The Walking Dead: "A" (Season 4: Episode 16) Recap/Analysis | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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The Walking Dead: “A” (Season 4: Episode 16) Recap/Analysis

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Apr 06, 2014 Web Exclusive
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[Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen the latest episode of The Walking Dead, the season finale, "A," then read no further.]

The last time The Walking Dead delivered a season finale, the response was mixed, to put it delicately. In season three, fans wanted a satisfying payoff to the season-long buildup to war between The Governor and the Team Grimes prison group, and what they got was little more than an inept attack, a hasty retreat, and The Governor losing his mind and slaughtering his own army. Fans wanted death and closure. Instead the most meaningful death they got was Andrea's, and many saw that as a poorly executed end to a character who deserved a far better fate. As such, the stakes were just a little bit higher for the season four finale, with nearly all of the unanswered questions from the first half of the season already resolved and the most compelling remaining storylines potentially converging in one episode. For a season as strong (and unconventional) as this one, anything less than the season's strongest episode would be a disappointment. The good news, then, is that "A" should please almost everyone.

To this point, The Walking Dead has used flashbacks sparingly, but "A" opens by transporting us back to what appears to be the aftermath of The Governor's clumsy first attempt to capture the prison. As much of the season (and most of the series) has been spent exploring the question of whether you can retain your humanity after being put through the wringer of the zombie apocalypse, this flashback provides an essential insight into how and why the weight of answering that question fell on Rick's shoulders. Here we learn that Farmer Rickthe unquestioned leader who curiously traded his gun for a trowelwas actually pushed away from the daily grind of leading the group by Hershel. This also introduces the other prominent themes of this season: hope versus despair. As we know, Hershel was the eternal optimist, and here we see him laying out his plans for making the prison their long-term home, a functioning community with a supply of pigs and crops. He'll teach Rick to farm if he'll put down his gun and devote himself to bettering life within the prison fences. His selling main point to Rick? Do this for your son. "He needs his father to show the way," he says in that disarmingly earnest way that he said everything. We know Rick eventually agreedso much so that he was caught flatfooted when the Governor returnedbut now we know why. Rick didn't abdicate responsibility because the stress of leading was too great. He turned over the leadership because he thought it would be best for Carl.

Those moments provide a nice contrast to the dashed dreams and starvation that Rick, Michonne, and Carl find themselves dealing with when the episode shifts back to the present. In a moment ripe with foreshadowing, Rick is now teaching Carl how to set a snare for a rabbit in such a way that it will have no choice but to follow its instincts right into the trap. Carl, however, seems more concerned about what they'll tell the people in Terminus about their past once they arrive. "We're going to tell them who we are," Rick says. "Who are we?" Carl replies. The rest of episode is devoted to that question.

The trio is pushed immediately for an answer, as the snare-setting lesson is interrupted by the shrieks of a man who is surrounded by walkers. Springing into action, Carl begins to run to his rescue before Rick stops him. They simply can't risk trying to save him, so they watch him be torn apart. What kind of people are they? They're careful enough that they aren't going to risk their lives to save one man, especially a doomed one. Still, they're also hungry enough that they're willing to push aside their caution to look to Terminus for sanctuary. Rick knows the community there must be organized and have a system in place to deal with outsiders. "I wonder if the whole thing's legit?" Michonne ponders, remembering that The Governor welcomed people (i.e. her) into his community once, too. But before any more plans can be made, Joe and his brooding band of Claimers arrive, ready for retribution.

When Robert Kirkman described the season four finale as "savage," this is undeniably the scene he had in mind. Having tracked Rick to this spot to take revenge for the murder of his friend, Joe is all menacing one-liners and laughs, happy to make everything right in the universe again. If there was any doubt who Daryl would side with when this moment came, it's quickly erased when he volunteers himself to The Claimers in place of Rick. (This also provides an answer to the question, "How could the writers make Daryl any more heroic than he already is as a character?") Joe is having none of it, however, calling Daryl out on an infraction of their code by labeling him a liar for saying Rick and Michonne were "good people." Daryl's offer rejected, The Claimers' plan for the evening is set in place: first they'll beat Daryl to death, then kill (and presumably rape) Michonne and Carl, then finish off Rick. If you thought depicting the execution of a deranged child was as dark as The Walking Dead could get, it appears they've potentially found a darker shade of black.

