No show on television is more unsettling, grim, and psyche-scarring than The Walking Dead. While many people who are not fans of the show might quickly write it off as a horror gore-fest, focusing on something as stupid, silly, and childish as zombies, they would be missing the point of the program. The Walking Dead has little to do with zombies, and is more of a treatise on the darkness that lies just beneath the surface of all human beings, which most suppress in order to live within the confines of what is defined as “polite society.” The show raises many questions, chief among them, how people react when societal norms disappear and structure falls apart. Will humans embrace brutality, doing horrible, unmentionable things to survive, like Rick awakening from his peace-loving hippie coma to save his son, or will society simply give in and become part of the walking dead horde, mindless consumers feasting off the living until they burst?
The Walking Dead is popular because it forces viewers to confront the darkness that is lurking in them, challenging their sense of morality and fair play. The show has grown darker and darker during its fourth season run, taking a steep dive into the macabre when it killed off two children characters as it headed toward an explosive season finale, which believe it or not, managed to take things to a whole new level of savagery. Any individuals who have not watched the finale should know that serious spoilers lie ahead.
The finale did a great job of taking the major events of the season and tying them together in a nicely wrapped package, with just enough left unresolved to keep appetites craving more. The highlight of the night was witnessing the transformation of Rick Grimes, the leading man of The Walking Dead, embrace the brutality within, which was a moment of clarity and awakening for him that fans have been waiting to see for a long time. The world in which these characters live is terrifying, and little of the terror comes from the undead. It is not the zombies one must worry about, it is the crazy psychopaths wandering around, with no fear of law and consequences, who will gladly kill in order to take what they need, rather than learn how to coexist. In order to survive these miscreants, a person needs to be able to embrace a bit of the dark side themselves, but remain connected with others who can help keep them grounded and reign them in from crossing too many lines.
Unfortunately, this is not a lesson Rick seemed to learn until the events of last night, when everything he and his friends have endured finally sunk in. It took a gang of biker scum threatening to rape his son in a horrifying act of brutality, to burn through the fog in Rick’s mind, bringing everything into sharp focus for what seems like the first time since the show started. He knew in that moment, despite having the gun pressed against his head, what must be done in order to save Carl, and so he let go of all the advice on peace and harmony bestowed on him by his dead mentor Hershel, and unleashed the beast within.
The real stunning moment of the episode, as far as Rick’s character is concerned, occurred the following day after dispatching the gang with extreme savagery. Anyone who is a fan of the show is familiar with how the leading man typically deals with performing such an act. Normally, Rick wallows in shock, ashamed of what was done, feeling sorry for himself that he did was needed to protect the ones he cares about. This was not the case in the finale. He was okay with what had to be done. Rick was totally fine with biting and ripping out a man’s jugular with his bare teeth, because it saved his son from a horrible fate. He no longer felt the need to justify his actions or to reconcile them with some sense of morality he held to before the apocalypse started. While that does not mean he is not a moral man, it means that he sees things have changed, and the way things were done before is no longer sufficient to keep people safe.
Viewers caught another glimpse of the grizzled, Eastwood-like Rick Grimes when the group arrives at Terminus, only to wind up thrown into a train car by a whole new group of crazies. In the train car, Rick and company are reunited with Glenn, Maggie, and their merry band, and the new sheriff in town announces that the Terminus group is going to be sorry when they find out they screwed with the wrong people. Rick has embraced a bit of the darkness, and in so doing, has become the leader he was always destined to be. Now, perhaps more than any time during the show’s run, Rick is prepared to provide the protection and guidance the group needs to survive. In embracing the brutality, Rick’s awakening during The Walking Dead finale, has provided survivors and viewers a glimpse of hope that they can make it through the horror of the apocalypse.
Opinion by Michael Cantrell
New York Daily News