[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 4, episode 16. There will be SPOILERS.]
Remember when all Hershel wanted to do was plant some soy beans in the prison yard and maybe start transforming a truly dismal location into a place that people wanted to be and to stay and perhaps one day even prosper? And remember how that led to Rick becoming a farmer for about two weeks, before he had to sacrifice his pigs to get the walkers away from the fence; and it was harrowing to see a man willingly destroy something he'd worked so hard to obtain? Have you recalled that, in the end, it didn't really matter because the pigs were the likely cause of the flu outbreak sweeping through the prison, turning the survivors' supposed safe haven into an incubator for walkers and that was just before the Governor showed up and ruined what was turning into a pretty gloomy party anyway?
Well, if you forgot, The Walking Dead season 4 finale, 'A', would be happy to remember it for you, or at least give you a somewhat fresh take on a bleak situation, so as to better bridge the concept of sanctuary between the prison and now Terminus (which, as it turns out, is about as much as much of a safe haven as Darryl's new buddies were traveling bible salesmen). At any rate, Terminus, as many had suspected, is full of well-armed, meat-loving cannibals. Yes, the people taking to the airwaves, promising shelter and plastering the train tracks with maps and signs leading right to them are – if the stacks of human bones are any indication – serving up hunks of human flesh like it's comfort food, presumably stuffing newcomers' stomachs and minds with the idea of plentiful fresh meat, before turning them into the next day's lunch special.
This being the audience's fourth go-round with The Walking Dead, the idea that a group of seemingly charitable, socially minded people would turn out to be sadistic people eaters probably didn’t come with any sense of real shock or even awe. And the same can probably be said for 'A' as a whole. That's not saying the episode was a dud by any means; it's just that serving up people when people are already on the menu – as is the conceit of the entire series – doesn't fill one with a great sense of astonishment.
But it does help make the episode's theme feel more resonant than it has during season finales in the past. And to his credit, Scott M. Gimple managed to get the message of "just another monster" and all the possible variations on that theme through with remarkable clarity. At this point in the particular zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead, immorality is as much of an all-pervading infection as the virus (or whatever it is) that's reanimating corpses all over the place. To a certain extent, everyone is carrying the same diseased integrity, and it's turning seemingly healthy, living people into the kinds of monsters that plan, scheme, and lure their way to getting what they want, rather than shamble around aimlessly until some hapless individuals with heartbeats inadvertently rouse the innate need to feed within a rotting brain.
Time and again, Gimple goes back to the notion that, as a result of the current situation these characters are in, everyone, either living or dead, is in some way a monster – or is incredibly close to becoming one. Rick's flashbacks to when Hershel was teaching him the way of the farmer aren't there just as yet another reminder of what's been lost since the series began; they also demonstrate how the circumstances of the world – as it is for Rick and the other survivors right now – dictates the manner in which people choose to survive, and to live. Michonne's boyfriend and his buddy were responsible for their own deaths, and the death of her child, so she came as close as possible to becoming one of the monsters plaguing the world. Daryl's temporary pack is just a group of thieves and killers, but they had a code; they had figured out a way to make the world function in a way that worked for them. Aside from the wanton killing, and the nightmarish things they were bound to inflict on Carl and Michonne, Joe and his wannabe biker gang were essentially just like every other group in The Walking Dead since the series premiere: just people trying to make it in a world turned upside down. And as the show has often attempted to prove, the easiest way to make it is to become the monster everyone fears. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 'A' also points out – or, Rick, Michonne, and Daryl do, rather – that sometimes, the only way to survive is to become exactly the same thing.
Whether that is the message the series needs to be working so hard to get across at this juncture in its sure-to-be-lengthy tenure is less certain. It is, after all, just a slightly different spin on the same old theme – which became the literal writing on the wall inside the Terminus compound: "Never again. Never trust. We First, Always." That's a terrifically simplified take on the world the show has shown very little of, but it works; primarily because it encapsulates all of the series' major thematic arcs into a compact phrase that describes any story The Walking Dead is likely to tell – whether Scott M. Gimple is at the helm or not.
Still, give credit to Gimple for being the showrunner to understand that the only real option the series has is to boil storylines down to the same base elements and then set them on repeat until the whole thing finally gives out. It's the opposite of aiming for narrative intricacy, but that kind of expansion on concept isn't really in the show's wheelhouse. There's even a meta moment toward the end of 'A' where the group's captor, Gareth, boils down each character to a basic idea of a person, a simple identifier like "ringleader", "archer" and "samurai" that robs them of their humanity, but at the same time, it demonstrates how easy it is for characters and situations on the show to be reduced to straightforward, simple components, and how much better off the show feels when it does precisely that.
There is a wonderful, entertaining simplicity to Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Carl running through Terminus after Rick spots the pocket watch Hershel gave to Glenn not long ago. The unambiguousness of the cannibals herding food toward a train car presents the show with a clear delineation of character and intent that sometimes gets lost when episodes try to make certain individuals feel the weight of their decisions, rather than actually acting on them.
In the end, the survivors are in quite the pickle, but hearing Rick tell his crew their captors are "screwing with the wrong people," feels like precisely the kind of action the show needs from its central characters. As far as the cliffhanger that 'A' leaves the season on, it too is relatively simple, but it produces a effortless, effective, and welcome feeling of excitement and anticipation that the series hasn't had since the end of season 2.
The Walking Dead will return for season 5 in the fall of 2014 on AMC.