“You keep telling yourself you have to do what it takes just until this is all over. But it isn’t over. This is it.”
So this week we bid farewell to The Walking Dead for a little while – till February, anyway. As has been traditional since season 2, the show has taken a mid-season break, giving rise to that new style of cliffhanger, the “mid-season finale”. Compared to previous years – and indeed to this season’s slam-bang opener – this was a surprisingly low key affair, both in action and in stakes. In season 2, the mid-season finale brought an unusual bit of excitement to Hershel’s farm when the barn zombies broke free and we discovered the tragic fate of Sophia; season 3 brought the reunion of the Dixon brothers after Rick’s ‘terrorist attack’ on Woodbury; and season 4 had the spectacular destruction of the prison along with the deaths of several established characters.
Compared to those, this mid-season break was a far more leisurely paced affair, with some action sequences but rather fewer than last week. Instead, reliable old hand Angela Kang’s script focused again on character motivation, using it to drive forward the plot. There was a general air of tension as to the outcome, but this being The Walking Dead, it was never going to end that well.
After last week’s proliferation of plot threads, this week was generally split between just two. Rick’s rescue mission to Atlanta brought his gang into the same narrative as the hospital community, while back at the church Gabriel’s foolhardy foray into the outside world ended with him fleeing headlong back to St Sarah’s, with a horde of Walkers hot on his limping heels.
Of the two, it was the church narrative that felt like a traditional ‘B Plot’, but that was the one with all the Walker action. In essence it was little more than the hackneyed climax of most zombie stories, in which a mass of the undead finally overwhelm and break into the heroes’ stronghold, with predictably gory results. At least director Ernest Dickerson managed to walk this well-worn path with some aplomb, giving us some satisfying head slashing courtesy of Michonne, and one of the more inventive uses of church organ pipes.
And there was some real tension in the sequence, as a mid-season finale usually guarantees the death of at least one major character. For a while, it looked like it might be Gabriel, but then I don’t think we’re all that invested in him as a character yet. Still, at least that school full of locked in Walkers we saw in ep2 finally paid off, as Gabriel foolishly picked over the remains of the cannibal camp in full sight of them till they inevitably smashed through the doors. Lucky Abraham and his group turned up in the nick of time to save the day, in a slightly groan-making emulation of the US Cavalry. And I thought that fire truck had run out of fuel…
The majority of the ep, though, was given over to what was very much the ‘A Plot’, as Rick and his gang tried to carry out their plan to trade hostages for Beth and Carol, while Dawn’s increasingly tenuous grip on leadership at the hospital left Beth in the awkward role of her confidante. Again, there was a lot of tension here, but not all that much action – it felt rather like the eve of a war that ultimately never came.
In the midst of all this, characters on all sides ruminated on how the apocalypse had changed them, not always for the better. Given the situation, you’d think this was an odd time for such navel-gazing, but generally it did seem to arise naturally from what was happening. The theme was set from the beginning as Rick used the police car to ruthlessly mow down the escaped Officer Lampson (“how wouldn’t stop”), earning him the dying cop’s opinion, “you’ve been out here too long”. Whether Rick realises it or not, it felt like the truth. But Lampson too had changed, a point subtly underlined by the blink-and-you’d-miss-it shot of his family photo on the cop car dashboard.
Later, Sasha and Tyreese had a similar exchange, as Tyreese revealed that he could have killed Terminus scout Martin and didn’t, leaving Sasha to kill him at the church. It was, of course, Tyreese who proposed the hostage plan, in opposition to Rick’s favoured bloodthirsty “kill ‘em all” approach. As Sasha noted, “you’re the same, and that’s good; I don’t think I can be, not any more”. In previous eps, the characters who cling to decent, civilised values – Dale, Bob – usually end up dying horribly, so this gave me cause to worry about Tyreese.
Even the cannibals were shown to have once been decent, normal people, as Gabriel picked through their detritus to uncover faded magazines and even a King James Bible:
Which gave us an interesting juxtaposition as he lowered it and the camera showed us what these people had become:
Back at the hospital, the effects of the apocalypse were also mused on, as the cops drew battle lines and secrets were revealed. “I know the good ones from the bad ones,” Dawn explained to Beth, but as events moved on, she turned out to be as bad as any of them.
Dawn was a complex character, and hard to get a handle on; at one turn sinister, at another treating Beth like a best friend and confidante. Christine Woods has done well in the part, making her less of an out and out loon like the Governor, and more somebody, who, again like Rick, hasn’t realised how far the end of the world has changed her; even while she’s lecturing her mutinous officers about how much it’s changed them. Consequently, while lacking the Governor’s charisma, she felt like a more believable character – screwing up left right and centre, hopelessly deluded and allowing her insecurity to lead her to wrong decision after wrong decision.
There were some clumsily obvious moments; the quite effective fight scene involving Dawn and O’Donnell was very clearly going to result in one of them plunging down that open elevator shaft. Since it would rob us of a Dawn/Rick confrontation otherwise, it was equally obviously going to be O’Donnell taking the plunge. It was also fairly clear, when things seemed to be going in our heroes’ favour, that it was all going to go horribly wrong – it was telegraphed from the moment Beth picked up those scissors.
But of course, there are no happy endings in The Walking Dead. So when things did go pear-shaped, it was less of a surprise when Dawn shot Beth in the head than any other outcome, along with her own demise at Daryl’s hands. Beth had been the internet favourite to die this week, and it was disappointingly obvious that she did. For all that Emily Kinney has played it well, Beth’s only got much of a personality since midway through season 4, and then not much of one. Her death didn’t have the dramatic impact that would have hit with any of the other longstanding characters. Indeed, I would have been more shocked if it had been Michonne, and she didn’t join the cast till a full season after Beth.
I was surprised that Rick didn’t take up the offer of staying at the hospital. Since it seemed all the bad apples had now been weeded out, he could probably have been running the place in a week. Then again, it did make more sense than his mystifying decision in season 3 to abandon Woodbury in favour of returning to the prison. This is a very different Rick from the community builder of those days; in fact I wonder if he (or the others) could fit into a community at all now. Perhaps they really have been out there too long.
Gore of the week
As a fairly low key mid season finale, there wasn’t much gore. Still, as ever there were one or two memorable moments. Rick’s offhand disembowelment of one Walker while just casually running past was fun:
Not to mention the implausible but blackly hilarious moment when a Walker, diving towards the disappearing Gabriel, managed to bisect its own head on that handily placed machete:
This may have been a low key, perhaps even disappointing, mid season finale compared to previous ones, and again I’m starting to wonder if the show’s running out of ideas. Four and a half seasons in, and it feels like they may have done all the possible storylines for their post-apocalypse scenario. It was notable that this didn’t end on a cliffhanger so much as just come to a stop; though at least it seems it has, once again, wiped the slate clean of existing plotlines ready for something new. We’ve had deserted, Walker-filled cities; we’ve had weeks of wandering in the woods; we’ve had seemingly idyllic but dubious communities; we’ve had all out war. Let’s hope The Walking Dead can pull something new out of the bag when it returns in February.
At least there was one, very slender, plotline that wasn’t resolved. You might have forgotten all about our brief glimpse of the retuning Lennie James as Morgan Jones after the credits of ep1; I know I had. But he was back after the credits here. Let’s hope he actually starts to play some part in the proceedings when the show returns…