Okay, so as good as The Walking Dead has gotten this season, it still isn’t perfect. As proof, I give you “Coda,” a mid-season finale which almost, but not entirely, manages to squander the goodwill the show has been building for itself all fall. A largely tepid 45 minutes that stalls in between moments of knife-twisting, leading up to a shocking finale which reminds us that, whatever else it’s learned, the show still hasn’t given up on its most beloved trick: killing people because it can. Beth’s sudden death was a shock, no question, although I imagine some viewers were expecting just such a gut-punch. There were signs. (I say this only in retrospect; I figured the rescue mission would run into problems, but I didn’t think Beth was going to get a hole in her head, not after all the effort Rick and the others put to rescuing her.) The result is a deflating conclusion to what had been a promising start. It’s not so bad that I’m willing to take back all the nice things I’ve been saying, but it’s disheartening to know that however far we’ve come, there’s always the threat of semi-random, manipulative violence lurking behind every scene.

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What makes it even more frustrating is that “Coda” starts well, picking up almost immediately after Bob 2.0’s attempted escape. We never see how Rick finds out what happens, just the aftermath of that discovery, as he chases Bob down and, when the fleeing man refuses to stop running, hits him with a car. It’s a brutal sequence, but the brutality serves a purpose, subverting the expectations that were created last week, and reminding us that Rick isn’t as nice and cuddly as he used to be. There’s a difference between making hard choices and straight up shooting a guy in the head after hitting him with your car (a guy who, attempt to escape aside, had actually been pretty likable). That’s not to say Rick has become a serial killer, but the sequence makes sense both from a story perspective and from a character one. It’s an unsettling moment that plays off of what’s come before it, and that makes it effective.

Contrast that with the episode’s climax when Beth, realizing Dawn is just the worst, tries to kill her former captor just when everything looked like it had been going okay. It’s possible to see the outline of what the writers were trying for here. Beth’s time in the hospital had already done serious damage to her kinder, gentler side, and her relationship with Dawn was an even more brutal version of her relationship with the doctor, teaching her that some people would take her decency and use it as a tool to manipulate her. “Coda” has a few scenes of Beth and Dawn together, Dawn running her usual bullshit about “this is how it has to be,” and at one point, Beth actually killed a cop who was attacking Dawn, thus strengthening Dawn’s position and establishing a twisted kind of connection between them. The people working behind the scenes were clearly trying to build something here, and Beth and Dawn’s sudden, violent deaths were intended to pay off that build.

Which makes it all the more frustrating how little any of the scenes of the hospital actually worked. The system was never as clearly established or designed as it needed to be to make it a compelling setting, and apart from Noah and the doctor, none of the characters stood out. Gorman, the loathsome cop Beth helped kill earlier in the season, was a standard issue creep, and the guy Beth throws down the elevator shaft this week was just a photocopy with a different haircut. Worse, Dawn was never an interesting or compelling antagonist. The actor’s performance was one note, but it’s hard to blame her, given the dialogue she was expected to spout. Dawn was just another mild variation on the same theme we’ve had a dozen times before, and her struggles to maintain her hold on the hospital population were neither thrilling nor convincingly tragic. There was simply no effective center to the hospital storylines, and the more the season tried to make those sequences work, the more obvious the emptiness became. Bad enough that we had to waste as much time as we did with people we didn’t care about; still worse that we had to lose a legitimately good character in the process.

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It wasn’t all terrible. While Father Gabriel’s attempt to strike out on his own wasn’t all that exciting, his decision to return to the fold (so to speak) made for some thrilling zombie shenanigans, including the loss of the church as a stronghold and the return of Abraham and friends in the firetruck. Gabriel is still a panicky idiot, but his actions didn’t actually get anyone killed, and did give us a chance to see Michonne slicing up some zombies again, so that was okay. Rick’s hostage negotiation tactic were predictably on point, and it was good to see that no one had to make any obvious mistakes for that last scene to end as badly as it did. (Well, okay, it was probably a dumb move to bring Noah into the hospital, but I assume Rick didn’t feel safe leaving someone with a limp behind, and he couldn’t spare to leave anyone else to protect him.) And the actual mechanics of Beth getting killed, and then Daryl jumping up and shooting Dawn in the forehead, were well-done, including the camera tilts that made sure the whole sequence looked creepy and dangerous.

But man, this was a disappointing conclusion. Although maybe that’s to be expected by now; the show’s main strength these days (apart from the always reliable zombie carnage) is in the smaller moments, the character beats and the silent exchanges. We’ve had some great action set-pieces this year, but when it comes to building something up over multiple episodes, the track record is still very hit-or-miss. Beth’s death is shocking, which is to be expected; abrupt, which is also be expected; but it’s hard to shake the feeling that even with all the improvements and smart choices this, deep down, is what the show is really about—jerking us around by killing the people we’ve come to like. Losing the occasional familiar face is often a necessary part of fiction, but that doesn’t mean the deaths need to feel quite so hollow as this one did.

Stray observations:

  • Maggie remembered she loved her sister just in time to see her corpse. Ah, irony.
  • If we needed another reason to hate Dawn, she’s using an exercise bike. In a facility where electricity is at a premium. Such a nice lady.
  • Carol is alive and sad. Eugene is around, I guess? He hasn’t been confirmed dead, anyway.
  • The post credits clip gave us a few more minutes with Morgan, still following Rick and the others’ trail. I can only assume these sequences are leading up to some kind of a reunion, but for right now, I’m just enjoying watching Lennie James do his thing.

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