Is it a bad sign that, despite a major character death, the two moments that I found most compelling from the midseason finale of "The Walking Dead" didn't involve our departed cast member at all?
I'm asking not in search of absolution for my less-than-enthusiastic response to last night's episode, but because I'm slightly concerned about the the rest of this season following the hour's conclusion. After an incredibly strong start, I've found myself on the fence about some of the major (I use that term loosely) developments that have unfolded throughout season five, chief among them the introduction of the folks at Grady Memorial Hospital, and Beth's place among them. And after the midseason finale, "Coda," I'm still confused about their importance to the show's overall direction.
Take Beth's sudden death, for example. Yes, it's sad, and its execution was extremely shocking, but its bigger picture implications are unclear. Outside of giving Daryl (and to a lesser extent, Maggie) something new to brood over, why was it necessary? If the show was just going to kill her off anyway, why spend so much time attempting to give her a personality (with mixed results – her development at Grady was often more head-scratching than heart-warming), and putting her in the mix with an entirely new group of characters, if she wasn't going to be able to apply those experiences to her position as a member of Rick's group? On "The Walking Dead," it's a given that no one is really safe, from either the clutches of a zombie or the barrel of a stranger's gun. But as the show has focused more on the latter option over the past few seasons, it's seemed to have forgotten that killing characters just for killing's sake isn't exactly a sustainable approach to storytelling.
Like last week's episode, I found myself waiting for the real action to begin throughout much of "Coda." And aside from ending with a literal bang (courtesy of Dawn's gun), I still found this installment lacking in enough development to propel our survivors forward into a new year, and a new purpose.
One plot point that did give me hope for the future – and one of my top two moments from the episode, as referenced above – was the reappearance of Morgan, who finally popped up again last night after a lone, brief cameo in the season premiere. We spent a bit more time with him during "Coda," learning that he's followed Gareth's gang's trail from the tracks near Terminus all the way to the school where the cannibals roasted Bob's foot, to Father Gabriel's abandoned church.
After setting up some tokens (including a quirky candy bar, a bullet, and a rabbit's foot) and reflecting at the altar, Morgan notices the map given to Rick by Abraham in Episode 3, with the inscription of Rick's name inside. The look of recognition that washes over his face is a bit ambiguous (is he happy? Is he nervous to cross paths with Rick again after their last unsettling encounter?), but make no mistake: Morgan knows who he's following now. The only question is just how soon he's going to catch up – and how many members of Rick's group will still be around by then.
As for the sheriff's deputy, he's responsible for my other favorite moment of the hour, which admittedly doesn't have much importance, but delighted me nonetheless. While meeting up with some cops from Grady to arrange the deal to swap prisoners, Rick does his best Inigo Montoya impression. "I'm Rick Grimes," he says. "I was a deputy in the King County Sheriff's Department. I'm here to make a proposal." Only the additional utterance of "Prepare to die," or the revelation that Dawn had six fingers, could have made the "Princess Bride" allusion better. (I have no idea if this connection was intentional on the part of the "Walking Dead" writers, by the way, but this writer was quite amused.)
Despite that pseudo-Inigo moment, Rick still couldn't quite take charge of the plan to spring Carol and Beth from Grady, once again bowing to Daryl's demand that they make the trade with the captured officers. Obviously, that didn't end well, though it seems to me that the repercussions from that encounter will weigh more heavily on Daryl, since he lost such a close friend in Beth. If anything, that botched plot will inspire Rick to rule with an even tighter fist throughout the second half of season five – and as we've seen so far, the other characters haven't exactly taken kindly to Deputy Grimes playing sheriff lately. Rick might be letting his freak flag fly a bit too often in recent episodes – him running down the escaped prisoner only to taunt him, shoot him, and taunt him again springs to mind – but it's been an entertaining development, and one "TWD" will no doubt explore further down the road. Fingers crossed that he and Morgan can compare notes on the subject soon.
- Another recurring cameo from a previous episode: Bob's severed leg, which was still sitting on Gareth's group's campfire by the school, charred and covered in maggots. What a lovely surprise that was in no way disgusting.
- Father Gabriel made that discovery, and that was probably the most interesting thing that happened to him the entire episode. As I said in my midseason finale preview, I've lost interest in his character, and had sort of figured he'd be one of several people to die this week. The irony of him begging to be let back into the church – and the additional shot of the "eternal life" inscription above the altar – were nice callbacks to the beginning of the season, but I think his story has run out of steam. (Though as always, I invite the writers to prove me wrong.)
- Thankfully, Abraham's commandeered fire truck hasn't run out of steam – or gas – and comes crashing into the church just as Gabriel, Michonne, and Carl (carrying baby Judith in a backpack) wonder just what they're going to do after zombies infiltrate the building. Abraham's gang definitely holds my attention more than the latter bunch, and their arrival back at the church begins the reunion between all the survivors over in Atlanta. No definitive word yet on Eugene's condition – we only see him sitting silently in the back of the truck – but I'm hoping that the mulleted man makes a full recovery.
- I could not for the life of me figure out what those magazines were that Gabriel and Morgan spotted at Gareth's campsite. Anyone else figure out their names/significance?
- The scene in which Beth ultimately shoves Officer O'Donnell down the elevator shaft begins with a fairly hilarious shot of the young woman perched nonchalantly on the edge of the gaping opening. Because when I need to ponder life's major moments, daydreaming by the putrid pit where a hospital dumps dead bodies is my first choice, too.
- O'Donnell, meanwhile, seems to have come from the Gorman School of Generic-Looking A-Hole Cops, shoving an elderly ward to the ground and hollering at Beth, "Stay in your lane, bitch!" when Beth tries to intervene in his fight with Dawn. Dude deserved to get the shaft.
- "You keep telling yourself you have to do whatever it takes, just until this is all over. But it isn't over. This is it. This is who you are, and what this place is until the end." – Beth was usually reliable for a truth-telling monologue, and words like these (directed at Dawn, but applicable to anyone in the "Walking Dead" universe) will be missed.
- It seemed fairly unnecessary for Rick's entire group – including Daryl, Tyreese, Sasha, and Noah – to go into the hospital for the prisoner exchange. Why didn't someone stay outside to keep watch? Didn't they think that maybe, in case something bad went down, they should leave a person to escape/get help? Yet another odd choice in a plan teeming with seemingly nothing but. The fact that Dawn tried to play them to take Noah back should have surprised no one; instead, it led to both Beth and Dawn taking bullets to the head. (Not that Dawn will be missed.)
- I'm not sure if any Grady residents took Rick up on the offer to leave with his group, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone (particularly the wards) would turn him down -- especially after that botched exchange, which happened in front of everyone. Then again, it's probably hard to overcome brainwashing that severe. (And plus, Dr. Edwards wouldn't have anywhere to store his Caravaggio out in the wild.)
- I almost completely forgot about Carol this episode, and it seems that the writers did, too. She only popped up for a couple minutes toward the end, and had no lines. A fairly disappointing end for the woman who kicked things off so fiercely in the season premiere, then faded to the background as episodes progressed. I'm hoping that Carol gets her due -- no doubt in helping Daryl grieve for Beth -- during the second half of the season.
- And that's a wrap on season 5.1 of "The Walking Dead." See you in February, everyone.
Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC