In the season finale, Rick's new heaven goes to hell, and a secret gets whispered

By Jeff Jensen
February 27, 2015 at 08:07 PM EST
AMC

Season 1 of AMC’s The Walking Dead: Over. Did the finale leave you sated—or did it leave you [insert your own zombie-hunger metaphor here]? Our “Totally Walking Dead” recappers Dan Snierson and Jeff Jensen go long this week to summarize “TS-19” and offer some overall thoughts about The Walking Dead’s sensational first season.

DAN: Here is my first thought: I need a hug. The finale entertained, yes, but also left us a little shell-shocked and bummed out for our survivors. We knew the situation was bleak, but damn, the show all but told us to take any hopes for a yay-we-found-a-cure-to-the-zombie-virus! ending and stick them where the hot Atlanta sun don’t shine. And yet as Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” resonated over images of Rick & Co. U-turning into the great unknown, we got the sense that as long as they were alive, at least there was a chance of a tomorrow. But is that a good thing? (Remember that farewell. Rick: “I’m grateful.” Jenner: “The day will come when you won’t be.”) All these guys can do is ignore the big, ugly picture and focus on the task at hand — which might include slicing off a zombie’s head and running like hell. This is as optimistic as it gets in the Year Zombie.

JEFF: You’re alluding to Daryl’s line drive headshot in the episode’s final moments, one of the few scenes of zombie action that this “zombie show” gave us last night. Did that disappoint some viewers? I was surprised to notice that many people responded negatively to last week’s marvelously mopey, metaphorical zombie-lite outing “Wildfire.” The phrases “transitional episode” and “nothing really happened” popped up a lot in the message boards. There’s also a contingent that’s loudly grousing about the deviations from Robert Kirkman’s comic book. So I’m interested to know what these camps made of “TS-19,” which was more “Wildfire” than “Guts,” more about existential human terror than gory monster horror, and more proof that the ongoing series will treat the comic as a source of thematic inspiration, not as a story to be literally adapted. This is to say nothing of those who were hoping for resolution to threads like Merle and Morgan. In retrospect, these first six episodes of The Walking Dead — while certifiably great — might be best appreciated as a miniseries prologue to the epic proper. More pontificating later, but let’s get to recapping.

DAN: We opened with a flashback — an answer to a question that had loomed over the Rick/Lori/Shane triangle: Why did Shane tell Lori that Rick was dead? Turns out, Shane sympathizers could breathe easier (at least for a few scenes): He did try to rescue Rick from the hospital…but he did so amidst the total chaos of military personnel gunning down patients (!) and zombies pouring into the facility. Then the power went down — and then Rick’s life support blinked out. Frantic, Shane searched his friend for a heartbeat and breath. “Show me a sign! Anything!” Shane cried, bluntly verbalizing the give-me-reason-to-hope theme that would feed the entire episode. Alas, all signs pointed to dead. Yet a small part of Shane didn’t give up on Rick — or maybe he just didn’t want his partner to become a zombie meal — because he checked on him one more time before barricading the door (was it enough to keep them out?) and bolting. One question answered, another one raised: Why didn’t the soldier who came into Rick’s room kill Rick like the other patients?

NEXT: Jenner’s bloody price of admission. Plus! The secret of Jenner’s name.

JEFF: My theory? The soldiers were wasting the patients because their infirmity made them more vulnerable to zombie infection — and certainly zombie munching. That hospital slaughter was a mass mercy killing to spare them from revenant resurrection — an idea that would resurface later in the episode. The flashback prologue was really just foreshadowing for the present-set drama that followed. Moses Rick had led the exodus away from Death Camp Hill to the Canaan of the Center for Disease Control. They hoped to find Happily Ever After — an end to suffering and chaos, the beginning of a brighter future. The gates opened; a seemingly saintly scientist granted them sanctuary. “Why are you here? What do you want?” Dr. Edwin Jenner asked, sounding downright Almighty Oz-ish. “A chance,” Rick replied. Impressed by their moxy, delighted by the prospect of company, and compelled by nature and profession to help, Jenner gave them that chance, anyway. His price? A blood sample, to prove them uncorrupted. (Given how we saw Jenner performing experiments on “necrotic tissue” last week, I initially wondered if Jenner was sizing up their lab rat potential.) Doc Jenner also warned them that when the doors closed, they’d never open again. They were too grateful to ask why.

DAN: Hot showers for all! Remember how our last shower scene was a tiny respite of joy from the horror? This one started the same way, as we saw Lori, Glenn and T-Dog wash that gray death out of their hair (or in T-Dog’s case, off his head) before Rick joined Lori for a sexy moment. But then we flashed on tortured Shane, whose showermate was the ol’ bottle of booze, and Andrea, who stared into the void of grief, reeling from the death of her sister. Their demons could not be swirled down the drain.

