The explosive finale of season 4 of The Walking Dead, enigmatically titled “A”, was many things – tense, deceitful, cruel, vindictive, hopeful, suspicious, but above all, an excellent lesson in relativity.
Or to put it another way, no matter how great you think your own sins are, a factor which weighed heavily on Carl (Chandler Riggs), Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) as they made their way to the likely too good to be true sanctuary of Terminus, there is quite possibly someone else whose transgressions dwarf yours by a considerable margin.
Not that the intrepid trio, who have become quite the family on their forced march through the muggy woods of Georgia, and learnt a thing or two about each other and yes slip knots with which to catch a meal, thought in terms even remotely that religious.
Whatever godly presence they may have once recognised was swept away long ago by the apocalypse, forcing them to think a little more creatively, and as Michonne pointed out to a pensive Carl who feared the good people of Terminus might not welcome those with blood on their hands, not always completely accurately, as monsters.
Yes good old rising from the deep, indiscriminately laying waste to those around them monsters.
It was Carl who first voiced the fear that they had taken this hideous form, that they might be too monstrous to join the advertised idyll of Terminus, which he had taken on its merits as a bastion of civilised peace and harmony populated by the unblemished and the innocent.
While Michonne did her best to put things in perspective for the troubled young man, by sharing some more of her veiled past which included the admission that the two walkers she was leading along when Andrea (Laurie Holden) first met her were in fact her turned partner and his best friend, defiled in an act of revenge for letting her son die, Carl and even Rick found it hard to see themselves in terms other than monsters.
It was a term bandied about with great frequency through the tense episode, notable for the fact that not a single major cast member died, a marked changed from season finales past, and one which attracted even great meaning for them when they were forced to defend themselves from a surprise attack by Joe and his band of barely principled rednecks.
With no sign of Daryl (Norman Reedus), who it turns out had been contemplating walking off and hesitated just long enough to see Joe (Jeff Kober) go in, quite literally, for the kill, and Carl in real paedophilic danger of being raped by a leering blading piece of sleaze straight from redneck central casting, Rick reacted like a cornered animal, turning on their assailants with an instinctive ferocity.
All that matter was saving Carl, and so he lunged at Joe, tearing a large chunk of skin out of the unsuspecting man’s neck and severing the carotid artery, in a frenzy of retribution that even on the grand scale of Rick’s apocalyptic survival responses was enough to send you recoiling.
As Joe fell lifelessly to the ground, Rick turned on one of his henchmen and began garroting him as Daryl, who had come running in to argue for mercy for Rick, Michonne and Carl and been soundly rebuffed by a revengeful Joe in no mood to listen to any entreaties, and Michonne fought back till no one but the four members of their party were left standing.
It was brutal, it was dark and it was necessary under the circumstances, leaving a traumatised Carl, who recuperated in the abandoned car they had found with a motherly Michonne standing watch over him, wondering who the real monsters were.
And this is where the great lesson in relativity got its first airing with Michonne trying to convince Carl that they only did what they had to do, and that they were fundamentally still the same good people they had always been.
That however dark or wayward they became – she used her own uncaring numbness after the death of her son as a potent example – that they could come back, they could be redeemed if you will, a reference to one of the prevailing themes of this season.
A theme that was powerfully brought to the fore once more not just by the aftermath of the attack when Rick touchingly called Daryl a brother in the course of a cathartic discussion about what he had just done.
But by previously unseen flashbacks to the period between seasons three and four when Hershel encouraged Rick to begin the farm we see him tending at the start of the season.
It was a powerful underlining of the idea that no matter how badly you might have act to defend yourself in this unfriendly, brutal new world, and no matter how it may taint you, that you could come back from it.
It was a reaffirmation that it wasn’t your actions that determined whether you became a monster or not, but your character, and that if that was of good standing to begin with, you would never lose the essence of who you are, no matter how muddied the moral waters might become and how long the journey back to some sense of normalcy.
Carl didn’t look completely mollified or convinced by Michonne’s reasoning but it made sense – they may not be perfect people but that they had fought hard to retain their inherent humanity and sullied or not, it was largely intact.
Which is more than could be said for Gareth (Andrew J.West) and the “good people” of Terminus, who as feared, and despite initial appearances, were every bit as monstrous – once again the relativity lesson was invoked but this time in Rick, Carl and Michonne’s favour – as had been suggested.
While Rick took every precaution to make sure they wouldn’t be caught flat footed, even going so far as to hide weapons outside the perimeter fence, and going in what essentially was the back door, the corrupted, cannibalistic denizens of Terminus got the better of them, herding them with gunfire from on high to a point and forcing to go where they did not want to go.
Which was further into Terminus, where a cattle car, bearing all the awful Holocaust-like overtones you could think of, awaited them, and into which they were marched one by one, with the ever present threat of death that never quite manifested itself.
Closing the door of the carriage behind them, they found last week’s arrivals – Glenn (Steve Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), Rosita (Christian Serratos) and Dr. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) already imprisoned, triggering a furious, if unheard warning to Gareth and his ilk from Rick that they had messed with the wrong people.
Rick the warrior had returned and while there was always a return to the Rick the farmer, right now he was going to channel the former necessary persona and get them the hell out of there.
It was the mother of all cliffhanger culminations, again a new thing for The Walking Dead which tends to like its finales neatly wrapped with a bloodied bow, a powerful ending to an episode which deftly managed to weave deep philosophical introspection and heart pounding action into one seamless, gripping narrative.
It was a final masterful piece of storytelling from creator and writer Robert Kirkman and showrunner Scott M. Gimple, who have crafted a brilliant second half of the season, liberally stuffed with deep, insightful character moments, engrossing, bloody action and emotional fragmentation, all leading to a powerful revisiting of a theme that resonates with urgency in the apocalyptic morass in which humanity finds itself – can you ever come back and do necessary actions make you a monster?
Rick and the his fellow imprisoned survivors will have plenty of time to ruminate on that question since we have seven long months till season 5 kicks into gear and we see if the apparent monsters of Terminus can be overcome and the lesser “monsters” get to go free.
* So what’s up next in season 5? Andrew Lincoln drops some teasers at HitFix, Scott Kirkman tells insidetv.ew.com while everyone needs to stay glued to their seats for season 5 and Scott M. Gimple addresses that “massive cliffhanger”, also with insidetv.ew.com