Season 5 reaches the halfway point with a gut-wrenching finale.
“In this job, you don’t need their love, but you have to have their respect. Otherwise a day’s gonna come when you need backup, and you don’t have it. And what comes next? Everybody goes down.”
Put it on your tombstone, Dawn. The Walking Dead tolerates no rigid worldviews; the quickest way to disaster in the post-apocalypse is to cling to some inflexible mode of thinking. Some survive after they break (Abraham), and some don’t (Lerner). Turns out nothing Lerner said in her speech to Beth—another in a series of what feels like dozens at this point—held up in the end.
In the beginning of “Coda,” we see Officer Lamson trying to break free from his cuffs and his captors, only to be run down by Rick. It doesn’t look so bad, at least not compared to the hit Carol took, but Officer Bob says his back is broken. And he’s not especially deferential to Rick, even with a gun in his face. “You’ll die. You’ll all—” BAM! Last week in “Crossed,” Rick paused long enough to let Daryl convince him to save the life of Mr. Clean (Officer Licari) during their first attempt to trap the officers—“Rick, three’s better than two”—but he has no such angel on his shoulder this time around. There’s no hesitation, just a “shut up.”
Way on the other side of the spectrum is Father Gabriel—speaking of people with crumbling worldviews—who sneaked out of his church to see the truth for himself. As Seth Gilliam told Dalton Ross in the interview we posted last week, he’d shot a scene in the episode where he explained that he was going to the school to see if the group’s story were true. Was cannibalism really occurring? He finds a backpack with a Bible in it (belonging to someone named Mary B.) and notices the spine is cracked in 2 Chronicles. Who knows how much he looks at it, but the passages on that spread go from chapter eight to chapter 11, and have headings like “Solomon’s Other Activities” and “Israel Rebels Against Rehoboam.” As far as Walking Dead Bible passages go, these don’t seem to have as much to say about the show. But the Bible is red herring here; maybe it gives Gabriel pause to think these people were Christians who didn’t make a habit of eating their fellow humans, until the maggot-laced leg o’ Bob still sitting on the makeshift grill shows otherwise.
Gabriel may be struggling with his faith (or at least his faith in humanity), but how else do you explain why he is still alive? Someone seems to be looking after this guy, because a pack of surprisingly fleet-footed walkers escapes the school and follows him right back to St. Sarah’s, where Michonne, Carl, and Judith have hunkered down. Why doesn’t he scurry back underneath the church to the escape hatch he created, instead of bang on the door until Michonne and Carl open it, sealing the church’s fate? Why? Because he’s Gabriel, and he’s a jackass. That, and episode writer Angela Kang maybe wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine, pounding and wailing on the barricaded door like the parishioners he’d left to die among the walkers.
But we all know the fall of St. Sarah’s is a minor point in “Coda,” after weeks of a buildup to a fight between Rick’s group and the Grady Memorial crew. Rick, once again persuaded to take the less-violent approach by orchestrating a trade, finds himself with less bargaining power now that Lamson is dead. This gives him the chance to put the kibosh on the trade plan and go a-throat-slittin’, but Daryl thinks it can still work if the two remaining officers—Mr. Clean and The Other Lady Cop (Officer Shepherd)—play ball. Considering Mr. Clean only stopped his attempts to kill Daryl during the “Crossed” melee after Rick had him dead to rights, he doesn’t seem trustworthy. But Other Lady Cop, who previously said a trade wouldn’t work, offers to say walkers killed Lamson.
It’ll only work if Lerner buys the walker story, and at the moment, she’s trying to find her officers while getting in some cardio. (There may be no more comical image from this half of the season than prim and proper Lerner pounding away on her exercise bike, dutifully wearing her workout uniform.) She’s assigned Beth the task of replacing the busted frame that had housed the photo of Lerner and her mentor, Captain Hanson.
What happened to Hanson? Euphemistically, he “lost his way.” Realistically, Lerner killed him. She doesn’t say it in so many words during another of her interminable speeches to Beth—I’m going to compile all of them on an album called Dawn Lerner: These Things I Believe—but it all comes out later. This scene is basically more table-setting, which probably tried the patience of those Walking Dead viewers who had none left to give after a trio of table-setting episodes.
But events are in motion. Just as the walkers look as if they’re about to break free of St. Sarah’s, where Carl and Michonne have trapped them and Gabriel looks on anxiously but doing nothing, the D.C. group returns with a repaired fire truck. Maggie’s elated to hear Beth is alive and about to be rescued, and everybody hops in the truck to Atlanta.
And here’s where “Coda” kicks in, presuming viewers can stomach a couple more speeches from Lerner justifying her actions. Beth had headed to the Corpse Chute (i.e., the elevator shaft where bodies are dumped) for some alone time, but Dawn follows her and insinuates Beth’s debt has only increased. How? Because not only did Dawn save her life when they “found” Beth on the side of the road, but she covered up Gorman’s death, ostensibly to save Beth from the other officers. (She still underestimates Beth’s perceptiveness.) “You’re a cop-killer,” Lerner tells Beth, because hyperbole saves lives! Or something!
