For The Walking Dead, 2014 strikes a balance between plot-driving action, and those wonderful character episodes that let us into the hearts, if not the backgrounds, of our redoubtable heroes. Straddling the second half of season four and the first half of season five, this year, The Walking Dead has taken us from the relative safety of the prison to the soul-numbing wandering through the post-apocalyptic wilderness, to a hoped-for safe harbor and, finally, a small church. All in all, quite a journey for our exhausted heroes.
There are are entire episodes that rank, for me at least, as the best moments on the show: season four’s “Still,” “The Grove,” and season five’s “Consumed,” are caviar for character junkies for me. The fact that two of the three are Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) heavy does expose my soft spot for The Walking Dead‘s shaggy-haired, and endlessly fascinating Robin Hood. (So sue me!)
But 2014 was very strong year for The Walking Dead, full stop. Season four, part two picks up in the aftermath of the Governor’s (David Morrissey) final attack (and death), scattering the gang into the forest, but not too far and wide. The forest is dense enough, and fraught with enough danger that although none of them have ventured far from the prison, they might as well have been tossed to the four winds. Although finding each other isn’t outside the realm of possibility (and, indeed, find each other they–eventually–do), the task is difficult, and no one really knows if any of the others have survived. The only mission at this point is to stay alive.
The plan had been to get on the bus and hightail it out of the prison when things went south. But no one could have planned for the armored tank assault on the prison–and the impact of Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) beheading. I don’t think even Daryl (who’s always wary of nearly everything) could have anticipated the sheer brutality of the Governor’s act. It freezes them all, and perhaps that moment of shock and horror in an already horrific world sucks all the hope from them in one fell swoop of the blade. There is nothing left. And when Rick fires, all hell breaks loose, and the vastly outnumbered and outgunned survivors are doomed.
At the start of season 4B, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has Carl and Michonne (Danai Gurira), but Judith is missing; Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) are separated, as are Sasha (Soniqua Martin-Green) and her brother Tyreese (Chad Coleman). Beth (Emily Kinney) escapes the prison with Daryl not knowing if her sister is safe. Carol (Melissa McBride), banished earlier is, as far as anyone knows at this point, is long gone and far away.
So here they are my (highly subjective) “best moments” of The Walking Dead’s 2014 (in chronological order):
Moment #1: Judith is alive–and so is Carol!
Rick, only finding Judith’s carrier at the end of “Too Far Gone,” must believe that she is dead, and the reveal in the second episode, “Inmates” that she is alive and, along with Mika and Lizzie are with Tyreese is a relief. Who better than the gentle giant that is Tyreese to play Daddy to the three most vulnerable members of the group? There are so few “happy” moments in this relentlessly bleak series that the dual revelation is beyond wonderful. It’s not only that Carol is still in the picture (a relief in itself, since she is one of my favorite characters), but reunited with Lizzie and Mika, whom she’d promised their father she would look after; something made impossible after her banishment.
One of the things I love even more about this pairing is that she is with Tyreese, the one person who (if he’d known she’d killed Karen back in the early days of the deadly flu) would have every reason to see her dead. I loved Carol’s initial reaction to finding Tyreese. Of course she has know idea that he’s clueless about Karen’s murder, but she doesn’t know that. I love the bond they form in the subsequent episodes. It’s an unlikely pairing of comrades, and it works just beautifully.
As long as we’re on “Inmates,” I have to say a word about the other unlikely pairing in the prison aftermath: Daryl and Beth. Daryl has crawled completely into himself. Already introspective and reticent, Daryl is almost catatonic by “Inmates,” and pairing him with the gregarious Beth (who has her own way of dealing with the horrible death of her father Hershel) makes for an interesting mix. Daryl is like one of those shell-shocked soldiers just wandering the battlefield of Ypres or the Somme during World War I. There is nothing left to him but pure instinct.
But Beth needs to “do” something. Anything, refusing to allow their survival–and Hershel’s death–to be meaningless. She believes there is hope, and they might find other survivors. But Daryl has lost all hope, and had Beth not been with him, what few reserves he has left would have soon fled and he would have died. And I don’t think he would have cared one whit. Everything he has, everything he’d become–all gone.
And of course we have the introduction in that same episode of Abraham and Eugene (and his mullet) when they rescue Glenn and ex-Governor-ista Tara. So, OK, that was more than one moment. Sorry.
Moment #2: The foreshadow-y introduction of Joe and his marauders.
In 2014’s third episode, “Claimed,” we find Michonne, Rick and Carl keepin’ house in a nice suburban home, eating cereal, and taking a bit of a breather. Rick is still recuperating from nearly being beaten to death by the Governor, and they need a little time before they can move on. And as Rick rests, into the house come some guys as if they own the place (and who knows? Maybe they do). We hear the word “claimed” and in the hazy filter of a semi-sunlit room we see Joe, who will come back later this season. It’s a little moment, but in retrospect, sets up the last couple of season four episodes. Worthy of a “best of 2014?” Maybe yes, maybe no, but I love foreshadowing, so…
Moment #3: Sullen Daryl in “Still.”
There is much to love about this entire episode. From the sense that Daryl feels completely back to square one (not just pre-prison, but in his entire life), sitting in a trailer-trash shack much like the one in which he was “raised” (and I use the word advisedly). It’s as if nothing he’s done–all the growth of his character, his independence, the emerging of his innate intelligence and leadership qualities–has meant a thing. I think back to his return to the prison during season three, and Carol welcoming him “home.” He looks around at the meager surroundings and chuckles (they both do) as if to remark sarcastically, “Yup, step up, here, from the wilds, ain’t it?” But this is different. This return is a reminder of the hell in which he’d grown up, and there he is, back again. I love when Beth reminds him that he has come so far from that existence, even when he, at first, disagrees (in fact, I loved that entire porch conversation). But, if I have to pick but one moment, the one that really stands out in my mind is the metaphorical cremation of the man Daryl had been through the physical burning pyre of the shack. It’s a beautiful moment.
It is followed closely by the mesmerizing performance of the always-surprising Norman Reedus when Daryl finally breaks down, confessing the guilt he feels for the prison–not doing enough (who could have done more?) to save them all. It’s a burden he’d been wearing on his shoulders, eating away at him from the moment they’d taken to the road.
Moment #4: “Alone.”
Another strong episode, it is notable for me as we reconnect with Joe and his “claimers.” Finding Daryl at his lowest, point: exhausted and alone, they pick him up like a stray (outdoor) cat, recognizing him as one of their kind. Maybe pre-Zombie apocalypse, yes. Maybe even in season one, yes. But here, after coming so far, Daryl is far from the follower, far from the alley cat he’d been. Merle would have fit in quite nicely with these dudes, I think. But Daryl is horrified (and ultimately) ashamed by his brief association with these brutal, ruthless men. We’d already seen the contrast between who Daryl had been and who he is now during season three, when he’d reconnected with Merle, but then Daryl had been part of a family, a leader. Now, away from being needed, and his leadership role, will this group have an influence on him? Will he revert (and then some) just to survive another day (and maybe figure out where Beth had been taken)? It’s a great question, not easily answered until the season four finale.
Moment #5: “The Grove” What a beautifully written and performed entry into The Walking Dead canon. In a series so bleak, comes a moment that counts amongst the bleakest. Carol, now traveling with Tyreese, Lizzie, Mika, and Judith finds herself once again in a position in which she must murder a living human. When she murders Karen and David during the prison epidemic, there’s a question of morality at play: is pre-emptive murder justified to prevent a potential greater loss of life? And for her action, she is banished from the camp. But here, she is once again confronted with a terrible choice. The increasingly psychotic Lizzie has already murdered Mika, and surely will do the same to Judith (if not all of them), believing that “coming back” is a positive change. In this case the decision has a clearer moral ground, but it is no less (and possibly, far more) horrifying a choice to make. Carol had promised the girls’ father that she would look after them, and here, not only has she failed Mika, but now must murder her sister to prevent even more carnage. Even more poignant is Carol’s confession to Tyreese about killing Karen, and his acceptance of it. But no matter the acceptance, the acts have become a terrible burden for Carol to endure, and even into season five, has not lifted.
Moment #6: Rick Channels His Inner-Walker in “A.” Who would have expected that? Geez! Rick tearing out Joe’s neck like he was a walker. I’m not sure what else he could have done in that moment, but that was pretty damn shocking. With Carl on the verge of being raped, Daryl being beaten to death, and Michonne trapped, Rick’s uber-father genes kick in and he just rips out the evil Joe’s neck. What an ignominious (and deserved) death! But what does the action do to Rick, as we see him the next morning, literally shaking at the horror of what he’s done (and likely considering what would have been done to Carl if he’d not acted).
The follow up scene between Daryl and Rick is almost perfect, with Daryl confessing his shame at having hooked up with the Claimers, and Rick understanding the “why.” At the same time, Daryl offering Rick absolution for what he’d done is small comfort, but a powerful moment.
Moment #7: Escape from Terminus in “No Sanctuary:” Season five opens with nearly the entire crew reunited at Terminus, where, at the end of season four’s “A” they had been “welcomed,” and then herded into a boxcar through a series of doors marked “A” by the by cannibal people. The entire story so much reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,”
To me, the best moment of the season five premiere is the final reunion of Carol and the survivor group (that is, after she rescues the entire group in complete badass style!). As a confessed Daryl-er, I have to say, their emotional reunion was a sight to behold. Everyone was emotional, of course, and Rick,too, shed tears and embraced warrior queen Carol, but there is something both so very public and very intimate in Carol and Daryl’s reunion.
He is speechless, choked up and the fact that our reticent, stoic Daryl allows himself this moment of public emotion speaks volumes about her importance to him. When she’s banished in season four, it is when he is away, and I’m thinking he’d never quite forgiven himself for that, and had probably assumed the worst. Anyway, my two pennies.
Moment #8: Bob’s capture by Gareth at the end of “Strangers.”
Yikes! There are few words to describe this horrific first-hand evidence of the Terminus gang’s cannibalism. To take Bob’s leg, then keep him alive and in agony while quipping about his taste. Jeez. Anyone serve up some fava beans with it? Certainly had he been around during the Zombie Apocalypse, Hannibal Lecter would have found a home at Terminus. (But of course his current home is on NBC and played by the marvelous Mads Mikelson, but I digress.) Of course Bob doles out the cannibals’ just desserts (and gets the last macabre laugh) when he declares (“Four Walls and a Roof”) that he’d been bit, and his meat, tasty though it may be, is tainted.
Moment #10: Abraham’s tragic back story in “Self Help” and Eugene’s confession.
Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Eugene (Josh McDermitt) are certainly two of The Walking Dead’s quirkier characters. At times, both characters are so broadly written, they are almost incongruously comical compared with the bleak drama unfolding all around them. But learning Abraham’s back story of the day he’d nearly killed himself after his family was killed by Walkers was a heartbreaking moment, and tells us a lot about why Abraham is so mission-focused. The discovery of Eugene and his cure gives soldier Abraham a reason to go on and redeem himself–and save the world. But when, in “Self Help,” Eugene finally confesses to what we’d all known–that he is no scientist, but a fake of the highest order–it nearly destroys Abraham. Now that there’s no mission (and another false ray of hope), what will be Abraham’s future as we move into the back half of season five?
Moment #11: “Consumed”
Unlike some Walking Dead fans, I like the quieter episodes, especially when they focus on my favorite characters. They give us backstory and give the characters some breathing room to take a step back from the relentless apocalypse. “Consumed” brings us a little deeper into Daryl and, especially, Carol’s mind and heart. I loved the entire episode with its smoke and fire metaphors. Indeed the survivors in the Grimes group are almost continually re-inventing themselves, each time arising like phoenixes from the ashes of almost assured destruction.
Carol and Daryl’s journeys are probably the two most compelling (and farthest) in the four and a half years of the series. We were treated with more of Daryl’s story in “Still,” but here, we get some insight into Carol’s life: she’d tried to run from Ed, but couldn’t leave him, waiting for “something to change.” And that is the Carol of season one: brutalized, but still forgiving–a Stockholm Syndrome victim if ever there was one. Like many abuse victims, she’d thought he’d come ’round. That he would change. Carol has long ago shed her passive skin, burned away in the wake of needing to survive. She is far, far from that woman, and she would never, now, abide a brutal man like Ed to come within a mile of her.
To me, the most poignant moment of the episode is when the mother and daughter zombies appear behind the pebbled glass door outside the abuse shelter. Carol, who has taken on so much the burden of protector, being brutal when life calls for it, moves to put bullets in the heads of the two Walkers. But Daryl, like he had in relieving Rick’s burden when Dale turns Walker (season two’s “Judge, Jury, and Executioner”) tells Carol she doesn’t have to do this. Instead, Daryl takes this burden from her shoulders, disposing of them quietly in the night while she sleeps, then giving them a dignified end by enshrouding them before burning them on the pyre.
Moment #13: Carrying Beth’s Corpse from the Hospital in “Coda.”
For awhile in the final scenes of “Coda,” I thought, perhaps Beth would make it out alive. But that moment was short lived once Dawn demanded that Noah stay at the hospital, reneging on the deal she’d made with Rick. Granted, Beth’s ineffectual stabbing of Dawn is not an especially smart move (she has to have known that it wouldn’t end well). But once she does it, Dawn’s revolver goes off, and Daryl almost involuntarily shoots Dawn in the head. What might have been a bloodbath is averted by cooler heads, but everyone is stunned. And that scene of Daryl carrying Beth’s body out of the building will stay with me for a long time. It was a heartbreaking end to a great year of episodes. But her death opens up a whole host of dramatic possibilities as everyone, but especially Maggie and Daryl cope with her death. Of course, Maggie is Beth’s sister and the last remaining member of the Greene clan. And Daryl, who often takes the weight of the world on his stoic (and very broad) shoulders looks crushed. He will feel responsible for “losing” Beth (“Alone”), and for any remaining injuries suffered by Carol.
What are your favorite moments of The Walking Dead 2014? Let us know in the comment thread below! Or Tweet me.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC with new episodes in February. In the meantime, enjoy this trailer for second half of season five:
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