Rick saves for last. Carl can’t entirely bring himself to look away, even as Michonne holds his head to her chest, as his father completely disembowels the man, tearing into him with a knife and just stabbing him until there’s little left but gore. It’s a scene that, while unflinchingly gruesome, felt necessary and proportionate to the horrors that could have been visited upon Rick and his group. The show can often be a series about disproportionate responses to perceived wrongs, and some might argue that merely the threat of an atrocity doesn’t justify a similar atrocity being visited tenfold upon would-be attackers, but there’s an unsettling catharsis behind what Rick does, as if the show encourages us to root along with each stab, to quietly intone that these people had it coming. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Yet Rick’s actions have a clear moral consequence. He seems haunted by what he’s done, even though there was a necessity involved in killing the men. But Carl distances himself from his father, something Michonne notices and addresses. She tells Carl her own horror story, recounting how her son Andre was killed. Apparently, Michonne and Andre lived in a community with the boy’s father, Mike, and their mutual friend. However, one day, Michonne went out on a run, only to come back to find that Mike and his friend had gotten high, resulting in a bunch of walkers getting in and killing Andre. In an outrage, Michonne decided to let Mike and the friend succumb to their walker-related injuries. In essence, she repaid them by allowing them to die a slow, excruciating death; she then followed this up by removing their jaws and arms, and kept them as pets. She intended this as a reminder to herself of what had been lost, yet it had the added benefit of making her invisible to other walkers, as the presence of her “pets” made her appear to be “just another monster” to them. Yet Michonne notes that although she was mentally “gone” for a long time, it was other people that brought her back: people like Andrea and Carl. And so she notes that Carl doesn’t have to be afraid of her, or of his father, since they’re essentially a family now. In affirming her commitment to Carl, Michonne eschews the solitary identity she’d fostered for so long, finding herself a family to fight with, and to fight for. However, Carl still worries about his own moral mortality, saying that he doesn’t deserve his father’s praise or respect, arguing that he’s done terrible thing. “I’m just another monster too,” he cries, and while this feels like a gross overreaction on Carl’s part, it feels like a natural progression for his character, in that moment.
Ultimately, this brings us to the episode’s huge action climax, as the group arrives at Terminus, sneaking in through the back to assess the safety of this new community. It’s here they meet Gareth (Andrew J. West), Alex (Tate Ellington), and other members of the Terminus society. After lowering their weapons, Rick and co. are welcomed to Terminus and are offered food. And, right on cue, things get creepy in a hurry. While being given the grand tour, the Hershel flashbacks are shown to have served a secondary purpose: to remind viewers of items that belonged to our characters. While taking the tour, Rick notices items that once belonged to his friends in the possession of the Terminus group, from Glenn’s riot gear, to Hershel’s pocketwatch, to the poncho Maggie once wore. Not wasting a moment’s time, Rick takes Alex at gunpoint and demands to know where his people are. Chaos reigns, and a shootout ensues, with the various snipers in Terminus firing close to Rick, Michonne, Carl and Daryl, but not actually hitting them. In essence, they’re being herded, forced to flee directly into Gareth’s trap. Surrounded, Rick and co. are forced to lower their weapons and get inside a train car labeled “A”. Inside, Rick and co. quickly discover they’re not alone: Glenn, Bob, Maggie, Sasha, Tara, Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene are all trapped inside as well. If it wasn’t clear before, it seems almost certain now that they’re being kept alive and used as meat for the cannibal society Terminus apparently is (as evidenced from the human bodies, bones, and gore that lie on the floor of the creepy, candle-lit room into which they’re herded by the gunfire during their attempted escape). There appears to be pretty much no hope of escape, since they have no weapons, and they don’t really know the layout of Terminus as well as the home team. But Rick is far more confident, giving us the line at the top, a declaration that closes the season: “They’re going to feel pretty stupid when they find out. … They’re screwing with the wrong people.”
“A” is an episode that is thick with dread, as we’re given only hints as to what’s really going on. Nothing is ever really confirmed about the possibly cannibalistic lifestyle of the Terminus group, nor do we learn the whereabouts of Beth, or Carol and Tyreese (and baby Judith). It’s that ambiguity that lends the episode a lot of its unease, since so much of the hour is palpably unsettling. At no moment did I ever feel as if something awful wasn’t just around the corner, particularly as Rick’s group is corralled, one-by-one into the boxcar, with Carl going in last. I’d have bet the farm on Carl getting shot there, whether by Gareth going back on his word, or by Carl deciding to be the hero, which would have forced Gareth’s hand. Bu that didn’t happen, and I’d argue that being kept alive to whittle away in dread is nearly as bad. Well, except that Rick and co. have no intention of allowing dread and pessimism grab hold, if that season-ending line is any indication. It hasn’t always been the most exciting road, but The Walking Dead has brought us to an endpoint that is incredibly encouraging for Season 5, as our characters are (mostly) all reunited, with a new, clear-cut enemy to battle, and deepened characterizations to make all of it hold weight. These are people who are independently interesting, and not just situationally so. That alone makes Season 4 a success, and “A” just might be its crown jewel for sheer atmosphere, propulsive action, and the moodiness that has long made this one of television’s most lingering shows, simply for how it sticks in the mind long after the episode (and season) has ended.