This post contains spoilers through the Nov. 27 episode of The Walking Dead.
I’ll admit to having felt like this season of The Walking Dead has spent a lot of time with the characters, human and formerly human, stewing in the same juices: the endless hunt for Sophia, the secrets of Hershel’s farm, the insecurities of Dale, Glen, Darryl and Andrea, the question of whether Rick or Shane is better suited to lead and to love Lori. Fortunately, the stunning final scene of this episode tied all of those threads neatly together. After massacring the walkers in the barn, who they’ve convinced themselves aren’t human, one more emerges: Sophia, changed and ravening. And Rick finds a bridge between Shane’s harsh moral view of the apocalypse and Hershel’s idealism, shaped by isolation from the outside world, and shoots the girl in an act of self-protection and mercy.
I thought the scene did a wonderful job of giving everyone a human moment that addressed, if not resolved, their arc. Glenn steps up to protect Maggie, and she protects her father, grieving with him, but doesn’t try to stop her lover. Darryl, after rejecting Carol’s profession of affection with a brutal, “Leave me be. Stupid bitch,” earlier in the episode, holds her as she sees what’s become of her daughter, and as she witnesses her death. Carl, who told his mother, “I’m not leaving until we find Sophia…I was thinking, she’s going to like it here, this place. It could be a home,” who tried on a man’s cursing to go with a man’s hat earlier in the episode, is reduced to childhood by his friend’s transformation and execution, sobbing in Lori’s arms. Andrea steps up to the front lines with Shane, unaware that Shane’s emotions and his move to start the massacre are deeply engaged with Lori, who is off to the side here. T-Dog is, for once, unconflicted and part of the firing line. And Dale is late to the slaughter, protected from his own dehumanization by fate if not design.
So is the conclusion that Rick is right? Do the reasons you do things matter as much as the fact that you do them? Does Hershel’s determination to see the humanity in the walkers redeem the risks he’s taken, his denial of outside reality? Does the murder Rick commits out of a profound sympathy for the little girl his community’s lost mean something different than the brutal executions carried out by the other members of that community? And does Lori’s declaration to Shane that “Even if it’s yours, it’s not gonna be yours. And it’s never gonna be yours. And there’s nothing you can do to change that,” actually make it so? The Walking Dead is very good at posing moral questions, though I’m not sure it’s as good at knowing what its own answers to them are. Even if the show doesn’t reveal them to us all at once, I’d like a sense that they have a coherent and decisive worldview.