The early buzz on this season finale was that Rick was headed toward a new low — hard to imagine, given what he’s already been through. The opener shows us two sides of the man. There’s the Rick from the good not-so-old days, when he dabbled in pacifism and prison farming. And there’s the Rick of today, the guy who watched his crops and his concrete sanctuary go up in flames, saw his mentor decapitated, and lost his infant daughter. That’s the guy with the thousand-yard stare and the blood smeared across his face we see in that opening sequence. That’s the Rick they’ll need if they have any hope of surviving Terminus.
Most of what matters happens in two scenes — Rick’s run-in with Daryl’s gang and the Terminus showdown. The episode begins with a flashback, which we return to a few times for a few reasons. Practically speaking, they remind us (as if we needed it) of the watch Hershel gave to Glenn and his armor, key details that lead to the Terminus rumble. We see Rick’s attempt to preserve what’s left of Carl’s innocence, given that the kid would rather clean guns than play with Legos or flirt with the last cute girl that’s even close to his age. There’s more talk of pig-raising and planting crops, which echoes Rick and Michonne’s talk about how hungry they always are and that every conversation these days is about food (we’ll come back to that later). And we’re reminded that if you try to live a civilized life, as Hershel did, you will figuratively and literally lose your head.
Just when it seems Rick, Michonne, and Carl can rest, along comes Joe and his merry band of Sons of Anarchy extras to ruin a quiet night of chit-chat. Joe is a rather meticulous timekeeper, as he not only knows it’s New Year’s Eve, but does his best Dick Clark impression, counting down to midnight. “The balancing of the whole damn universe,” he calls their reunion, as his pistol rests against Rick’s head. How was Joe so damn sure that Rick killed his pal? I thought the thug who saw Rick under the bed was killed, but he must have just been knocked out cold; otherwise, no one else in the group laid eyes on him.
Joe is right about a “reckoning,” only it’s Rick who delivers it. A short while ago, Rick bought into Hershel’s utopian optimism. Now the scales have tipped completely. He’s willing to do anything to save his son, who’s held face-down on the ground by a giggling dirtbag pedophile (at least that’s how I read him, as something about his grinning and Carl’s squirming suggested more than death awaited the young Grimes — not to mention Joe’s line that they would “have” Carl). Rick unveils a new tool in his survival kit — the Jugular Chomp, as he takes a meaty bite out of Joe’s neck, exposing his jugular and sending everyone — friend, foe, and viewer — into stunned silence. (Insert joke about Rick’s hunger here.) Carl’s captor gets it worse, as Rick guts him like a fish, slicing him from stomach to throat. The survivors watch in horror and we hear the wretched sound of Rick shanking him over and over. The next day, Daryl reassures Rick that he would have done the same thing. Rick says no, dude, probably not; that shit was really extreme. It’s a late answer to the question Hershel posed to Rick at the prison: “What way are you going to show [Carl] … what’s his life going to be? What’s yours?” Right now, Rick’s traveling down Not F’ing Around Boulevard at high speed.
Before they arrive at Terminus, Michonne reveals her son Andre’s fate, and that yes, her original “pets” were her boyfriend and her pal. That’s what happens when you get high before a zombie raid and your child dies as a result; stoners do not fare well in this world. Michonne also has the badass moves of the night — shooting her sleazeball captor in the face with his own gun and casually flicking gore off her sword after a walker kill. Daryl doesn’t do much besides deliver a strangely incomplete status report on “Bethy” (as Hershel apparently called her sometimes) — rather than say “she was kidnapped by someone in a hearse after we were set upon at a funeral home by a horde of zombies,” he simply tells Rick she’s “just gone.”
And then, finally, we’re inside Terminus. To Rick and the show’s credit, he enters through the woods along the side rather than waltzing up to the front gates. He also stashes a bag of guns and ammo, which is wise, considering his luck with strangers and shelters lately. From the moment we see the post-apocalyptic NPR studio, something doesn’t seem quite right. Gareth doesn’t pass the smell test either — too serene, too laid-back for a guy who’s just watched four armed outsiders breach their walls.
