A child murdering a parent who can’t let go is an old gag in horror but a good one. The zombie version goes all the way back to the original “Night of the Living Dead,” when the Coopers had the bright idea of leaving their deathly ill daughter in the basement and then couldn’t bring themselves to destroy her when she reanimated. “The Walking Dead” played with the concept when it had the Governor imprison rather than kill his zombified daughter Penny because he couldn’t bear to lose her, or what was left of her. It’s a cinch, I think, that if and when the time comes for Carl to depart TWD, it’ll happen after he’s “turned” and Rick is forced to dispatch him. Writers keep coming back to this because the tension between a parent’s love for a lost child and the imperative to destroy the undead mercilessly is irresistible. So irresistible, in fact, that even when you know it’s coming, as we all did in last night’s FTWD, it works — or rather, it almost works. The problem last night was that they didn’t explore the poignancy of the moment. Willa turned pretty much as soon as mom gathered her up in her arms, leaving no time for grief. If you want to milk the “murderous child” horror scenario for maximum pathos, watch “Pet Sematary” (which wasn’t a zombie movie but pulled this trick off effectively) and follow its lead. You need at least a few minutes of screen time coping with the child’s death to fully leverage the tragic horror of its reanimation.
I think they redeemed themselves, though, with that final shot of a now zombified mom lurching down the pier towards her two sons. It’s the same emotional dynamic, more or less, as the “murderous child” but because we spent plenty of screen time with the mom (whose name I forget), and because her character was defined by her fear for her family, it was affecting to watch her become the threat to her children that she worried about. I really liked the elliptical ending too, leaving Seth and the little boy standing on the pier over their now-dispatched mom as the boat pulled away. What’s become of Willa and George back in the house? What will Seth and his little brother do now? I suspect we won’t see these characters again so you’ll have to fill in the blanks yourself, making the episode more like a short story than a piece in a larger narrative. It’s part of the series only in the sense that the series’ main characters played a small supporting role. I can’t think of a single instance where “The Walking Dead” has done something like that. They’ve had episodes that didn’t focus on the main group, but that’s only because they were focused on individual members of the main group off on their own adventures. (E.g., the episode where Daryl and Beth were out on their own.) The only exception I can think of is the short arc a few years ago when the show followed the Governor, but the Governor was part of the core cast even if he wasn’t a member of the Grimes gang and the writers were obviously setting him up for a confrontation with the Grimes gang down the line. I don’t think last night’s episode was setting us up for anything. It was self-contained, a vignette about one family’s tragedy during the end of the world. I’m a big fan of that idea, that the zombie apocalypse is bigger and more interesting than the exploits of one small group of people. “The Walking Dead” gave up on that long ago but this show seems intent on opening up the canvas a bit. Putting them on a boat, where they can cruise into a new short story every week, is a nifty device for doing that. Especially since there are exactly one and a half interesting characters among the core cast.
And no, there’s nothing inconsistent about enjoying the elliptical ending last night and bellyaching endlessly about bogus cliffhangers in “The Walking Dead.” Cliffhangers aren’t really elliptical, especially TWD-style cliffhangers where no one’s fooled by the peril into which core characters are placed. You don’t need to wonder whether Daryl will survive when he’s shot point blank from behind. He’s Daryl. He’ll survive. You could tie him up, stick a grenade in his mouth, and pull the pin and he’d survive by spitting it 200 yards somehow. Even a well-done cliffhanger, though, is about suspense, raising the tension one week and then easing it the next. Last night’s ending wasn’t about cooking up suspense, it was about capturing the uncertainty of what’s left of civilization. Seth and his little brother are going to go it alone on the island, and … they’re probably not going to last long. Letting the boat pull away is them embracing their fate. Life in the zombie apocalypse, man.