Let's get this out of the way: The season four finale of The Walking Dead was not as bloody as we feared, but to say our protagonists made it through unscathed would be one hell of a lie.
"A" was very good. I don't think it was perfect, because it was kind of unwieldy and really two stories crammed together as opposed to one coherent whole, but it did have one unified message, and that message was kind of heartbreaking.
But let's recap first. The first half of "A" begins with a flashback to the prison, when Herschel is first convincing Rick to hang up his gun to farm, if not for his own sake, then for Carl's. Then we flash-forward to Rick, slumped beside a car, covered in blood, and shaking because of whatever just happened. It's effective, been then we need to flashback to the night before to figure out what happened.
What happened is this: Rick, Carl and Michonne continue to head towards Terminus, make camp for the night, and get caught by Joe and his thugs. And, while we know that Joe and his posse live by an admittedly harsh code, any doubt they weren't horrible, evil people dissipates when Joe announces they're going to rape Michonne, and then Carl, and then kill Rick. When Daryl, who was hanging out in the back, realizes who they've caught and tries to stop them, they start beating Daryl to death.
But that's not the dark part. The dark part is the massive, fat, slobbery asshole who drags Carl from the car where he was sleeping and starts trying to pin him down. It seems like it goes on forever, and while Rick, with a gun to his head, is forced to watch. Rick snaps, and when I say snaps, he tears Joe's throat out with his own teeth. Everyone is so fucking shocked at this — and rightly so — that Michonne manages to grab one of the assholes' guns, and starts shooting the rest of them. All that's left is for Rick to grab a knife, walk slowly over to the man who had been attempting to rape his son, and butcher him like a hog. And that's how Rick ended up covered in blood, dead-eyed, and shaking.
For a show that, again, featured a young kid to shoot his mother in the head immediately after she gave birth so she wouldn't turn into a zombie and trying to eat her baby, this is still fucked up. You could argue that the show is desperately trying to find new and more horrible ways to shock people, that it's gone to the "rape = drama" well like so many stories before it. I'm not sure that's untrue.
But let me tell you why I think this scene wasn't necessarily gratuitous, and why I found the first half of "A" so powerful: As the flashbacks to Herschel's attempts to transform Rick from fighter to farmer, from a survivor to someone trying to carve out an actual life, remind us, the prison wasn't just about sanctuary or peace or even just stability. In season three, Rick felt like the only way he could protect the group from the monsters outside was to be a monster himself. It was costing him his sanity (although the whole Lori situation didn't help). Herschel showed him another way.
But when faced with Joe and his group — outright monsters who make even the Governor seem human — the world proves Herschel wrong. Rick absolutely needs to become a monster to protect Carl. Rick effectively becomes a zombie in order to save his son. I think the situation had to be so absurdly, horrendously awful to believably push Rick here, to make it clear that this was literally the only choice he had.
And that's heartbreaking, because now Rick has lost the last thing he'd gained at the prison — his humanity. That sense that it's more important to live than survive. It's been a common theme in the last two seasons of TWD, but the show seems to have definitely answered the question in last night's episode, and to juxtapose Herschel's optimism against the horrible reality is incredibly powerful, even if it is more than a little on-the-nose. Herschel was wrong, and the chilling look that Carl gives as his father repeatedly, brutally, mercilessly stabs his would-be rapist is all the proof you need.
So we've already had a hell of an episode by this point, and it's only halfway through! Now it's time to head to Terminus and see what kind of happy home awaits them there, although the fact that the show has just gone out of its way to show how truly awful the world is might be a tiny hint that not all at Terminus is what it seems.
Rick, Michonne, Carl and now Daryl approach cautiously, watching the compound before sneaking in through the back. There they meet Gareth, a friendly guy with no friendliness in his eyes. He checks their weapons but hands them back to them, and leads them to Mary, who's still cooking at her grill, for a bit of food. Which is when Rick notices one of the Terminus gents carrying Herschel's watch.
While Rick may have been wiser to play along a little bit, instead he grabs Gareth, puts a gun to his head, and demands to know where these people got the watch, as snipers pop up from the roofs and the Terminus people draw their guns. What follows next would be completely silly if Terminus weren't so disturbing — Rick and his mini-posse start trying to run through the compound, but get herded by the Terminus residents' gunfire. "Yakety Sax" would work far too well as they run back and forth trying to find a way out, if they didn't head through extremely creepy places like a room full of gore and bones, followed by a warehouse full of burning candles with "DON'T TRUST" and "NEVER AGAIN" painted on the walls.
Eventually, Rick and the others are more or less pushed outside where a very large group of men in camouflage wielding assault rifles finally puts their antics to a stop. Gareth takes charge, forces them to set down their weapons, and orders them all into a train car, locking it behind them. Inside, Glenn, Maggie, Abraham, Eugene and the rest are already imprisoned, and despite the fact they're all imprisoned, it feels like a reunion, not just to the viewers, but to them as well. Reunited with the others, Rick isn't defeated. "They're screwing with the wrong people," he tells the others — a message of hope, but moreover a message of vengeance against those who hold them. They're back together, but they're also back to just surviving. Will it be enough?
And thus ends season 4, easily The Walking Dead's finest since it began. A season that turned the crappiness of season 3 into a strength, as Rick pulled back from the brink of madness and tried to forge a life for his family and his people. A season with actual drama and conflict, with sensible threats both external and internal. A season that turned the Governor into a credible threat. A season that separated the protagonists, had them wander about almost aimlessly, and gave us some of the best episodes in the show's run. A show that delivered some major shocks that felt wholly earned, but was still a show that, for the first time ever, had more to say than just what it put up on the screen.
Bring on season five.
• I would like to thank whoever at AMC and/or HBO who decided not to air the Walking Dead finale and the Game of Thrones premiere on the same night. Made my job much easier.
• Those still unaccounted for: Tyreese, Carol and Judith are still presumably on their way to Terminus, while Beth is still MIA. Did someone from Terminus grab her? Or someone else? Honestly, I would be super-impressed if they just never had her appear again, but I'd be shocked if that happened.
• Also, did anyone else get the feeling that just maybe Rick and the others would arrive at Terminus and discover Glenn, Maggie and all the others dead? I know it was ludicrous, because we have Abraham and Eugene's story to tell, if nothing else, but that would have been an incredibly impressive shock.
• Was it me, or was the rabbit that Rick pulled from the trap obviously a plush rabbit doll from Toys R Us or something?
Michonne tells Carl about how her son Andre died, when her refugee camp was overrun while her boyfriend and his friend were high and could have stopped it. "I was another monster," Michonne explains, again completely on-the-nose but still extremely effective. Again: Game of Thrones season 4, taking stuff from the previous seasons, and making them more meaningful.
• Rick buries a bag of weapons outside Terminus, just in case. Gee, I wonder if those will come back into play.
• One of the flashbacks includes Patrick, the kid who got sick back in episode one, playing with Legos that Rick brought back for Carl. Carl, meanwhile, would rather clean his gun. Patrick, in a line that will probably go on my tombstone: "I'm not ashamed they're for ages four to 12."