Outside, as Mary the post-apocalyptic Top Chef serves up chow, Rick notes a few familiar items, including Glenn’s body armor and Hershel’s pocket watch. But when the gunfight breaks out, the snipers don’t shoot to kill — instead, they corral. Rick’s posse runs into a building marked A (a symbol we see later and the title of this episode), and on the other side, they find a very different Terminus. Gone are the sunflowers and clotheslines; here, it’s burned-out cars and bullet holes. This is not the first time the Terminus snipers have herded visitors.
From there it only gets weirder. They run past a fenced-in pen littered with bones and scattered entrails. They find a room lit with candles like some dystopian worship hall (décor by Bath & Body Works), with names scrawled on the floor and a credo on the wall that’s part inspirational, part psycho-paranoid: “Never again. Never trust. We first, always.” Then outside, the final showdown, as Gareth — who’s not great with names — directs the Ringleader, the Archer, the Samurai, and the Kid into a train car marked with a large white A.
What was mostly a solid episode should have ended with a roar. Instead, it goes out with a sad trombone as Rick reveals what he says the Terminus folks are going to find out: “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Dun dun DUN! The problem with the “Rick is back” story line is that it already happened. Rick lost his wife, started hallucinating, and turned into a borderline pacifist. The Ricktatorship crumbled. Then he snapped out of it and begrudgingly took the lead again. For the second half of this season, he’s been recovering from the Guv’s beatdown and seemed permanently broken. I like the Extreme Rick, allowing his lizard brain to take over in the name of survival. (In that sense, he’s much more like Carol now.) But I fear that when Judith eventually turns up, he’ll go soft again and start blabbing about his humanity. Regardless, I’m glad he didn’t die. At least he’s interesting again.
We also have a fairly clear idea of what’s really happening at Terminus. The last clue arrives as Rick, on his way inside the train car, notices empty powdered-milk cartons; whoever’s held captive is being fed. Add this to all the references to eating and hunger, and the Terminus tradition of a first (or last?) meal for newcomers. Then there’s that boneyard, which appeared free of decayed zombie rot, and the cries of “Help us!” they heard, likely from another train car they passed by. Maybe the secret behind everyone’s Zen attitude at Terminus is that they’re never stressed out by dangerous food runs — they bring fresh eats to them, via advertising (billboards and a radio broadcast) instead of hunting. Mary’s BBQ could be the Soylent Green of the zombie apocalypse, and the names in the candle room serve as tributes (or simply menu items: “Humans. It’s What’s for Dinner”).
Looking back on this season, the promising first half gave way to a disappointing back-eight. Ensemble shows usually suffer when the leads are separated (Game of Thrones being the most spectacular exception) and all of this wandering around with such little payoff took a toll. Carol’s back, Lizzie and her sister are dead, Beth is gone, and Rick’s tapped into his inner Hannibal Lecter. Not much else happened, until the gang found yet another safe haven that isn’t really safe at all. Tyreese and Carol are poised to aid Rick’s captives (that bag of guns should help, too). There’s also Eugene’s theory on what caused the zombie pandemic, which we should learn next season. One thing that’s guaranteed: The lesson of Terminus will not be “Trust absolutely no one in this undead hellscape,” since that’s essentially the Terminus candle-room motto. Instead, Rick and his weary band will continue to fight both the monsters trying to eat them — zombie and otherwise — as well as the monsters within themselves. Deep, right? Busting out of Terminus will take a while, but hopefully they’ll head to Washington soon. A change of scenery, a unified cast, and a wee less heavy-handed existential angst would be welcome. And if they make it to D.C., they’ll have plenty of experience dealing with liars and megalomaniacs. Let the campaign begin now: Michonne for President of these Zombie United States.