*This article contains spoilers.
For those of you who are missing your Sunday night dose of the zombie apocalypse, you’re not alone. “Coda,” the mid-season finale of season five, left us wanting more, needing answers, and wondering where our dwindling band of survivors is going to go next. Add the death of the radiant Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) to the mix, and you have a recipe for angst that will last until that Sunday in February when we can get back into this dismal version of the near future.
This season has been lacking light moments (except for Eugene’s joking about his mullet). There has been a decided shift toward grim that is unrelenting. It really started at the end of season four when Beth was taken and our group became prisoners at Terminus, and the first half of season five included the escape from Terminus, the search for Beth, and the loss of any hope for reprieve from the “virus” that turns the dead into flesh eating ghouls. We learned that Eugene (Josh McDermitt) was nothing more than an intelligent weakling, hoping to secure protection by creating the story that if he could get to Washington D.C. he could fix things. In short the first half of season five was as bleak as you can get.
Still, we are compelled to watch, maybe even more so now than ever. Nothing is more obvious than the shift in our protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who has become more Shane than his ex-partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) ever was. In the mid-season finale Rick runs down a handcuffed police officer with a police car and then shoots him in the head. Rick’s going over to the dark side started when he ripped Joe’s (Jeff Kober) throat out after the guy threatened to rape and murder his son. Rick’s fall from grace is nothing but necessity as the mother of invention, and Rick’s character is compelling because one minute he is cradling his daughter baby Judith in his arms and the next he’s blowing away someone (usually a living person) who is a threat.
At this point zombies are the least of the survivors’ problems. They have become adept at killing them (or is that re-killing them?) and dispensing with the feelings that plagued Hershel (the incomparable Scott Wilson) in season two when his barn was filled with walkers. The concept that the zombies still retain something human has lessened over the seasons; however, the introduction of conflicted priest Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam) revisits the notions of the hazy line between zombie-human persona. He cannot bring himself to kill zombies (is it more about his weakness or one of the Ten Commandments?), especially when he sees a cross around one’s neck.
The idea of faith in a sea of faithlessness is one of the more interesting aspects of season five; however, Stokes seals himself up inside his church and allows his flock to get devoured outside. This is an ironic twist on the Eucharist, which promises eternal life to the faithful by eating the host (body of Christ). Credit showrunner Scott M. Gimple and his writers for playing up this connection as the walkers eat humans to keep their version of life going on, though it seems as if the animated dead can survive for a long time without eating anything.
The extended metaphor of faith as being lost is a strong aspect of season five; however, there are also indelible moments of faith shining through Beth as she is forced to work in Grady Memorial Hospital under the despotic cop Dawn (Christine Woods). Kinney’s performance rose to ethereal, her eyes betraying the inner strength she had from not only being Hershel’s daughter but also surviving with the group. How can we forget Hershel’s Bible or Beth singing for Darryl in the funeral parlor? Dawn couldn’t recognize Beth’s inner power until it was too late for both her and Beth. That scene in “Coda” when Beth tells Dawn, “I get it” is burned in my mind now. I understand why Beth does what she does there, but it has shaken me worse than even the deaths of Dale and Hershel. If there was any vestige of good left in the world, Beth embodies it until Dawn vanquishes all that she represents.
I’ve read some articles in which the writers believe that Beth’s death was inconsequential – they claim that the deaths of Carol (Melissa McBride) or Beth’s sister Maggie (Lauren Cohan) would have been much worse. While I didn’t want to see anyone die, I had a feeling that it would have been a lesser character. My bet had been on either Rosita (Christian Serratos) or Tara (Alana Masterson); however, I should have known that TWD usually takes great pains to build up a character’s story right before he or she gets the axe, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Beth got killed, but it still felt like a sucker punch.
The reaction of the rest of the group, especially Daryl (Norman Reedus), is indicative of how deeply Beth affected the group. Not only was she the beloved Hershel’s daughter, but she also seemed to be a beacon of light in the darkness. Daryl’s goal to find Beth was to bring some light back into his life, one that she had kindled when they had their experiences together in season four. Some people questioned if there would be a romance between the two, but I saw it as a love that rose way above physical needs and attraction. For Daryl, Beth represented an ideal he never had in his life before, and it’s being extinguished crushes his hopes for any kind of respite from the despair he has always known.
The final scene of “Coda” gives us Daryl walking out of the hospital carrying Beth’s body. Maggie collapses in grief, and all the rest stare in shock as they see the petite girl’s body sagging in Daryl’s arms. I have to hand it to Gimple for ending on absolutely the bleakest note he possibly could have, and the notion of where to go is less important than how can they go on?
How does the group recover from Beth’s death, Eugene’s deception, and the reality that the church is no longer a safe place? When given an option to stay at the hospital even after Daryl dispatched Dawn after she killed Beth, Rick decides immediately that is not possible. They all leave and are now back out in the world of zombies and the more dangerous foe – the humans who still survive and would harm them.
The problem the group faces is that there are no more standards for anyone. In an all bets are off world, it is okay for Joe’s group to rape and plunder and Gareth (Andrew J. West) and his Terminus minions to kill and eat their captives. This TWD universe is sort of like the fall of the Roman Empire, and the barbarians are hanging out among the ruins and in charge of the show. Rick and company can try to navigate through these rough waters, but there is a sense that time is running out for everyone.
In seasons past stability was found first at Hershel’s farm and then at the prison, but even these places became vulnerable as eventually any place probably will. Now, with the notion of getting to Washington abandoned, where will our group turn next? The idea of getting to a place with more people has never been appealing. Recall how Rick didn’t move the gang into Woodbury after the Governor (David Morrissey) ran off. More people equal more problems in TWD world, as we have seen again and again in seasons past.
With rumors that the second half of season five will require even more Kleenex, we can only imagine that the horrors and loss will be amplified by Gimple and company. It’s going to be a bumpy ride no doubt, but if you’re like I am you will want to be there for every dip, sharp turn, and bottom-out along the way.
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