Season finale review: ‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘A’

A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” season finale coming up just as soon as my hunger is a 28 on a scale of 1 to 10…

What a strange season of “Walking Dead” this was, structure-wise. We opened with relative peace at the prison that was disrupted by the virus and all the collateral damage it caused. Then we got a two-week Governor solo arc, followed by a mid-season finale that played like a much belated conclusion to season 3. Then after the break, the show went into some long-overdue character building work with the likes of Michonne, Beth, Bob, etc., with occasional pauses so the plot could be advanced by the likes of Abraham and Eugene, or all the Terminus signs. And we close on a cliffhanger that, given how little time has actually been spent at Terminus so far, feels more like the start of season 5 than anything else.

You can look at the way that “A” flashed back to the time immediately before the season premiere as Scott Gimple and Angela Kang shining a light on the year's big character arc for Rick, and that was a story for the season that pretty much had a beginning (Rick puts down his gun to become a farmer), a middle (the Governor's arrival forces Rick to reluctantly go back to fighting) and an end (more dire circumstances turns Rick into the man who could do what he did to Joe and his gang, and who can be that confident that he is going to mess up the folks from Terminus). But beyond that, this was a season that was all middle.

Maybe that's just Gimple trying to course correct for some failings the show may have had under Glen Mazzara, just as Mazzara had to spend the beginning of his tenure pivoting away from some of Frank Darabont's decisions, and maybe this means that next season – which in theory will be the first time the show will have the same showrunner for complete back-to-back seasons – will have more forward momentum. And as I've said a lot the last couple of months, the show did need some work done to shore up its foundation and make us care about what happens to anyone beyond Rick and maybe Carl and Michonne. Some of that worked, and some of it didn't, but the effort was admirable and probably necessary, even if it meant putting the larger story on hold for a while. (More ideally, a lot of the character work would have been done back on Hershel's farm, or earlier in the prison stay, but you can't have everything.)

Even “A” weirdly split the difference between character and plot, with the first two thirds dispensing with Joe and his crew and acknowledging that Rick Grimes has become capable of some very dark things in the last few years, before our heroes arrive at Terminus, quickly deduce that it's a bad place, then get herded into a train car with some of their remaining friends (and their new friends), and with the periodic flashbacks to happier days in prison to remind us of Rick's journey.

Now, because the episode had the great Michelle MacLaren directing – for the first time since Zombie Sophia wandered out of Hershel's barn midway through season 2 – and because Gimple and Kang have both demonstrated good command of quieter character stories (most recently, Gimple with “The Grove” and Kang with “Still”), it mostly worked even if it left the season feeling incomplete as a whole. The malevolence of Joe's crew and the graphic means Rick used to dispose of them (biting out Joe's carotid and repeatedly stabbing the one who was going to rape Carl) were chilling, and the showdown in Terminus had some of the same spaghetti Western quality that MacLaren and her colleagues so often brought to “Breaking Bad.”(*)

(*) In particular, the way MacLaren made the distance between Carl and the train car seem ever-longer reminded me of Heisenberg's incredibly long walk through the desert near the end of “To'hajiilee,” though the overall intensity of that sequence was understandably much greater than this, given its place in that series' climax, and the relative quality level of the two shows.

So the action was effective, and some of the character beats worked, too, particularly Michonne telling Carl about her time in the refugee camp – and confirming once and for all that her original zombie pets were her boyfriend and his friend. (Information that might've been useful at the time she lopped their heads off, but that was at least one showrunner ago.) I don't know that anything that happened this season pulled me off of my belief that the show might be more interesting if Rick died – though this half-season at least made an effort into working on the non-Rick characters while Andrew Lincoln got some light duty – but if the idea of the final scene is for Rick and the show to once and for all stop dithering about whether he's the leader, whether he's a warrior, etc., then I'm all in favor of that.

As for Terminus itself, it is a very creepy place, and there were an awful lot of hints that the locals may be eating their visitors. Rick's explanation of how the snare trap works fits the location and use of Terminus to a T, there was constant talk of hunger and food shortage, Mary is pretty much only seen looming over the barbecue, and when Michonne asks their tour guide why they let new people in, he says that the “more people become part of us, we get stronger.” This could all be misdirection, but at a certain point I was expecting Rick or Carl to stumble across a “To Serve Man” cookbook.

Whatever they're up to, I hope that when the show comes back in the fall that this battle between Rick's crew and a superior force winds up more interesting than either of the battles with the Governor, and I suppose I'll be curious to see whether Beth was abducted by these people (though their approach seems to be to wait for guests to come to them) and how long it takes Carol and Tyreese to join their friends in lock-up.

Mainly, though, I'm hoping that now that Gimple has a full year under his belt, we can get an actual sustained stretch of “Walking Dead” goodness, rather than the fits and starts the show has worked in for pretty much all of its run. If it's the constant showrunner carousel causing that, things could get very interesting. If, on the other hand, it's just the nature of the material, then you have to be ready to keep taking the good with the bad. 

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at