JEFF: That night, The Group gathered for a celebratory supper, oblivious to the secret that only Jenner knew, a secret that to his eyes must have rendered their meal a proverbial last supper. (“TS-19” was a very special “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we may…fry in apocalyptic fire” season finale.) Rick raised his glass: “It seems to me that we haven’t thanked our host properly.” T-Dog: “He’s more than just our host.” The rest of the sentiment went un-verbalized, but it was clear they viewed Jenner as their savior. Again, we see The Walking Dead layering in spiritual/existential subtext, all in service of a story that casts a skeptical regard for trusting all authority figures (religious, scientific, government) with our salvation. FUN FACT! “Dr. Edwin Jenner” must surely be named after Edward Jenner, the man who cured smallpox and the so-called “Father of Immunology.” Surely the connection was meant to be pointedly ironic, for the Dr. Jenner of The Walking Dead was no scientific savior.

DAN: The discomfort on Jenner’s face during the dinner was ominous and unsettling. Shane certainly didn’t trust him; he disrupted the toasts and light banter by pressing Jenner to explain why he was the last man standing. Jenner semi-answered (as he had a habit of doing) that when the situation turned dire, his fellow scientists had either fled or “opted out,” a.k.a. committed suicide. But he held strong, committed to his mission to “do some good.” Later that night, Rick came to him — soused — and confessed that his idealism and optimism were something of a crock: He had deep doubts about their prospects for survival — and had been keeping those doubts squirreled away from Lori and Carl. “It’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay,” Jenner replied with suspicious benevolence.

JEFF: Remember what Jim once said about anyone who promises you “It’ll all be okay.” That’s the biggest lie there is.

DAN: While Rick drunkenly confessed to Jenner, an equally inebriated Shane poured out his heart to a partially dressed Lori. Lori played the you-told-me-my-husband-was-dead! card, and Shane defended himself by reliving his rescue mission. “If I could’ve traded places with him, I would have,” he said. “I would trade places with him right now!” (Yes, you’d like that, Shane.) Things turned unseemly as he sloppily declared his love for her, forced his hand down between her legs, and tried to kiss her. She fought him off with a ninja neck scratch, and he left, angry and embarrassed. She collapsed in tears. Lori may have found temporary refuge from the zombies, but there was no safe haven from the lovesick….

NEXT: How do zombie brains work? Glad you asked!

JEFF: It was as if some members of The Group were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, none more so than Andrea. The terror and despair of the horror-show grind that she had been keeping at bay caught up with her and nearly crushed her. “Everything is gone!” she wailed to Dale. “Hear what I am saying: There is nothing left!” The next morning, all of them awoke with hangovers — physical and emotional — and they marched into the Zone 5 “Big Room” control center and sought out Dr. Strangelove and his God-like virtual intelligence “Vi” (shades of: HAL from 2001?) to cure them of their profound pain by giving them “Answers” and “Hope.” Didn’t quite get them, did they Dan?

DAN: Jenner was running low on both of those — especially the latter. He explained to our survivors what little he did know, with the aid of a video presentation — a playback of a brain scan of Test Subject 19 (later revealed as his brilliant scientist wife, who ran the CDC.). Jenner smoothly narrated over the entrancing visuals: “Somewhere in all that organic wiring, all those ripples of lights…is you, a thing that makes you unique and human.” Things then took a darker turn, literally. We saw the vibrant lights dud out; it was the zombie sickness shutting down the brain and major organs before killing the subject. We witnessed the reanimation process — as short as three minutes and as long as eight hours — learning that it restarted the brainstem, not the brain, rendering the person “just a shell driven by mindless instinct.” But what caused it? What was it? Alas, Jenner didn’t know: “Could be microbial, viral, parasitic, fungal….” “Or the wrath of god?” asked Jacqui. “There is that,” he said. Poor guy had been working in the dark for almost a month, and had reached the end of his hope rope. Rick & Co. pressed him for facts — for a single reason to believe — but Jenner couldn’t give them what they wanted. In a way, he’d become a zombie, his will to live rotted out, leaving behind a shell of a man. Gutted by grief over the loss of his wife (like Andrea, he had to end a loved one with a bullet to the brain), and facing down a drained fuel supply, he was left to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on his failed mission to solve the pandemic.

JEFF: We were left with the impression that a zombie plague remedy was either impossible (America’s best hope for solving the crisis died with Jenner’s genius wife) or very remote. Jenner revealed that he had reason to believe that French scientists had made more headway in the quest for a cure. Will The Walking Dead ultimately conclude umpteen seasons from now with Team Rick boarding a cruise ship bound for The Continent? Or will the saga end with teams of Hazmat-clad French super-soldier/scientists landing at South Beach armed with syringes to liberate us from our Undead Occupation — D-Day in World War Z? Whatever happens, the subtext of the scene confirmed that The Walking Dead is about survival and only about survival — not rescue or resolution. For anyone that worried that the trip to the CDC portended a major break from the comic’s zombie-life-sucks harsh reality… Gotcha! “TS-19” diverted from the source material simply to affirm its fundamental point of view. For newcomers to the Walking Dead world, that may sound riveting enough to continue forging ahead (and if you’ve read the comics, you know it can be); for others, this may sound too bleak to make the commitment. Fittingly, this choice was reflected in the final act of the finale. As it happened, Team Rick had reached the CDC during its own final hours of existence; the facility was running out power. When the tanks reached EMPTY, Vi would initiate a protocol designed to keep all the “nasty stuff” inside the CDC from escaping by scorching the air with purifying fire. In other words: KABOOM!

