S1:E6 We’ve come to expect a certain level of awesomeness from a season finale, especially one on AMC. Unfortunately for last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, that level was a little less than what I think we’d all hoped for. That being said, it wasn’t uninteresting or a bad episode, it just didn’t hit the mark of our high expectations.
Part of the reason is that the show continues to focus on the emotional distress of the survivors, but usually without sacrificing the zombie action. This time around, we see maybe 10 seconds of anything walker-related and they spend the majority of their time in the CDC building under lock down mulling over their views on life now that the world is ending. Though it starts off slow, the episode does accomplish its emotional endeavor, but I fear it will be at the expense of viewers who tuned in to see brains being smashed. Personally, I think one of the great things about this show is that it doesn’t have to rely solely on its gory premise. It actually has some emotional and existential depth, however, in a finale you expect a little more of a bang (and I mean other than the CDC building being blown to bits).
The episode goes back to the time jump we experienced in episode one, taking us back to the day Shane left Rick in the hospital. Despite the picture Lori’s anger painted, we find that Shane attempted to save Rick, but there was a full-on massacre in the hospital between the overzealous soldiers and the unbridled walkers. He feels for Rick’s pulse but can’t hear a thing, so he says goodbye to his friend and barricades Rick’s room from walkers as he escapes. This whole time, we’ve thought Shane was nothing more than an opportunistic prick, but once again the show turns everything on its head and shows us that life’s a little more complicated than that.
Back in present time, the survivors are admitted into the CDC headquarters and Jenner immediately asks if any of them are infected. They must submit to blood tests in order to stay. He warns them that once the doors shut, they won’t open again. They accept and he seals off the doors and takes them into the basement. They get down to his lair and find he’s the only one left. He has been shouting out commands, but that turns out to be a computer system that controls the building through voice commands. As he checks them all for the virus, he emphasizes that he’s breaking the rules ( to which I immediately replied: HELLO. ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. How many times do I have to say, “There are NO RULES?”) Of course that strict adherence to the CDC rules in a world that’s completely broken down doesn’t bode well.
Jenner’s oddities continue to show has he treats them all to dinner and wine. The doctor seems almost willfully left out, refusing to smile or join in the merriment. While Rick wants to thank their gracious host, Shane wants to cut to the chase – he asks why Jenner is the only one left. Jenner explains that most people went to find their families, but there were a few that “opted out” – or committed suicide – he says he stayed on alone, hoping to continue working and try to do some good. Glenn, nearing inebriation, calls out Shane as a buzzkill and truer words were never spoken.
As he leads them to their sleeping areas, he warns them not to use too much electricity and to go easy on the hot water and as they all buzz with excitement over hot showers, it becomes obvious that this happiness cannot last. Every time something this good happens in a zombie movie, people die, which can only mean, someone’s going to die. We then enjoy (?) a contrived montage of everyone taking hot showers for the first time; Lori and Rick save hot water by showering together while Shane uses his as his own private bar. Andrea’s hoping the hot water will wash her clean of the memories of her sister’s death and seems to be the only one who sees this positive time as a sign the end is nigh. She and Dale argue over what lies ahead. She builds her post on the side of pessimism, saying there’s nothing left and it’s all over but Dale sees it as a new start. Thus, we learn the big question that they’ve been building to all season; should they celebrate what life they have left or should they accept that they’ve got only a little time left and give up. It’s a bit of a tired question that permeates our everyday lives as well, but what better time to ask it than in this situation?
While Rick drunkenly talks to Jenner about the inevitability of death out in the real world and the hope they’ve found by finding the CDC center, Lori browses the books in the library. Shane is completely drunk and startles her, demanding a conversation. He explains the scene we saw in the first few minutes of the episode and says if she thought for one second that Rick was still alive, she wouldn’t have left, so he essentially saved her life. We have a flash of sympathy for Shane and then he unravels that by grabbing her, yelling that she loves him, and trying to force himself on her. She scratches at his neck, scaring him off and she returns to her room where Rick comes holds her, saying they’re finally safe. Clearly, we can tell the opposite is true. Besides, if they were all happy and safe in this fortress forever, there would be no show, so it’s pretty obvious that it’s all about to unravel.