Officer O’Donnell hears all of this, and very quickly the blanks in Lerner’s and Grady Memorial’s past get filled in as their confrontation escalates. O’Donnell and Lerner had been rookies together, friends from way back, but no longer. Lerner says the guy she knew then isn’t the guy who pushes around an old man and jokes about a girl getting raped, and he says she changed after she killed Hanson. It’s a rough fight, the upper hand switching back and forth. Probably fearing for her own safety more than a desire to protect Lerner, Beth tries to help. She’s thwarted at first, until Lerner breaks free and Beth shoves O’Donnell down the elevator shaft.
NEXT: Carol wakes up, conveniently
This is no bonding moment, though Lerner breaks out her stash of hard booze and tries to make it one. Even after Beth has proven herself to be far stronger and more intelligent than Dawn thought, Lerner still thinks she can pull off another “one to grow on” speech. Beth quickly points out that Lerner was protecting herself when she “saved” Beth: O’Donnell, Gorman, these guys were causing problems, and Lerner was able to neutralize them without getting her hands dirty. Lerner of course denies it, though she’s so blinkered by her own nonsense even she may not realize what she’s done.
Hey, what a convenient time for Carol to wake up! Let’s be clear: A car hit her going, what, 20 mph and sent her flying over the hood and roof. She was declared by the doctor and staff of Grady Memorial to be a lost cause and pulled off life support (though Lerner allowed Beth to try to save her) and hasn’t regained consciousness until this very moment. The extent of her injuries is unknown, because the hospital doesn’t have the necessary equipment. Beth gives her 5 mg of epinephrine, the same stuff in EpiPens for people who are allergic to stuff like peanuts or eggs, and voilà, Carol is awake and, later, able to walk out of the hospital on her own! This epinephrine is a miracle drug!
Okay, end rant, because everything is about to happen. Everyone who’d hoped for an action-packed finale to bookend the half of the season that opened with “No Sanctuary” were thwarted again, but the final minutes of “Coda” were appropriately devastating—or “gut-wrenching,” as Sonequa Martin-Green promised Dalton last week. Let’s just skip past the setup (though Rick saying “They’re close” is my favorite part of the episode) and get to it, shall we?
Well, hang on a sec. They call it the Dutch angle. Or maybe German angle. Or, if you don’t want to play favorites, the canted angle. I know it as the tilted horizon, and cinematographer Michael E. Satrazemis used it to telegraph well ahead of time that the prisoner exchange wasn’t going to end well. As the respective groups assemble in the hallway, the camera shoots from an angle—tilted a good 30 degrees up to the left at first, even seemingly distorting the image in one shot, making Lerner and the cops look stretched out. The Dutch angle’s Wikipedia page notes it’s “often used to portray psychological uneasiness or tension in the subject being filmed.” (It also has its own TV Tropes page.)
Not that any Walking Dead viewers needed help in thinking something would go wrong during the trade. The tension on Lerner’s face betrays her as the wild card: She can’t show any weakness in front of her cadre of usurpers, so she can’t let the exchange proceed as planned. She demands Noah, because he was her “ward,” and because Beth replaced him and she’s losing Beth, she must be repaid that debt. Oh that insane sense of debt is the millstone around your neck, Dawn.
Rick and the group could’ve kept walking when she said she wanted Noah. They were at the end of the hall. They could’ve made a run for it (though they wouldn’t be fast with Carol). What leverage does Lerner have? The group is heavily armed—she has no advantage. Why even acknowledge her demand?
It all seems to prove the validity of Rick’s original SEAL Team Six-esque plan. Negotiation has not helped this process. It may tie everyone back to a more civilized time, but trying to stay connected to their humanity has only put them in more danger with this rescue mission. Rick’s plan could’ve been just as bloody, maybe more so, but it’s hard to look at what happens here and wonder how it could’ve been avoided.
Noah agrees to go back to his indentured servitude, but Beth can’t let it go. She stares daggers at Lerner before producing an actual dagger of sorts in the form of scissors she’d hidden in her cast. When she tries to stab Lerner, Dawn fires—as Dalton wondered in his react, accidentally?—killing Beth with a headshot. Lerner tries to stop what’s coming next, but she’s dead within seconds.
An all-out firefight almost erupts, but Officer Shepherd tells her colleagues to stand down. “It’s over! It was just about her!” Dawn is dead, so no one else needs to die.
And this is where The Walking Dead’s fifth season reaches its halfway point. The fire truck reuniting the group, just in time for Maggie to see Daryl carrying her sister’s body. No one gets out of a Walking Dead finale unscathed.
“You keep telling yourself you have to do whatever it takes, just until this is all over. But it isn’t over. This is it. This is who you are and what this place is until the end.”
See you in February.
• Speaking of codas: I wondered all season if we’d see Morgan again, and the post-credits sequence (a nice bookend to the one from the season premiere) shows him following the group’s trail. It’s not until he sees the map Abraham left Rick in the church that he realizes whom he’s following.
• The preview for the second half of the season all but confirms they’re going to Alexandria, no?
• Rick offered freedom to any of the wards at Grady Memorial. Only Noah followed him. The devil you know…
• What do you think they did with Lerner’s body? Did she get the same one-way trip down the Corpse Chute that everyone else gets?
• On the arch over St. Sarah’s altar is this line from John 6:54: “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has Eternal Life.” Turns out eating flesh does give a sort of weird “eternal life” on The Walking Dead.
• That was another nice moment between Tyreese and Sasha on the roof of the parking garage. He thinks they’re still fundamentally the same people they’ve always been, but she disagrees. “You’re still the same, and that’s good. I don’t think I can be, not anymore.”
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