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The “Is Rick a farmer or a warrior?” character arc was never going to work. It seemed forced from the beginning, and it never really improved. One of the strongest elements of season four has been the writers’ concentrated effort to get into the heads of the show’s ensemble, to make these people more than just potential victims who sometimes have cool weapons. By and large, these efforts have worked: Michonne has gone from glowering potential to a reliable source of warmth, insight, and badassery; Daryl is more complicated than just a competent character in a sea of fools; and Carl is, well, kind of likeable now. But with Rick, it’s been frustrating, because the fundamental crisis he’s struggling with never really made much sense.

“A” threads in several flashbacks to Rick’s time at the prison, showing how Hershel pushed him in the direction of farming. Hershel’s argument was that Carl needed a father who could teach him more than just how to shoot things. That’s a fine sentiment. But this is a show which relies on the constant threat of assault and murder to move forward. For Rick to pretend otherwise just puts him a position of denial that will inevitably be broken, and that breaking isn’t even particularly complex. I made a joke on Twitter that The Walking Dead is one of the only shows I can think of where violence is always the answer. That’s an oversimplification, but not by much.

Take the confrontation with Joe’s gang that serves as the first half of the episode’s climax. It’s a tense, nerve-wracking sequence; this is a finale, after all, and while I’d be surprised if Daryl was killed, the rest of the group are potential corpses. (I think I’d actually be more upset if Michonne died at this point, but that’s just me.) But more than that, the threat of sexual violence—against both Michonne and Carl—makes this something more horrifying than another walker attack. It’s yet another reminder that this is the way the world is now, and growing radishes or whatever isn’t going to change that. It’s not a fun lesson, and that grimness is always going to hold the series back in the end, I think; it’s a show about ambulatory corpses that rarely finds the absurdity in anything, and that constant march towards despair and destruction, combined with the knowledge that every season brings with it the promise of more familiar faces getting eaten, shot, or otherwise destroyed, means this won’t ever be something to recommend without serious reservations. In a weird way, it reminds me of the slasher movies of the ’80s, and how the sequels only ever taught one lesson: you survive this movie to die in the next one. And so on.

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At the same time, the fight with Joe’s group was plenty thrilling to watch, because it turned Rick’s struggles with his conscience into a kind of a metaphor for Hulking out. It wasn’t just that Rick was trying to be a kinder, gentler human being. It was that Rick unleashed is a monster, willing to do anything to protect his son, including bite the neck of the man who took them captive (bye Joe!) and gut the guy who was trying to rape Carl. Rick struggles a bit with his conscience after, and the sequence is composed in such a way (including that disorienting whine when a gun goes off near Rick’s ear) as to suggest that something is happening to him, some fundamental shift in his personality. Like, oh i don’t know, what happens when Bruce (or David, if you like) Banner finally loses his temper at the assholes of the world and goes full green. But as with the Hulk, when that snap finally comes, it’s basically a good thing, whatever Rick thinks about it. Tearing out Joe’s throat is a vaguely zombie-ish thing to do, but when the alternative is watching your son and friends brutally murdered in front of you, what else can you do?

While “A” keeps throwing out the flashbacks (oh hey, Patrick! Hope you enjoyed those Legos), it feels like the vestiges of a plotline that’s no longer relevant. While there may be a reckoning of some kind down the line (Carl’s comment that he’s “just another monster” is suggestive, to say the least), for right now, Rick’s decision to give up farming plays as an unquestionable good. Thankfully, the writers seem to realize this, and as the episode goes on, the visions of a happier past exist mostly to remind us that Hershel’s dream isn’t ever going to work out, because Hershel is dead. Rick looks stunned after the fight with Joe and the others, and the shot of him (first seen in the cold open) leaning against a jeep, his face covered in blood, seems to suggest he’s lose some essential piece of himself. And yet as things play out, it’s more like he’s made up his mind about who he is, and he’s okay with that. He tells Daryl that nobody else would’ve done what he did, but that maybe that willingness to go all the way—to bite into the right throats, so to speak—is what kept him and Carl alive all this time. Sometimes people turn into monsters. The trick is to find someone else who can bring you back.

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Which leads us to Terminus, where they eat people. As reveals go, this was one of the show’s better moments; everything seems fine, the new group (Gareth, the leader, says mostly all the right things) is welcoming and respectful. But maybe they’re just a little too welcoming. The scene outside by the barbecue pit turns into one of those “Find what’s wrong in this picture” games, as Rick notices Glenn’s riot gear and several other familiar objects being worn and used by strangers. And of course their guide just happens to have Hershel’s (now Glenn’s) pocket-watch, in case you wanted a little symbolism with your human flesh casserole. It’s tense and well-constructed, as is our heroes’ desperate run through the camp; nobody dies (well, apart from the guy Rick took hostage), which is something of a surprise, but it’s good to have a unifying threat again.

It’s no big surprise that “A” ends on a cliffhanger, but what is surprising is how almost hopeful that cliffhanger feels. Next season, we’ll probably have to go through hours of soul-searching about whether or not it’s possible to do the killing you need to do to survive and still hold on to your soul, before circumstances contrive to force everyone to kill again. And it’ll probably feel tired and a little sad. But this episode’s best moments are when it puts the forced morality lessons aside and just revels in being pulpy and kind of crazy and willing to do what it takes. I’m all for morality, but only when the questions raised are ones where it’s possible to have actual complex answers. The Walking Dead can’t really do complexity. It can do good guys and bad guys, winners and meat. The more it embraces that fact, and the more we’re allowed to cheer when Rick says, “They’re screwing with the wrong people,” the better off we’ll all be.

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Stray observations:

  • Rick really should’ve said, “They’re fucking with the wrong people.” I mean, I get why that wouldn’t work (the line would’ve been a joke if it had been partially censored), but “Well, we’re trapped by a group of cannibals and I’m trying to rouse the troops!” doesn’t really call for “screwing.”
  • So Beth is “just gone” Daryl? Really? Not, “She was kidnapped by someone in a car, I chased her and lost the track, but she’s still out there somewhere, probably.”? I almost wish that was the last we ever see of the character—it would be stupid, but hilarious in a way. Everybody else dies, Beth just rides off into the sunset.
  • “A” was directed by Michelle MacLaren (her first episode for the show since 2011’s “Pretty Much Dead Already”), and as ever, she did not disappoint. The two big action set-pieces were terrific, but there were plenty of fine smaller moments as well. (I liked how the shadowy figures in the train car faded into few at the end. We knew who they had to be, but still.)
  • Well, now we know what happened to Michonne. No huge surprises, but it’s a good little monologue
  • Carol, Tyreese, and Judith are still out there, unless they arrived at Terminus before the rest and have already been eaten. (I will bet cash money that this did not happen.)
  • See you next fall!

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