NEXT: The great escape — and Dale’s big bluff.

DAN: Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with our survivors — especially after Jenner sealed them inside the Zone 5 hub. Daryl charged at Jenner with an axe, only to be restrained. We should add that to our Walking Dead Drinking Game: Every time Daryl has to be physically stopped from attacking someone, bottoms up!

JEFF: I don’t think we’d be left standing. We might wonder why Jenner let The Group into CDC in the first place if he knew it the facility was on its last day of power. See: The mercy killing logic. He thought he was sparing them from a zombie fate — a fate certainty bolstered by Rick’s own confession of pessimism. (Lori did not look pleased by that revelation.) The crisis culminated with Rick brainstorming and delivering a big speech. The basic gist: self-determination. Jenner had no right to decide their lives for them. The underlying message: Give us the chance to choose life or death on our own terms; give us the means to give our lives meaning. Lori: “Let us keep trying for as long as we can.” Jenner released the doors, leaving everyone with a choice: Wait for death, or find some way to bust out. Jenner, not wanting to go down as a brain-blackened cannibal automaton, chose fire, to die wholly human…and Jacqui and Andrea, defeated by the prospect of never-ending survival struggle likely to end in certain zombification, opted to stay with him.

DAN: As did Dale — or so he would have Andrea (seem to) believe. While the survivors desperately tried different ways to break the reinforced glass windows (Chair? Nope. Shotgun? Nuh-uh. Grenade? Bingo!), Dale sat down near Andrea and vowed, “If you’re staying, I stay too. [Jenner’s] right. We know what’s waiting for us out there. I don’t want to face it alone.” A flustered Andrea told him to scram, not wanting to be responsible for his death too, but he entrenched. “Too bad,” he said, verging on tears. “You don’t get to do that — to come into somebody’s life, make them care, and then just check out!” (Unresolved grief from the loss of his wife to cancer?) In any case, his willingness to sacrifice himself/bluff big paid off. Andrea changed her mind, leaving only Jacqui and Jenner to carry out the suicide pact. They clasped arms and watched via security cameras that The Group somehow escaped — a wild, mutant strain of viral hope, breaking free from the Impregnable Fortress of “Nasty Stuff.” They rejoiced, and then the CDC — a place I thought we’d be spending a little more time in — went up in a fiery mushroom cloud that revealed some budget limitations.

JEFF: But we quibble. The Survivors lived to fight (or die) another day…and now, we wait possibly a year for further adventures. One cliffhanger to ponder: What did Jenner whisper in Rick’s ear? Topping the list of possibilities: “Lori’s pregnant.” The daddy? Most likely, Shane.

NEXT: More Rick-whisper possibilities — and Dan and Jeff end on a note of thanks.

DAN: That makes sense. But let’s entertain other scenarios. Was there something else that he could have detected in someone’s blood work? Leukemia or another malignancy? Also, Jenner did say there may be others like him. What if he was giving Rick the location of another super-science refuge, or even a somewhat safe place for Rick to hole up in?

JEFF: If Jenner knew for sure there were other scientists still alive and working, why did he surrender to suicidal despair? But I am open to the notion that perhaps he was giving Rick a tip about where he might find more help. Like: “Los Angeles hasn’t fallen to the zombies yet. Maybe you spend all of season 2 trying to get there.”

DAN: Los Angeles? Too smoggy. Think of a place that zombies would hard-pressed to attack. Yes, the ocean. What if there is an underwater facility off the Atlantic that caught word of the zombie attack and these folks are plotting and/or waiting it out a few thousand leagues under the sea, and our gang has to figure out a way to reach them? Now that’s a SEAson 2!

JEFF: Can there be zombie sharks?

DAN: I’ll do you even better. There’s an invasion of pirates, led by a hook-handed man…named Merle!

JEFF: Sold! “Sea” you then!

And on that note, our season of recapping comes to a close. As always, we thank you for reading — and for indulging our flights of tangential fancy. EW.com’s coverage of The Walking Dead’s first season doesn’t end with this recap: We’re going to be post-morteming the finale all week long, beginning with Clark Collis’ Q&A with Robert Kirkman posting on Monday. Until we again have the pleasure of talking your ears off — be well, folks.

GOT A CASE OF COMMUTING BLUES? LET OUR ‘TV INSIDERS’ PODCAST SPICE UP YOUR JOURNEY! This week Dalton Ross, Annie Barrett, and Michael Slezak dish another crazy week on Survivor: Nicaragua, welcome EW zombie correspondent Clark Collis to talk about AMC’s The Walking Dead, and get the scoop on 16 Christmas-themed movies from Dan Snierson, who watched ’em all! Plus, Dalton has a truly insane interview with Survivor castoff NaOnka Mixon. To join in all the fun, just click on the audio player below. And in the best news of all, we’re now on iTunes! You can subscribe for free right here and take the TV Insiders with you on the go. And to send a question to the TV Insiders, follow us on Twitter @TVInsiders. Enjoy!

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
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