In a scene taken directly from the comic, Rick is held with a gun to his head, helplessly seething with rage as a grinning slob fondles Carl. Thrusting himself backward, Rick causes Joe's gun to discharge, ringing his bell in a manner reminiscent of the very first episode of the series when Rick momentarily disoriented himself by shooting a zombie inside a sealed tank. After a brief struggle, Joe picks Rick up in a bear hug, pinning his arms to his side. "What are you going to do now, sport?" he cackles. And in what might prove to be a turning point in his character development, Rick responds with the sort of unflinching brutality that is likely reserved only unleashed in moments when one sees his child being molested. He rips Joe's throat out with his teeth, then chases down Carl's abuser and guts him with a knife, stabbing him so many times and with such merciless ferocity that Michonne, Carl, and Daryl can only stand and watch in stunned silence. Who is Rick Grimes? In this moment, at least, he's an avenging monster.

The next morning, still covered in blood, Rick seems to be in daze. It turns out that he's not troubled by what he did as much as he's conflicted about Carl seeing it all. "Something happened. That ain't you," Daryl says, trying to reaffirm Rick's inherent goodness. Rick isn't buying it. "It ain't all of it, but that's me. That's why I'm here now and that's why Carl is. I'm going to keep him safe. That's all the matters." It's a little scene, one that's likely to be forgotten, but it serves to refocus the show at more or less the place where it started: Rick is on a mission to protect Carl. Whatever he does in the future, however brutal he becomes, that will remain Rick's motivation.

The great mystery of Daryl Dixon, then, is that we're still not entirely sure what his motivation has been throughout the show's four seasons. His stint in The Claimers seemed to indicate that he was largely driven by a desire for belonging, even if it was with a group of violent psychopaths. For this, he now is apologetic, explaining to Rick how he stuck with them because they had a simple code that "wasn't much, but it was something." Rick welcomes him back with no reservations, allaying Daryl's guilt by proclaiming him his brother. Looking like he's going to cry, Daryl says nothing. (This provides the answer to the question, "How could the writers make Daryl any more sympathetic than he already is as a character?")

That alone would be enough for a successful season finale, but there's still the whole issue of Terminus to explore. Still leery of the offer of free shelter, the group scouts out the compound from afar, burying some guns in the woods in case they need them later. Carl, it seems, is keeping his distance from his father, either out of fear or disgust. Sensing this, Michonne decides it's time to tell the rest of her pre-apocalypse story, explaining how her son died because his father was getting high and didn't protect him when zombies overran their camp. It turns out that turning her lover into one of her pets wasn't a clever way of staying invisible to the walker herds, it was a form of self-punishment, a constant reminder of her mistake in trusting her lover to take care of their son. The fact that having zombies on leashes made her blend into them was a mixed blessing, allowing her to become a monster, as unfeeling and dead as they were. Rick isn't a monster, she seems to be saying. He's a good father.

Carl, however, doesn't appear to be particularly troubled by his father's moment of rage. Recalling that Rick told he was proud of him and referred to him as a "good man," Carl confesses that he falls short of that standard. "I'm not. I still have these thoughts," he says troublingly. "I'm not what he thinks I am. I'm just a monster, too." It's unclear whether those words are motivated by guilt over having gunned down an innocent teenager in season three or the cumulative trauma of being surrounded by constant death, but the moment seems to open up a lot of potential directions for his character. Is he tormented by invasive and violent thoughts? Is he doomed to become increasingly callous and hardened, so molded by the circumstances of his life that he can't help but end up an uncompromisingly ruthless adult? Could he grow up to be the kind of person who would set up a trap for other human beings, seeing them as little more than another resource for survival?

