Sunday night’s finale capped off a season of the Walking Dead that was not just about survival, but survival at a cost. This season, and this episode in particular, made us question: Just who are the walking dead, the zombies or the survivors?
At various points this season, we see characters including Bob, Michonne, and the Governor dejectedly wandering the countryside alone, beginning to resemble “walkers,” even to the point where they can go undetected among them. If the characters come out on the other end of this apocalypse without a shred of their humanity, we wonder, what were they fighting for? As Daryl said to Beth a few episodes earlier, “I don’t think the good ones survive.”
The audience is hit with this idea immediately in Sunday’s episode, as it opens with the smaller groups, separated after the Governor’s raid on their former-prison safe haven in the mid-season finale, on their way to a supposed sanctuary called Terminus. Carl, who is traveling with Michonne and his father Rick, asks how they will explain themselves to this seemingly benevolent group. Carl is questioning if he’s becoming a man or a monster. It’s a moment that, as teenager coming of age in the apocalypse, may seem normal for his character. But his struggles aren’t unique in this new world.
No character has had higher highs or lower lows during the four seasons of the Walking Dead than Rick. When the pressures of leading the group, coupled with the death of his wife and worrying that Carl was losing touch with his humanity, overwhelmed him, Rick took a step back and focused on farming the grounds of the prison. A season that started with “Farmer Rick” came full circle Sunday night as we saw him reclaim his spot as pack leader by literally biting out the throat of a member of a gang that was threatening to rape and kill his son. This act of violence is one often seen on show. But it’s typically perpetrated by the “walkers.” So we’re left to question: Just how far Rick has gone? Has he lost his humanity for the sake of survival? Seemingly, at least to some degree, the answer is yes.
The group as a whole lost their moral compass earlier this season, when Hershel was beheaded by the Governor. But Hershel’s message lives on in his adopted family, who are now scattered across the landscape after running for their lives during the battle for the prison. In arguably the best episode of the season, just prior to the mid-season finale, Hershel risks his life to care for a group of prison residents with a life-threatening illness. When his daughter Maggie protests just as he’s about to enter the infected cell block, Hershel says that they’re all putting their lives in danger just by existing in this new world, but “the only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.”
Carol, who is seen as the protector and mother of the group, has similarly struggled to keep her humanity as she’s made a few brutally tough decisions in the name of the greater good. When we first met Carol in season one, she was still with her daughter and abusive husband, but after their deaths, Carol became a woman who could get things done. Rick ostracizes her after she confesses to killing and burning the bodies of Karen and David, two of the early victims of the illness, in order to stop the disease from spreading to the group. But ultimately she’s lost an aspect of her humanity – her lack of violence – to maintain another one: Her interest in the greater good.
Depending on how you define the good ones, then character Mika who Carol finds along with Tyreese and young sisters Lizzie after the governor’s raid, struggling on the road with baby Judith, might actually be one of the good ones in some way. While Mika has come to terms with killing “walkers,” she refuses to protect herself against bad people because she believes killing people, even in self-defense, is wrong. Carol explains to her that, “people came in and killed our friends” to which Mika replies, “And I feel sorry for them…because they probably weren’t like that before.”
Ultimately, Mika meets her end when her disturbed sister Lizzie stabs her to prove that the “walkers” aren’t killers but just misunderstood. The “good ones” don’t survive.
This leaves Carol with another tragic decision when she and Tyreese realize that Lizzie is a danger to the people around her, particularly the defenseless baby Judith. Once again Carol chooses the common good by shooting Lizzie in a heartbreaking scene reminiscent of Of Mice and Men. And while Carol’s motivations makes the viewer sympathetic to her chosen course of action, Mika’s protestations do make you wonder if her new worldview is so skewed that she can no longer tell right from wrong.
Only one character seems to discover his true self post-apocalypse. After some speculation about the resourceful Daryl’s pre-apocalypse occupation, he reveals to Beth that he was a nobody, a “redneck asshole” drifting around talking orders from his misanthrope brother Merle. But in an evolution that began in season two during the search for Carol’s daughter Sophia, Daryl shows us that he’s more than his brother’s sidekick, but a good man that will do anything to protect his new family.
That’s not to say that Daryl doesn’t have his demons. After reaching a low point when he found himself alone after Beth was kidnapped, Daryl was taken in by the roving gang of criminals who later attack Rick’s group. Daryl is suspicious of them from the beginning but easily falls in with this dangerous gang who thrive in this world for all the wrong reasons. The parallels were obvious between the gang’s leader and Daryl’s brother Merle, who was killed in season three. But even as you wonder if Daryl will slip back into his old ways, you see glimpses of the lessons that he learned, such as contemplating covering one of the murdered gang members with a sheet, something that Beth would have insisted on during their travels after the prison.
When Daryl learns that the gang is tracking Rick, Carl, and Michonne to revenge one of their fallen comrades, he tries to step in to save his friends. While he had safety in numbers traveling with the gang, he still yearned for the sense of family and belonging. That sentiment is underscored when Daryl explains to Rick that he didn’t know the true nature of the gang, and Rick reassures him that they are brothers. While both Daryl and Rick are capable of the same atrocities as the gang members, it’s their motivation that sets them apart.
The season ended with a pretty unsatisfying cliffhanger, but it is confirmed that the group at Terminus is a cannibalistic commune. It will be interesting to see in season five how the residents of Terminus reconcile their abhorrent behavior. There’s a quick glimpse in the finale of what seems to be a room that memorializes their victims and hints that they were once mistreated by other humans. While Rick’s group is dangerously close to crossing the line and becoming no different from the “walkers,” even the small ways in which they adhere to Hershel’s philosophies and seek human connections will be their redemption.
Anne Shoup is the Associate Director for Press Relations at American Progress.