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As its title ("Coda") suggests, the mid-season finale was bound to be the end of the line for someone — the question was, which cast member would be doing a lot of farewell Q&A interviews today?
Rick’s plan (well, technically, Tyreese’s plan) to trade prisoners nearly goes off without a hitch. Then Dawn makes a last-second demand that leaves her stabbed and shot in the head — but not before she kills Beth. Norman Reedus had described this episode as “devastating.” As a viewer, I don’t completely agree. Granted, it had a few jaw-dropping moments, and the death of any longtime cast member (especially an O.G. who goes back to season two) feels like a gut-punch. Was this chapter a nail-biter worthy of what’s been a fantastic season so far? Yes. But of all the survivors from Rick’s crew (not counting the Sarge’s platoon), Beth is the one they, and we, will miss the least.
That’s a cold assessment, I know. Maybe Rick’s rubbing off on me. The opening scene establishes that, once again, Rick is blurring the line between good guy and bad guy. With Bob Lamson on the run, Rick’s in hot pursuit — not even disemboweling a zombie slows him down. (Of course there is no need to gut that walker, other than to give viewers the dry heaves.) Lamson didn’t get the memo that Season-Five Rick Grimes is not screwing around. But I didn’t think he’d run the guy over and send him flying headfirst to the ground. Note Rick’s line as Lamson twitches: “You can’t go back, Bob.” That’s what Gareth told the other Bob while he was eating his leg. (It also explains something that seemed odd from a writer’s perspective — why introduce another character named Bob? Probably so that this moment would resonate.)
Just as Gareth’s line returns, so does Father Gabriel, who would win a vote for Most Annoying Survivor by a landslide. He decides to limp over to the school where the Terminus posse had their cookout because, as he tells Michonne, “I had to see. I had to know.” What did you need to know, Father? The man came back without one leg. Well, Gabe gets what he wanted — a close-up of the maggot-infested Bobmeat on the barbecue pit. He also leads a horde of zombies straight back to the church. What justice it would have been if Gabriel was left to die clawing at the doors of his holy house, begging for mercy, just like his own parishioners did. But Michonne and Carl save his bacon. Father Gabe doesn’t even deserve an assist on that sweet kill, as the zombie trips and falls on his machete.
The scene at the church is most important for the heartbreak it sets up later. Just as the walkers are about to tear through the doors, in comes the Sarge, who uses the fire engine as a barricade. Michonne and Maggie swap news, and the look on Michonne’s face as she hears Eugene was full of shit is classic — a “GTFO” frown that suggests she’s not very surprised to learn there’s no light at the end of this tunnel. But it’s what she tells Maggie that takes on a cruel significance — Beth is alive. Even though Maggie has shown no concern for her sister’s well-being thus far, she’s appropriately overjoyed.
That doesn’t last long. Back at Grady, Dawn makes time for some stationary biking — cardio is essential for surviving a zombie apocalypse — and admits she killed her mentor, the guy who used to run Grady. As soon as that other creepy cop, O’Donnell, shows up in the hallway near an open elevator shaft, you knew someone was headed for a fall. For a moment it’s hard to figure out who’s the villain here, as Dawn reminds O’Donnell that he beat up an old man and laughed about a rape. When Dawn gives him a throat chop and Beth sends him flying, it seems that maybe, just maybe, Dawn is redeemable.
Cue the prisoner swap, as Rick’s crew presents their terms in a most badass way:
“Where are your people?” asks one of the Terminus patrolmen.
[Walker behind him is shot dead by one of Rick’s rooftop snipers]
Says Rick, without missing a beat: “They’re close.”
The hostage-exchange scene that follows is as intense as any we’ve seen, and it’s moments like these when the show is at its best. No zombies necessary: just human drama and the threat of mortal consequences. (Note for those who pay attention to the commercials: The Talking Dead preview, teasing an unnamed guest cast-member, pretty much confirmed that someone was going to die in the end.) The swap goes smoothly until Rick does something unwise — he turns his back on Dawn. That’s when she springs a surprise demand. She wants Noah, too.
Why wouldn’t Rick say, “Sure, take him”? I mean, he just crippled an unarmed man and then shot him dead. Maybe it’s because without Noah’s help, they may never have found Carol and Beth. Or the fact he’s a kid. Or that Rick is still a baby-cradling softie who’ll later invite the rest of the Grady Bunch to join him if that strikes their fancy. I think it’s probably just the principle, above all else — Noah wasn’t part of the deal. Noah agrees to give himself up. But we know Beth has something up her sleeve, literally.
Before Beth prison-shanks Dawn with her scissors, she whispers ominously, “I get it now.” What did she “get”? Seems it’s simply that Dawn isn’t interested in doing something “important” at Grady. She just wants to stay in charge. By demanding Noah’s return, she proves she’s still the alpha, and that, as she told Beth, “They always come back” one way or another. So Beth does what the wussbag security crew couldn’t. (All it would take was for one of them to shoot Dawn in the back, and everyone would be happy — they’re free of her tyranny and Rick leaves with all his peeps.)
Once again, Beth proves more interesting in what she draws out of other people than as a character herself. After Dawn blasts Beth in the head, the favor is immediately returned, even as Dawn says, in slow motion, “I didn’t mean it.” The Grady cops call a truce, saying the whole showdown was Dawn’s deal, not theirs. And then, of course, the fire truck pulls up, just in time for Maggie to see Daryl emerge with her sister’s limp body in his arms. Maggie unleashes eight episodes' worth of pent-up anguish at the sight.
Now it’s time to ponder whether Daryl saw Beth as a little sister or something more. Either way, he showed the tender side that’s always just beneath his bad-boy exterior. (On a more gruesome note, considering that Dawn’s gunshot exited the top of Beth’s skull, how did she even have a face as Daryl carried her out?) It also looks like none of the Grady Bunch members took Rick up on his offer to join him.
In the end, the episode was surprising on two levels. I figured we were being set up for major bloodshed in this one, and that at least two major cast members would say good-bye. (My money was on Father Gabriel and one of the Grady captives. Imagine if Carol, now that she’s become something of a fan favorite, died instead?) It also tied up this first half more neatly than expected, with no real cliff-hangers other than the question of what’s next. We also see that Morgan is still on their trail, thanks to those handy Terminus tree-markers. Now that he’s seen the Sarge’s note to Rick, perhaps he’ll be more motivated to pursue them. It also suggests that Rick’s crew will set out toward Washington, D.C., after all, at least initially. Perhaps the biggest question looking ahead is this: Will the back-half of season five be as satisfying as the first eight?
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