At first glance, Terminus doesn't appear to be run by such people. In fact, Rick and company waltz right in through a side door, and no one seems particularly troubled by their arrival. "Are you here to rob us?" asks a well-spoken and polite man named Gareth, but he doesn't appear to be worried about that possibility. Welcoming them to Terminus, he asks them to present their weapons. But unlike The Governor, whose hesitance to allow Michonne to keep her katana tipped her off to his duplicitous nature, the Terminus folks (dubbed "Termites" by fans of the show) allow them to keep their guns. They've been here from the start of the outbreak, a man named Alex says, and people from all around the U.S. have gravitated to their sanctuary. Why do people keep ending up there? "I think it was instinct," he says. "Follow a path." And just like the rabbit in the snare, Team Grimes has ended up in a trap.

Rick is the first to notice, seeing Glenn's watch in Alex's pocket, as well as the riot gear from the prison, Daryl's poncho, and the backpack that once belonged to the man they abandoned on the side of the road. Slapping a plate of food out of Carl's hand, he puts a gun to Alex's head. Gareth shows up to attempt to de-escalate the situation, but he ends up signaling for gunfire, and the group scatters. Soon, it's apparent that the Terminus snipers aren't attempting to hit them at all, instead firing at their feet to herd them down particular alleyways. Listen closely, and you can hear someone say "Keep them off B!" and, sure enough, every room and alleyway they are steered towards has an "A" on the wall somewhere. From the looks of the bullet-riddled cars and walls along the path, it's obvious that they've done this drill before.

Along the way, they pass through an ominously candlelit room with the words "Never Again," "Never Trust," "We First, Always" painted on the wall and what appears to be a makeshift memorial with people's names written on the floor. Eventually, the group ends up at their driven to their destination, surrounded by gunmen on all sides. Gareth calls them out, has them drop their weapons, then sends them, one by one, into an empty train car with an "A" on it. In that car, they're reunited with the members of the prison group (Glenn, Maggie, Tara, Abraham, Eugene, Tara) that reached Terminus in last week's episode, but the mood isn't right for an emotional reunion. Instead, Rick is resolute in his confidence that they will be able to get out of this predicament just as they have every one before. "They're going to feel pretty stupid when they find out," he says, his face in ominous shadow. "They're screwing with the wrong people."

Strong writing, fast pacing, constant action, revealing character developmentthis is what a season finale is supposed to look like. In particular, the use of flashback sequences provides a clever way of bookending the season as a whole, presenting a nice capsule overview of Rick's character trajectory from weary warrior to reluctant farmer to fearless father. The question posed during the first episode of the season was "Do you get to come back from the things you've done?" At the moment that The Governor dropped Michonne's katana across Hershel's throat, it appeared the answer was a definitive "no." Now, however, the answer seems to be a little less clear. Rick may never again be the fair-minded sheriff he was before the zombie apocalypse, and he was naïve to think he could achieve a sense of normalcy by just wishing the outside world away while he tended to the prison yard crops. Instead, Rick Grimes has become something elsesomeone stronger, more confident, more pragmatic. The future of The Walking Dead will likely be the story of how this new man reacts to the dangers that face him.

What this means for the future:

Though series creator Robert Kirkman and showrunner Scott Gimple have been coy about explaining the motivations of the people running Terminus, it seems obvious that they collect people for the purpose of harvesting them for food. "When people become a part of us, we become stronger," Alex says. "That's how we survive." Even more, when the group is running through the Terminus alleyways, they pass storage cars from which you can hear people calling out for help. A little further on, they also run past a cage that has human skeletons in it. When Gareth finally sends them into the train car, he doesn't call them by their names but describes them as "ringleader," "archer," "samurai," and "kid." If you remember, while at the prison, Rick told Carl not to name the pigs because it would make it harder to kill them. Even more, when Rick is stepping into the storage car, he spots an empty bag of powdered milk. That's what farmers use to fatten up calves. There don't appear to be any baby cows around, so unless all of these clues are deliberate misdirection by the writers, it seems a foregone conclusion that the residents of Terminus are surviving by eating human meat.