The next morning, they’re all holding their heads praying their hangovers will disappear. While they’re grateful for breakfast they shrug off their morning ailments to see what Jenner has discovered in his underground lair. He shows them his research on the brain and what happens to it once it goes all groany and flesh-craving. The extremely cinematic, sparkly visual of synapses (how we connect to everything we think, feel, and understand) takes over the screen as he shows the stages of the walker virus. The first event sees the virus invading the brain like meningitis and shutting down the body, then the second event reignited the brain stem, but nothing else, resulting in the mindless flesh drones. Andrea can barely take the explanation, still stinging from Amy’s death (it’s only been two days in their reality). Jenner seems to understand as he explains that the visual came from Test Subject 19 – someone who was bitten and volunteered to be studied. He’s barely able to explain how he had to shoot TS-19 once the experiment was through – we later find that the subject was his late wife so it finally makes sense why synapses and brain stems get him all misty.
With this new information (which honestly isn’t that new, we essentially knew all of it) they hope to move forward. Somehow because Jenner is a doctor, they trust his authority implicitly (though what other choice do they have?) and take his word for gospel when he says the grid broke down and there’s no one else left. They finally notice the giant red clock that’s been ticking away the whole time, counting to the moment the fuel for the generators runs out, but he refuses to explain what happens at that point. Rick asks the computer system and it replies “Facility wide decontamination.” So that’s why we saw that little decontamination process when Jenner spilled the chemicals last week. In case you forgot, everything was blown to smithereens in the decontaminated room.
Unwilling to accept defeat, the men to go down to the generator room to check fuel levels. Just as they find there’s no more fuel, then the lights go out and the air conditioning stops. Why they wasted time proving that Jenner was wrong is still a mystery, when they could have spent that precious time escaping.
Jenner escapes the rest of the group, donning his Sunday best and talking to a picture of his late wife and saying he’s done the best in the time he’s had. It’s fine that he’s accepting death, but he doesn’t bother telling anyone else what’s going on or giving them a choice. They’ve got a half hour left, but he stubbornly tells them how hopeless it all is managing to stick in a little PSA about running out of power and the entire world running on fossil fuels. See? Go green, or zombies will take over the world. Maybe Al Gore should have used that strategy instead of enlisting Leo DiCaprio for help.
They try to leave, but Jenner locks the door. He smugly plays the “I told you so” card, saying he warned them the front door wouldn’t open again. Jenner still hasn’t explained the fate he’s signed them all up for, but Rick demands an answer. Jenner explodes and explains that the facility has an emergency mode that cleanses the entire place by basically setting the air on fire and killing every last living thing. So now they’ve really got to answer that existential question, immediate death or fighting for life in the face of almost certain death. Jenner is ready for his end to grief and pain, the problem is that he’s signed the rest of them up for it as well.
Shane and Daryl try desperately to break open the door, but the doors are meant to withstand a rocket launch. Jenner pleads with them, outing Rick and saying he didn’t think they’d survive. Rick continues to negotiate, but Shane aims a shotgun at Jenner eventually taking out his frustrations on the computers before Rick wrests the gun from him. Shane may not be evil for leaving Rick, but he’s still not the sharpest tool in the box and he needs to keep that anger in check. Something tells me he’s going to be a big problem next season.
With Shane subdued, Rick can coax Jenner to give them their freedom. Jenner chose to stay when others ran, why? Of course this is when he reveals that TS-19 is his wife and his research was a promise he made before she died. In his time underground, he’s let the idea that her genius could have saved everyone but it died with her. He sees no hope left, but that’s his choice. Rick convinces them that they all need to decide their fates for themselves, so Jenner opens the doors. With only four minutes left, they scramble just as Jenner whispers something in Rick’s ear – and we’ll have to wait until next season to find out what. Jaqui and Andrea decide to stay and Dale hangs back trying to convince only Andrea to escape (no love for Jaqui in this place, huh?). She tells him to leave, but he says she doesn’t get to come into someone’s life and then check out.
The men try desperately to break through the bullet proof glass in the lobby as the clock winds down, but Carol has the grenade she found in Rick’s pocket in her purse. They use the grenade and it shatters one of the windows so they can escape.
As the others flee the building and slay walkers on the way to their cars, Dale and Andrea come running out and make it to safety just as the CDC center blows sky high. This point makes it obvious that as cinematic as the show is, they’re still on a TV budget. The explosion was just a little subpar, but it made its point. They all pile into the caravan and drive away as Bob Dylan’s version of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” plays. Though I had hoped for more of a cliff-hanger at the end of the episode, the apt song choice punctuates the grim fate they’re about to face as they journey on and emphasizes the hope and friends that have just been lost during their stop at the CDC.
While this episode didn’t pack anywhere near the punch of the last two, I’m still ready to see what’s in store next season, especially since the entire writing team will be brand spanking new. Hopefully they can up the ante and give us a finale that will blow our minds when the show finally returns next year.