Well that was odd. The half-season finale is entertaining, and in one sense works. But in another, it's hollow and abrupt. I suspect a fair amount of the audience is somewhat disappointed given how good so much of these last eight episodes have been. The chief sinner here is the abruptness of the last five minutes.
The episode has an excellent opening. Three scenes are occurring at once: (1) Rick is sprinting down a street; (2) The cop named Bob (who sucker punched Sasha at the end of last week) is trying to cut his wrist restraints on metal; and (3) Walkers are converging. Rick gets into one of the police cruisers and heads out. Cop Bob has to flee from the Walkers (a tough job with your hands tied behind your back). Rick pulls up behind him, ordering him to stop three times over the cruiser's speaker. Cop Bob doesn't, so Rick rams him from behind. The officer goes flying. He's down and seriously injured as Rick shifts into park.
"You're crazy." That's Cop Bob's POV. It has some merit. "All you had to do was stop." That's Rick's POV. It has some merit, too. The Walkers down the street are closing in. Cop Bob asks Rick to take him back to the hospital, to deliver to their opponents a dying man who'll tell everyone that Rick, who needs a prisoner exchange, is crazy. "Can't go back, Bob." It's an ugly moment where Rick pointedly uses the words of deceased cannibal leader Gareth.
Bang. Done. It's an unsettling and effective moment in the ongoing evolution of Rick Grimes. Or devolution, if you prefer.
Father Gabriel remains pathetic beyond belief. He goes to the school where Gareth and the Terminus cannibals had been holed up, wanting to see if humanity is truly as degraded as Rick clamed. He finds the rotting remains of our Bob's cooked leg. That's a pretty big "yes." Silly Gabriel's histrionics rile up the Walkers trapped in the school until they break out. The imbecile of course leads them back to his church. That's quite an accomplishment in the annals of his foolishness. He outruns the Walkers in the beginning, has a significant lead on them in the next shot, knows where he's going as opposed to a pack of mindless zombies, yet still manages to arrive at the church simultaneously with them. Only the hapless Father Gabriel could pull that one off.
It's an obvious setup to have him recreate the plight of his parishioners, crying out for someone to let him into the church. It's so obvious in fact that it loses any ironical bite. Fortunately for him, Michonne and Carl prove to be better people than Gabriel. They let him in along with the horde of Walkers. The best part of that sequence is seeing Michonne cut loose with her sword again. It's been too long. They escape with baby Judith in time to meet up with Abraham and company, who have returned in their fire truck. That should prove convenient in reuniting everyone at the end of the episode.
Just don't tell Rick that idiot Gabriel led a horde of Walkers to Judith. He might well fix that problem with another bang. At this point, I wouldn't blame him.
Back in Atlanta, Rick breaks the news about Cop Bob. The other two officers agree that they simply want to go back home. Since Dawn won't trade hostages if she knows one of her own was killed by these interlopers, Cop Bob was killed by Rotters. They saw him taken down. Honestly.
Nobody shoots them in the head. They chose wisely.
So far, so good, a taut and tense storyline humming along. Now's where things begin to waver. The problem is this whole Grady Memorial Hospital storyline. We've been given one isolated episode of it, it's pretty generic stuff, yet we as viewers are supposed to be invested in what's happening at a detail level.
We're not. The only reason we're watching it is because Beth is there. I can't tell these people apart, and their story doesn't even have the virtue of clean lines the way Terminus did. The Termites were cannibals, people as bad as they come. They were an evil antagonist to be overcome. Grady Memorial is just a confused place with a whole raft of internal politics, individual angst, etc. trying to get along in the zombie apocalypse. Kind of like the Governor's town of Woodbury.
Now don't get me wrong. I sure as heck don't want to spend another glacially paced season like Woodbury getting to know the folks at Grady Memorial, but one episode? If the writers want to pull off something as dramatic as they try at the end of this episode, there's got to be a happy medium.
We get a lot of interaction between Beth and Dawn, the lady cop running the show at Grady Memorial. It doesn't really add up to much. Dawn has, in fact, saved Beth's life. She's saved Carol's life as well. Further, Dawn really does seem to care about the mission of helping any people they find still in the city, even if that's just some monomania left over from the days of "protect and serve." She may or may not be using Beth to help cement her control, but as villains go she's nothing like the Governor or Terminus. She's weak tea, conflicted and confused. None of the interactions we watch properly establish this episode's ending.
I know I'm rambling, but the problem here is one of scale and substance. The writers are trying to invest Grady with a sense of moral gravity that its brief and perfunctory details don't earn.
Rick goes out to flag down a patrol car. He tells the two officers who come out their names, that he's a former lawman himself and that he has a proposal. They make him put his gun on the ground before he continues. Rick names Carol and Beth, names the two officers he has and proposes a straight swap. Everybody goes home alive. The officers ask if he knows them because he has Noah, the hospital escapee from a few episodes back. That's an affirmative. They also ask where his people are. About that time a sniper bullet takes out an approaching Walker. "They're close by," says Rick. Chuckle, chuckle.
It's a well staged scene. So is the one we pick up with after the commercial: cops on one end of a ground floor hallway with Beth and Carol, Rick and company on the other with their two hostages. We watch them trade one for one. It works well, which is really about all this setup deserves. No one seems truly evil.
After the trade is complete, Dawn demands Noah be surrendered to her. She needs a replacement for the ward she's losing in Beth. Rick doesn't agree. There's no real arguing, and it seems clear Dawn's own officers won't back up her request. Rick and company are already at the exit. For some reason, though, Noah decides to comply. He heads back up the hall with Beth in quick pursuit to give him a hug.
Beth abruptly stabs Dawn with a pair of scissors. Why? Devotion to Noah, a guy she barely knows? Hatred of the system? Stick it to the man? A secret death wish? Some sudden literary impulse?
Who knows. Dawn shoots Beth in the head. Darryl shoots Dawn in the head. Her cops don't do anything about that, and everyone leaves like they would have a minute ago. I told you her cops wouldn't have backed Dawn up about Noah. That seemed clear enough to everyone but Noah.
Darryl carries Beth's body out to be greeted by the perfectly timed arrival of that fire truck with the rest of the gang in it. Maggie breaks down at seeing Beth's body.
It's a dramatic death simply for the sake of having one.
Season 5 has been good so far. Much of this episode is good as well. Those last five minutes... Coda pretty much captures it. As in "an ending part of a piece of music or a work of literature or drama that is separate from the earlier parts."
We get a second coda as well. Good ole Morgan is still tracking Rick down, making it to Gabriel's abandoned church this time to find a discarded map of Abraham's original destination in Alexandria/Washington DC. So I guess we're going there next year. How else is Morgan ever supposed to find them?
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that. The Walking Dead will see you again in February.