That said, placing Rick, Michonne, Carl, Glenn, Maggie, Tara, Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita in a railroad car puts them in arguably the most challenging quandary they've faced yet. He could just be high on having murdered a man using only his face, but Rick seems to have a plan in mind for getting them to safety. Does he have a weapon hidden on him? Does he know something no one else does? His bluster is curious considering the apparent hopelessness of their situation.

What you might have missed:

When the group rolls into Terminus with no resistance, Gareth says "Albert" must have been on guard duty. Could "Albert" be a signal to the rest of the Termites that they're supposed to snap into action to keep their new captives on the "A" route? Also, during the standoff in the yard, Gareth uses sign language to signal an "A" with his hands. It appears that Terminus has this routine well-rehearsed.

Contrast that sense of preparation with the relative disorganization at the prison. The flashbacks provide a striking contrast between the kind of community the prison group was trying to establish versus the one they now find themselves in at Terminus. They both want the same thingsecurity, food, stabilitybut one tried to do it through taking in refugees and democratic decision-making, and the other does so by tricking people into becoming their captives. One grows crops and domesticates pigs; the other brings humans in as livestock. Terminus, it would appear, is the kind of community that is built to survive in this world. If so, it seems likely that Daryl was right when he said that "the good people don't survive." Whatever the case, the show is likely to spend much of its future episodes exploring how these otherwise decent people can hope to live without becoming the sorts of monsters they are trying to escape.

This episode also offers a partial repudiation of Hershel's uncompromisingly moral worldview (not to mention the Shane vs. Dale debates of season two). Here, we see Hershel telling Rick that his gun "will only get in the way" of him learning how to farm and create a stable community. It's also strongly implied that Hershel believes that Carl was learning from Rick that one needed to be heartless to survive, suggesting that his father needed to pull him out of that world to reclaim some sense of lost humanity. But if you remember back to the first episode of the season, Hershel was already telling Rick that he needed to start wearing his gun again, implying that he had removed himself too much from the everyday concerns of life and death. At any rate, it was nice to see Hershel one last time on screen and not have his last appearance be his zombified head chewing air. But there's little doubt that the message of this season is that people like Hershel shouldn't expect to last long in this new milieu, that there's always a Governor or Joe waiting to strike. In this case, it was a lesson learned too late.

Questions:

Obviously, we have a lot to learn about these Terminus folks. How, if they really have such a meticulous plan in place to draw in victims, could they be so careless as to allow Rick and company to simply walk in through a side door? Wouldn't someone with bad intentions have overrun them by now? And with so many snipers scattered on rooftops and in the surrounding woods, how did no one see the group scaling the fence to enter the compound? Did the Termites know they were there and simply let the scenario play itself out?

And what was the deal with the candle memorial room? When Rick and company show up, Gareth asks them if they're planning to rob them. This could be the sort of question you ask to make yourself seem innocent and incompetent, an excellent way of seeming like less of a threat than you really are. Or were they actually victimized by a group of roaming thieves? Is the candle room a tribute to the ones that died in that attack? Are the slogans on the walls there to remind them to never allow a massacre of that sort to happen again? Are they so callous toward the outside world that they decided they would see humans as nothing more than walking livestock? We'll find out in season five.

Finally, what will happen to Carol, Tyreese, and Judith when they end up at Terminus? We know they're on their way there, so their arrival should provide a major plot point early in season five. Could they provide a lifeline to the group locked in a train car? And what about Beth? Was she kidnapped by a Termite? Is she currently in one of those train cars? Has she been eaten? Or was she rescued by someone with good intentions? We have about six months to wait until we get the answers.

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Laura Studarus
April 6th 2014
6:19pm

Well done! Can’t wait to read your take on season 5.