On Sunday, March 30th, Season 4 of what has become the most popular show on cable television closed with a bang. Or perhaps a clang, the sound of the sliding door of a train car slamming shut, sealing the series’ most central and longest-surviving characters inside.
A splintered group
Season 4 was a strange ride. It can be boiled down to two half-seasons. In the first half, the main characters still live in the prison, and the Governor was rising to power within a new group and reestablishing himself as a threat. That threat culminated with an attack on the prison, with Herschel being murdered, and the Governor finally getting his just deserts.
If you’ve been keeping up, those events seem long ago. When season 4 picked up again, the group from the prison was splintered, scattered, and reeling. Maggie was separated from Glenn. Rick and Carl had lost the baby. Michonne had lost everyone. Again.
Reason for optimism
But by the end of the episode, all of these characters, along with Daryl and several others, had been reunited. (Well, all of the adults.) They were reunited in a sealed train car, of course, in an armed compound run by cultists, ritualistic cannibals, or worse. If anything could be worse.
More good news: Beth was still alive when last seen. And the baby Judith is alive, and in the good hands of Carol and Tyreese, who have a wonderful track record of surrogate parenting..
Yet the episode ends on an unusually optimistic note for such a grim post-apocalyptic world, and in a show so intent on damaging or outright killing off its main characters.
The episode called only “A” began with a clip of Rick sitting with his back against the car, looking exhausted, bloody, and hurt. Since Rick looked just fine when the action began moments later, it could only be interpreted as a hint of what was to come – and it came quickly.
There was also a flashback to better days, when the group was safe in the prison. Herschel was still alive then, and his reappearance was a treat for the audience, a little like the reappearance of John Travolta’s appealing Vincent Vega character in Pulp Fiction, another story with an elliptical structure.
That structure serves the story well. The tension is ratcheted up by the flash-forward to an embattled Rick, and then emotional depth is reestablished with a reminder of what these characters have been through, and what they have lost. Only then do we rejoin Rick, Carl, and Michonne. In case anyone worried the season would end with nostalgia and plot teases, action ensues quickly.
A happy reunion
Rick, Carl, and Michonne are camping out for the night, having escaped a swarm of walkers, when they are ambushed by a more dangerous enemy: living humans. It’s a group of vicious mercenaries, banded together by the dictates of their leader Joe, and out for revenge. It’s the same group that has adopted Daryl, and of course he has no idea, until it’s too late, that the murderer they’re chasing is Rick.
Well, almost too late. With Rick under the business end of Joe’s gun, Michonne covered by a henchman, Carl having something unspeakable done to him by another, and two more armed men ready to cover Daryl (or beat him to death), it doesn’t seem like any good end is within reach.
But then Rick, trapped in Joe’s bear hug, turns the tables by putting a little too much bite into a hickey, sinking his jaws into Joe’s jugular. Michonne seizes the moment, quickly dispatching her own attacker, and before the mercenaries have recovered from the shock of their lost leader, she has virtually decimated the whole group.
Only Carl’s attacker remains, and Rick deals with him as only a father unhinged by the loss of his wife and baby in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies and murdering thugs would. And it is ugly.
Belying the bloody shock in which we again see Rick following these events, he quickly reestablishes his bond with Daryl. Daryl had difficulties blending into Rick’s group in the early going, especially amid the tensions caused by his unstable brother Merle, and it’s clear from his reaction how much it means to him when Rick calls him his brother.
Perhaps we expect to see Rick emotionally wrecked by the sudden violent attack, the violence directed against his son, and the over-the-top violence he himself committed. We might expect Carl to be traumatized, for Michonne to retreat into the protective shell that kept her alive after she lost her son, and for Daryl to remember he can’t trust anyone but himself.
But none of those things happen. These characters are all survivors. They’re not just physically prepared, and able to fight, but also mentally and emotionally strong. What’s great is that, after 4 seasons, we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen them change, and we know why they’re resilient.
Could anyone really have expected anything positive in a place called Terminus? Is there ever anything not ominous about reaching “the end of the line?”
Not here, there isn’t. The group enters Terminus armed and alert, but quickly drop their guard, like rabbits entering a trap. After a tense but pleasant greeting from the friendly but suspicious locals, followed by an offering of barbecue that may or may have been a fresh take on soylent green, Rick notices Glenn’s pocketwatch (a gift from Herschel, in the flashbacks), plus another familiar item or two, in the possession of their hosts.
The group swings into action, drawing weapons and taking cover. But while the only initial fatality is the guy grappling with Rick, it swiftly becomes clear that the group is outmanned, outgunned, and surrounded. The only reason they survive is that no one is trying to kill them. Instead, they are herded with threats and gunfire. They run around the compound just long enough to give us a creepy tour involving blood, bones, and some sort of ritual, before they are marched into the train car, and once again in prison with Glenn and Maggie, as well as the rest of their bands.
Season 4 ends in one of the darkest moments the show has seen yet. What chance of escape can there be when imprisoned in a small metal box with no weapons in plain sight within a massive, guarded compound?
Yet somehow, Rick is confident. “They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out,” he tells everyone. They watch him intently. Is there something in the corner of the train car? Maybe an exit hatch, or some kind of weapon? “They’re messing with the wrong people.”
What’s great about this line is that we can look around at the people in the car, and see that he has a point. These are people who have faced long odds before, and survived – some in spectacular fashion, in this very episode. Even so, Rick’s optimism is a little hard to understand, given the circumstances.
But it’s contagious.