[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
The events in 'Coda' are precisely why it was important for last week's review to heap praise on everything The Walking Dead has accomplished so far in season 5. Last week, the series was beginning to show signs of slowing down, but acknowledging how, for (nearly) seven straight episodes, it had turned a familiar, undead shuffle into something closer to a lively jaunt, airing out some of that stagnant, post-apocalyptic air that had been recirculating for the past few seasons, felt critical before what very well may be a make-it-or-break-it midseason finale.
'Coda' is not a bad episode, per se, it doesn't break anything and it's often visually engaging; it simply runs well below the bar raised by what had immediately preceded it. There's a sense of the show slipping comfortably into some of its less appealing habits. For one thing, the pace of the storytelling became lethargic at best. The energy and urgency that brought Rick and Co. out of Terminus so quickly and compellingly was all but gone (the fact that Carol had been remanded to an unconscious state had nothing to do with that, I'm sure).
Still, the previous episodes demonstrated how well The Walking Dead works when it and its characters create their own momentum. After all, if the dead are walking, it makes sense that the living should pick up the pace and outdo the titular antagonists' momentum. It's a lesson that the show learned twice before, once with the bland domestic idyll of Hershel's farm and again with the cold concrete comforts of the prison. On this show, to remain static is a surefire way to kill the storyline, and slowing down after weeks of demonstrating a new and compelling sense of energy just smacks of portending disaster.
The result of that deceleration, then, was the show needed a jolt to get its system going again, a shot in the arm, if you will – which, on a program like this, translates to a shot in the face. While Dawn Lerner and her crew of cops and indentured servants gave the show the antagonists it desired, they didn't quite fit the bill as the antagonists it needed. Perhaps part of the problem was the series wasn't quite sure what it wanted the hospital staff to be. The idea of conflict within the hierarchy of Dawn's tenuous control splashed around in some familiar morally gray waters. These were mostly good people (and some formerly good people) who had adopted the familiar "whatever it takes to survive" ethos so many groups adopt in this particular hellscape.
The acknowledgment of that code succeeded in drawing a parallel with Rick and his group (though mostly Rick and his recent tendency to kill first and deal with the consequences later), but Dawn's killing of Beth – seemingly by unintentional reflexive action – smacked of the sort of arbitrary character death that has plagued the series in the past. Death comes swiftly and suddenly in this world, and it can often give the series a sense of incredibly high stakes, but the impact of Beth's violent end fell flat, mostly because the parallel the story was attempting to draw never quite reached either of the characters it was intended to illuminate. Neither Rick nor Dawn was afforded an opportunity to acknowledge how their choices and actions, while being in the interest of their group's survival, sometimes perpetuate the conflict they're supposedly eager to avoid. Instead, Beth's death felt cursory, a convenient way to make the end of a stalled plot more memorable. It felt like the writers shifted back into the all too familiar gear of sorrow for the sake of sorrow.
It is hard to say whether or not 'Coda' was too ambitious, or not ambitious enough (after all, it is a bold stroke to take your most interesting character and make her comatose for two weeks). But while last week managed to jump back and forth between various threads and to keep them intriguing enough, here most everything felt labored. For all of the table setting 'Crossed' accomplished, the midseason finale struggled to get everyone to sit down at that table. What should have been a well-organized post-Thanksgiving feast turned into a jumbled assortment of misread table assignments. While an argument can be made why the episode would want to build tension by situating Maggie as close to the hospital as possible, Father Gabriel's walk to discover Bob's half eaten (and overcooked) leg could easily have been excised, in favor of focusing more on the primary task at hand.
The trouble is, when Rick executed Bob (the other Bob) in the episode's opening moments, he effectively killed any potential drama the task at hand was likely to deliver. Instead of a tense negotiation between groups of strangers for whom violence has become a way of life, much of the episode turned into a fairly benign waiting game for the inevitable end scene to come to fruition. Unfortunately, that waiting game was filled with familiar moments of dialogue between two ideologically opposed people. While the conversation Beth has with Dawn in the aftermath of O'Donnell's death was well written, it didn't necessarily illuminate either character's situation; it simply repeated the State of the World lectures characters on this show like to deliver to one another, presumably because in the wake of a zombie apocalypse that's all there is to talk about.
But if the show has demonstrated anything over the first half of season 5, it's that there is more to talk about, and more to do than simply address the current state of affairs. There's a whole world out there that can be exciting and filled with increasingly larger objectives. It's the hope that the second half of season 5 will bring back that sense of momentum. And for everything 'Coda' may have been lacking in terms of an exciting finale, we can at least be thankful the final image suggests the characters won't be standing still for very long.
The Walking Dead returns in February on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC