The Walking Dead’s fourth season finale was the most terrifyingly intense hour the show has produced all season—so why do people feel robbed?
No major characters died. Nagging questions remained unanswered. (Where is Beth? How do we still not know what Terminus is?) Serene flashbacks to the group’s earliest days in the prison, just as peace settled in and Rick gave up his role as leader, made up about half the episode. And the other half comprised of situations so tense, it seemed like they must be escalating toward some bursting point—which, except for Rick’s newfound resolve to kill or be killed, never came.
But abrupt ending aside, “A” was a deftly executed game of suspense. Whatever half-answers we got about Terminus raised ten times more questions, luring us deeper. It was impossible to know if this episode would be the last for any protagonist, so each increasingly dire situation—being ambushed by the marauders, or hunted down by Terminus snipers—felt genuinely nerve-wracking. And, maddeningly, “A” ended on a cliffhanger, just as a potentially explosive confrontation was about to go down.
The episode was also unprecedentedly dark—even for this show. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) stopped his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) from saving a man’s life, then watched his face get ripped off by walkers. Carl was almost raped by a stranger; we saw him scream and claw in the dirt, trying and failing to escape his attacker. Then Rick literally tore open a man’s jugular with his teeth and stabbed his son’s near-rapist to death over and over again—all, for the first time, without any remorse. Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead wants you to know, is no Officer Friendly anymore.
That was the episode’s main intent: To introduce us to a new Rick. The Walking Dead’s main protagonist has spent the better part of two seasons anguishing over whether he is a fair leader, a killer, or just a peace-loving farmer—a conflict this episode resurrects through flashbacks to when Rick first resolved to avoid violence. He talks to Hershel about starting a farm and worries about what effect he’s had on Carl, who seems more desensitized to murder every day (Remember the boy Carl killed, even after he was unarmed?). 'Flashback Rick' is meant to stand in contrast with the Rick we see at the end of “A,” the one who’s finally made up his mind about what kind of man he is: The kind who, in order to protect people close to him, would do anything (or kill anyone).
“A” picks up with Michonne (Danai Gurira), Rick, and Carl as they advance toward Terminus. Joe’s (Jeff Kober) group of marauders tracks them down and attacks, determined to murder Rick as vengeance for their friend, whom Rick strangled in a bathroom. Daryl, face-to-face with Rick for the first time since the prison was overrun, realizes his mistake and offers to sacrifice himself instead. Then the shit hits the fan: Joe’s men knock Daryl to the ground and begin beating him to death. Carl’s attacker finds him hiding in the truck and drags him out to toy with him. Michonne is overpowered and a gun pointed at her chest. And then Rick goes cannibal. The scene—one of the most traumatic in the show’s history—ends in a massacre of every member of Joe’s group, then Rick, Carl, Michonne and Daryl back on the road to Terminus, the “sanctuary for all.”
Except that that “sanctuary” has snipers on every building roof. And someone has S.W.A.T. armor on. A girl is wearing a poncho a lot like Maggie’s and one guy has the same type of pocket watch that Hershel once gave Glenn. It takes around seven seconds after meeting Mary (the “we’ll make you a plate” barbeque lady), before guns are pointed in the group’s faces and Rick is threatening to kill unless someone gives up where Glenn, Maggie and the others are. Gareth—a twenty-something who, amid the grit of the zombie apocalypse, shows up with the haircut and sunny attitude of a Google employee—herds them, one by one, into a cargo container. Painfully, Carl is left for last. Separated from all the adults, his walk to the container under the guns of a dozen strangers lasts eons.
Then, surprise: Glenn, Maggie, Abraham, Sasha and the others are in the cargo container, too. And, having just watched his son almost get murdered again, something seems to have changed about Rick.
He announces that the people of Terminus are going to “feel pretty stupid when they find out.” “Find out what?” Abraham asks. Staring out at his new captors, Rick answers with a strange new note of confidence, “They’re screwing with the wrong people.”
This new Rick, we are meant to understand, is no tortured, ambivalent leader. He’s reconciled with the fact that sometimes, he’s a monster. He would rip a man’s throat open because that man was keeping him from saving his son—and, like it or not, that’s the big reveal of this season’s last episode. No one died (something of a Walking Dead record, as no major protagonist has kicked the bucket since Hershel, a whopping eight episodes ago), but a new Rick was born. We still have no idea what Terminus really is, but we can bet Rick’s plans for it aren’t pretty. It’s less than we usually have to go on for the summer in between seasons, but it’ll be enough to bring millions back for more in October.