Let’s get the praise out of the way: I liked what they did with the flashbacks. It’s a neat trick to kill off a major character — a beloved major character — earlier in the season and then shove him back in front of an unsuspecting audience after they’ve made peace with his loss. Never did I like Hershel as much as I liked him last night; it was a clever way to make the viewer feel Rick’s own grief. At first I was left wondering why, after the encounter with the rednecks, Rick would be flashing back to life at the prison rather than to the serenity of life before the zombie apocalypse with Lori and Carl. Then I remembered: No one liked Lori, Rick apparently included. He’d actually rather daydream about growing vegetables while surrounded by flesh-eating monsters than about his dearly departed wife. I also admired their guts in broaching the subject of rape in the redneck scene. There’d be a lot of that in a world as brutal as zombie Earth but the writers, for understandable reasons, have stayed away from it for fear of being accused of exploitation. (Offhand, Shane’s attack on Lori a few seasons ago is the only instance that I can remember.) Making a child the intended victim was even bolder, although you knew the attempt would be thwarted somehow.
So much for that. I feel like a chump after having wondered last week whether, maybe, possibly, if we’re lucky, Rick might be the major character who ends up dead in the season finale. In hindsight, that was foolish. Last night’s episode made clear that this isn’t a show about the zombie apocalypse or even about how people deal with the zombie apocalypse. It’s a show about Rick, whom the writers love unapologetically no matter how bored the rest of us get with him. The theme of last night’s ep was supposed to be Rick’s psychological journey from reluctant leader to coldly ruthless survivor, a la Walter White. But the big set piece, in which poor Carl nearly gets the “Deliverance” treatment from some hooting redneck, didn’t really bring that home. We were, I think, supposed to be horrified on some level at what Rick’s become (again, a la Walter White), but the circumstances of that scene didn’t lend themselves to that. Of course Rick would behave viciously, including tearing out a guy’s jugular with his teeth, to save himself from being shot in the face. Of course he’d savagely murder a man who intended to rape his child. None of this signals a mental or moral break of any kind; it’s all self-defense or defense of an innocent. If he’d had a gun in his hand and had declined to use it because he wanted to use his teeth on the redneck-in-chief, that would have meant something. As it is, what was he supposed to do?
The real significance of that scene to me was as a declaration by the writers that they will not, under any circumstances, kill Rick off. No matter how difficult the situation, no matter how implausible that anyone could survive it, Rick’s coming out alive. Absorb this: You had a gang of battle-hardened men armed to the teeth ambush him, Michonne, and Carl, hold guns held to their temples, and actually begin a countdown to blowing Rick’s brains out — and somehow Rick’s entire crew emerged unscathed while the rednecks were disarmed and slaughtered. They might as well have had a bullet bounce off his chest. The final line in the train car at the end was almost a joke on his own invulnerability: Of course the Terminus gang messed with the wrong people — they messed with Rick from “The Walking Dead.” He could kill all of them with his bare hands and still have enough left to knock Batman out, and probably will before next season’s opener is over. It got so bad last night that at first I thought the snipers at Terminus were trying to kill Rick when they were shooting at him from the rooftops; it seemed perfectly logical on this show that a guy armed with a machine gun firing from 15 yards away somehow wouldn’t be able to hit Our Hero despite using his best aim. I finally realized that they were shooting at him simply to make him run towards the train car (hence the heavy-handed metaphor about the rabbit trap earlier in the show), but that’s where we are on this show now. It’s a Rambo movie with Rick in the title role. I actually thought at one point last night, when he was burying the arms cache outside the walls of Terminus and looking a bit too long at some of his guns, that maybe he was thinking about suicide. That would have been a gut-wrenching but satisfying end to the character; no one could stop the show’s hero except himself, once he’d been irretrievably shattered by the brutality of the world around him. I don’t think there’s been another show on American television that’s had its main character commit suicide. This would have been pioneering. But no, nothing so interesting as that. Rick just wanted to protect his guns before another raid on another defended site.
As it turned out, no one of consequence was offed. (On the contrary, Hershel was brought back to life, so to speak.) I kept thinking it was coming — first during the redneck scene, then when the Terminus crew was herding Rick et al., into the train car, and then inside the train car itself. When they first went into the car, I thought the big reveal was going to be the rest of the gang — Glenn, Maggie, etc — dead and hanging from meat hooks, prepared to be turned into supper for the camp. Imagine that uppercut. Then, when someone began moving in the shadows, I thought maybe Glenn and the rest had turned into zombies and had been corraled by the Terminus people in the train car for whatever reason. That would have been a killer cliffhanger, Rick and Michonne forced to kill their now-dead friends in order to save themselves. Nope. Turns out Glenn and the gang are perfectly fine, just hanging out until Rick gets there and they hatch a master plan to somehow disarm and kill a few dozen heavily armed captors that’ll definitely work. (Maybe a major character will die in next season’s opener, a la the amazing head fake with Kate Mara’s character in season two of “House of Cards.”) It occurred to me that one satisfying ending that would have been true to the “Rick has changed” theme would have been to have Rick, Michonne, and Daryl kill a bunch of Terminus people on suspicion that something evil was going on — only to find out that the people there were sincere in wanting to help new arrivals find safety and sustenance. It would have been Rick’s paranoia, fostered by endless brutality, that blew their chance at what would have been a welcoming community. But no, clearly there is something evil going on — cannibalism was implied with a brief shot of human skeletons — and now we’re left to wonder for months. That’s supposed to be a cliffhanger but it really isn’t because Rick’s already promised to kick ass and take names and, per the rules of the show, when Rick’s in beast mode he’s as irresistible as a tornado. It’s not a cliffhanger, it’s a Rickhanger. Meh.
I checked Twitter after the show expecting to find grumbles about how nothing was resolved, no one died, and we didn’t find out a thing about the big mystery of Terminus after a season-long tease, but all it was was a bunch of “CAN’T EVEN CATCH MY BREATHE” [sic] tweets. The ratings are stratospheric. Nothing’s going to change. Why would it?