Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"A" Great Cliffhanger for THE WALKING DEAD

Article originally written for Seat42F.com

The season finale of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, while not featuring very many main characters for most of the run time, still manages to be both satisfying and intense. Simply titled “A,” it tells a revealing, character-focused tale of a small group, while introducing us to the menace of Terminus at large, and bowing out on a heck of a cliffhanger, something this series has never really done before.

“A” begins with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) looking pretty bad, bloody and sitting alone outside a vehicle. Over the next twenty or so minutes, we see flashbacks of Hershel (Scott Wilson) teaching Rick how to lie down his weapons and become a farmer at the prison, a glimpse of happier times, and also see why Rick becomes determined to save Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) soul, a boy more interested in guns than Legos. It provides a missing chapter that not only feels appropriate to examine now, but allows a glimpse of the whole cast together, including those that are no longer living.

We soon find out why Rick is ruminating on this as he, Carl, and Michonne (Danai Gurira) are attacked by Harley (J.D. Evermore) and his gang, a scene taking place prior to messed-up-Rick. All looks hopeless for our heroes in this confrontation as Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) attempt to talk Harley down gets him beat up, a gross, fat man intends to rape Carl, and Rick and Michonne are disarmed and on their knees. Then Rick head butts Harley, tussles for a moment, and rips Harley’s neck open with his teeth, providing the distraction Michonne and Daryl need to take care of the rest of the group.

In this moment, Rick becomes a monster. Getting his hands on the fat man, he not only executes him, but keeps brutally stabbing long after the guy is dead. I can’t say it’s animalistic, as animals are not that cruel, but it goes far beyond what we would think someone with humanity would be capable of. And because Rick worries Carl will see him in a poor light, and that Rick is setting a bad example for Carl, Rick sits outside the truck and thinks back to how he’s raised his son in the past. Has he done enough to protect and nurture Carl’s moral compass?

The thing is, though, Carl doesn’t see Rick as a monster. It appears he does at first, especially when Rick lets a random stranger be torn apart by a pack of walkers without interference. So Michonne tells Carl the full truth, finally, about her rage and the terrible things she did when creating her ‘pets,’ showing why she gets Rick and still has confidence in him, no matter what she witnesses. Carl understands this, as it soon becomes clear, and is just worried that he won’t live up to his father’s example.

This section of “A” is one about holding onto humanity. Michonne did it, having been saved by Andrea and the group. Rick does it, telling Daryl they are brothers as they sit outside the truck, reunited. And now Carl shows that he’s a whole person, too, acknowledging that Rick did what had to be done and that Harley and his men deserve what they get, but also being a vulnerable, caring individual.

In this murky world, sometimes the line between good and bad gets blurred. I think what the first half of “A” does is present a type of person that can survive, but can still be looked up to. The brutality shown is only done in protection of loved ones, not gratuitously. So, at the end of the day, Rick remains the hero everyone, including Carl, can admire.

The back half of the hour finds the four reaching Terminus. Scouting the perimeter, they can’t see anyone, so aren’t able to judge the settlement. Sneaking in the back door, they find Gareth (Andrew J. West) and rest engaged in harmless activities. Allowing themselves to be searched, Rick and company are permitted to keep their weapons, further reinforcing that Terminus is the sanctuary it promises to be, its inhabitants offering welcome.

However, it takes very little time at all for Rick to notice something’s up. No sooner does Mary (Denise Crosby) hand him a plate of food than Rick sees Glenn’s (Steven Yeun) watch, Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) poncho, and other clues that his friends are present. Rick reacts, grabbing one of the residents, who is soon killed, and then Rick and the others are herded through some creepy spaces and, ultimately, into a rail car where they find everyone in the cast who arrived here last week.

As seemed obvious last week when the others reached Terminus, it’s all a trap. It seems too good to be true, and it is. The happy façade is presented to lure people in, where they are captured and locked up. From glimpses during the herding sequence, it appears the people of Terminus are cannibals, eating those they can catch. Rick and his friends will be livestock for them, and there isn’t a shortage of such, given the voices heard coming from shipping containers. It’s frustrating that Rick follows the path their bullets encourage him to go down, but there isn’t an easy escape option presented at this time.

The thing is, despite losing their weapons and being in a cage, Rick doesn’t lose heart, nor should the viewers. We have seen in “A” what Rick is capable of, even without weapons. And now he’s in a place with most of his comrades. They’re a pretty large group, and the Terminus guys have to enter that car some time to make them come out. Rick will be ready for them. His final line, the ending of the episode, exudes inspiring confidence and determination.

It seems odd that this bleak situation makes for an uplifting cliffhanger, but it’s true. At least everyone is together, and united, they can succeed. It will be a long summer while we wait to see this happen, and there could very well be casualties among our main contingent. At least for now, though, they are locked up among friends.

There remains some questions and wild cards in the scenario. Is Beth (Emily Kinney) in Terminus, a victim or intended meal? What will Carol (Melissa McBride) and Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) see when they get there? Even if they find Rick’s buried guns, they have a baby with them, making any type of assault difficult, should they see enough clues to attempt attack. Still, “A” is a good place to end things, and a great season finale.

THE WALKING DEAD will return next fall on AMC.

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