Insert your regular run-of-the-mill disclaimer here, because it’s time to talk things out. Heavy spoilers ahead.
We’re all hurting a bit. Before people say that nobody saw this coming, let’s take a step back to see how this season fits in with the previous ones. Deaths in The Walking Dead have always been a regular occurrence. At some point we arrived at the prison and slowly but steadily our hopes for a safe haven in this world started looking up.
But that’s hardly what the series is about. In this show, civilization has ended. Moral compasses are a species in danger of extinction. Despair is rampant. We all got that. We all know that eventually we’re going to run out of manufactured supplies. This is humanity on its last breath. Nobody expects a magic reset button… and I certainly hope that there isn’t one. That would feel like cheating.
The idea is that any camp out there is lucky to find anything to survive. So for a while, the prison was a safe haven. For a while, the deaths stopped. We still had background characters we barely knew getting killed. But our core seemed to be safe, with only scares coming at us from time to time. This was the way the show subjected the audience to the same idea of temporal safety that the survivors had.
Life at the prison was not without its risks. Supply runs. Zombies at the gates. Health issues. Sabotage. But considering what the characters had to go through, there was hope. But good things don’t last. Tyreese lost Karen. Carol just got lost, or perhaps she found herself. The group lost the prison. We all lost Hershel.
This season so far has had major turns for some of his characters. Both Rick and the Governor both seemed to escape their unwanted leadership role to end up retaking it. Carol has steadily climbed up the badass ladder until she seemed too much to handle. Hershel had been mentoring Rick so he wouldn’t lose his humanity, so he would put life before death. Unfortunately, the Obi-Wan role was taken to the limit and once Rick learned that lesson, he had to be tested with Hershel himself on the line. Even as he faced that possibility head on, even as the Governor sets steel upon Hershel’s neck, he makes one desperate plea – he’s willing to admit his worst enemy into the compound rather than exposing his people. The Gov then sheds the remaining thread of his “Brian” persona and we once again learn that the worst predator of humankind is still humankind.
Hershel’s enigmatic smile before his execution is the confirmation that Rick is human still. That he’s still choosing scenarios where people live. That there is no ego or pride when his friends are in danger. But his humanity gets tested one more time, and so does his remaining sanity when the Governor takes it all away with one stroke. The Gov never gets to walk into the prison, Michonne sees to that. She doesn’t claim the final blow though. Lilly gets that one.
The theme of this series is dealing with the worst possible feeling of despair. The point of the series is to have hope when there is none – but also to crush you after building you up.
In this world, you can abandon all your morals but that won’t make people follow you. It’s nice when things are going your way and you got walls to hug, but you have to be able to survive when they fall down. Everyone knows the laws of the apocalypse, but the one that we fear the most is that regardless of what you do, things are bound to get worse. Do you prey on those weaker than you or bring them into your camp? Is it worth making yourself stronger so you become a target? Who do you trust? We all like to play the couch strategist in these scenarios.
That final episode even bears fruit on Carol’s labor. The kids she was teaching actually brand guns. That was quite a powerful and controversial image to see one of the kids killing new character Alisha. Also, badass Daryl only needs a grenade to take out a tank. Operator Mitch comes out ready to surrender, but Daryl is quick to show him that taking prisoners is not on the table. In war there are casualties and there are no winners. Only survivors.
Comic readers know the prison was going to fall sometime. Hershel’s death is far more devastating in the series than in the comic book. The Governor is actually crazier in the comic, but far more charismatic in the series. Rick loses his hand in the comic, while in the series it’s just out of commission for now. That last scene really got to me, with the prison being overrun in the background as Rick tells Carl not to look back, taken straight from the end of The Walking Dead, Issue #48.
There’s one scene that happens in the comics that I’ve yet to see. It’s supposed to have happened already at the prison, after Rick has been relieved of command. It’s when he gets to deliver the speech that ends up like this:
You see them out there. You know that when we die — we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead? Don’t you get it? WE ARE THE WALKING DEAD!
– Rick in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Issue #24
The Walking Dead returns on AMC on February 4.
That will do for now.