Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘The Walking Dead’ caps off with a shocker

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Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for the fifth season of “The Walking Dead.”

“The Walking Dead’s” fifth season, a perfect balance of slow-burn tension and riveting action, concluded its winter season as a quietly brewing maelstrom awoke. The first eight episodes have returned AMC’s apocalyptic juggernaut to rare form, seen only in glimpses since its marvelous first season. Not since its freshman year has “The Walking Dead” been so consistently frightening, surprising or compelling. Director Greg Nicotero launched the season into motion with the destruction of Terminus, while stellar writing and acting kept the tension brewing until Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and company descend upon Grady Memorial Hospital to rescue Beth (Emily Kinney) and Carol (Melissa McBride).

“Coda,” a chilling midseason closer, opens as Rick speeds after an escaping cop from the hospital. Coldly, Rick runs him over and breaks his back. Following a quick exchange, he guns down the cop and snarls, “Shut up.”

If season four was about shifting toward the role of a hardened survivor, season five has been about settling into that role. Rick has become an echo of the Governor (David Morrissey), comfortable killing other humans. The escaping cop even had his hands tied when Rick murders him. It’s a move that Rick in earlier seasons would never have dreamed of.

Meanwhile, Carol and Beth underwent similar adjustments. Carol has defended her harsh judgments, like putting down Karen last year to stop the spread of a virus, but seems to be showing more guilt than Rick. In “Consumed,” possibly the season’s best hour, which focused on Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol, she struggles to justify her actions to him. She knows why she must kill to survive, but at points, like after Noah (Tyler James Williams) steals their weapons, her words come out emptily, as if she is failing to convince even herself.

“Coda” balances three narratives with aplomb. Although the scenes at the church with Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), Michonne (Danai Gurira), and Carl (Chandler Riggs), bog down the pace of the finale, they offer some compelling moments. The writers serve Gabriel a dose of poetic justice when he finds himself trapped outside of the church that he closed on his own parishioners. The subplot ends as Abraham (the fantastic Michael Cudlitz) charges back with a fire truck and traps the walkers in the church.

The real tension exists in Rick’s preparation to retrieve Carol and Beth through a prisoner exchange. Two of Dawn Lerner’s (Christine Woods) officers agree to lie to Dawn to pull off the trade. The handoff in the halls of Grady Memorial goes too smoothly from the start. All parties lower their weapons and exchange few words. Rick hugs Beth, while Carol limps to safety. Then Dawn demands that Noah stay in her services.

The tradeoff unspools in the blink of an eye. I have never shivered with anticipation while watching “The Walking Dead” like I did during this scene. Beth stabs Dawn for taking back Noah, and then the officer instinctively shoots her in the head. Before I had even comprehended what had happened, Daryl rushes Dawn and kills her in retaliation.

Between the split alliances within the police force to an increasingly erratic Dawn, I truly couldn’t predict how the maelstrom would erupt. Dawn was unlikely to live, since she was growing paranoid and delusional, while Beth’s metastasizing apathy was a foreboding sign since episode four, “Slabtown.” Meanwhile, had Rick’s group been facing Woodbury or Terminus, the death of Beth might have resulted in a grisly gunfight. The writers spin that expectation and the groups part ways peacefully, tearfully accepting the eye-for-an-eye turn of events.

Beth’s passing, while a painful conclusion, was a little too predictable. When Michonne assures Maggie (Lauren Cohan) that her sister is alive, the writers might as well have said they were going to kill Beth by the episode’s end. Furthermore, Beth’s hardening apathy foreshadowed not the transformation into an able survivor, but into a bleak wanderer who saw no purpose in life. All signs pointed to a grim fate.

Nonetheless, her death scene was incredibly powerful. The writers, despite heavy-handed foreshadowing, proved skillful in their setup of the showdown at Grady Memorial. Director Ernest Dickerson shot the standoff beautifully, while the rapid twist chilled me long after the episode ended.

For five years, “The Walking Dead” has been searching for the show it wanted to be, never failing to entertain but falling just shy of transcendence. Every hour of season five has shattered that pattern. Excellent writing, compelling acting and captivating narratives dominated this year.

At the beginning of this season, I wrote that the writers should shed their tired dialogue. They did that and more. “The Walking Dead” is finally the show it has always aspired to be.

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected]

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