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The mid-season finale ends with a serious HFS heartbreak that we’re going to spoil in the first paragraph. Assume a major spoiler warning is in effect from here on out.

Holy Hell, I did not see that coming.

Maybe I should have. Season 5 of The Walking Dead has not been particularly subtle about the fact that certain characters seem to have giant targets hovering above them. But still, the sudden murder of Beth, after a season devoted to finding and rescuing her, hit like a punch in the junk delivered by a particularly cruel Joss Whedon.

The bullet blasting through the top of her skull was a staggering moment, as brutal as it was surprising. And even though Beth wasn’t one of the core members of Rick’s posse of survivors, her longevity on the show made her elimination feel meaningful, and the reaction of the other characters to her death earned. Paired with the show’s newly-excellent writing and some truly awesome shots, “Coda” stands among the best episodes this show has ever produced, and even better, that statement isn’t simply damning with faint praise anymore.

What a way to bring the half-season to a close. Let’s move people, and prepare for all the feels.

Related: Read last week’s review here.

Despite the weight of events portrayed, “Coda” was a surprisingly fast, tightly scripted episode that lived up to its name. Taking place over what amounts to two hours, it picks up where we left off last week, with Officer Hydra running away from Rick and Co.’s hiding spot after having attacked Sasha. Rick is giving chase of course, and he hops into the captured Grady cops’ police car, using the vehicle’s loudspeaker to command that Officer Hydra stop and surrender.

Officer Hydra refuses to stop and keeps running. Rick gives him one more chance to surrender and when that isn’t accepted, Rick rams the car into Officer Hydra, knocking him forward and sending him crashing to the ground face first, breaking his neck. As Hydra twitches, he and Rick have a brief conversation. Hydra begs to be taken to the hospital. “No, you don’t get to go back. Not now.” Rick tells him, before killing him in cold blood.

Rick returns to the hideout, where the two other captured cops, clearly aware that Rick just killed their companion, are suddenly very cooperative. They agree to lie and tell the Grady hospital group that Hydra was killed by a walker, which will enable Rick to negotiate for the release of Carol and Beth. This makes way for a delicious moment in which Rick approaches two more of the Grady cops, seemingly alone. The cops force him at gunpoint to disarm, but Rick demonstrates that his group has the upper hand when a random zombie walks into the area. “Where is the rest of your group?” asks one of the Grady cops. A sniper bullet from Sasha takes off the zombie’s head. “They’re close,” quips Rick.

It’s yet another example of how effective this show has become since embracing the shlockier aspects of the genre, and a cool moment in its own right.

TWD running

Back at Father Gabriel’s church, Gabriel has wandered off to the nearby school we last saw as the base camp used by the Terminus cannibals. The scene takes particularly glee in lingering on the half-charred stump of Bob Stookey’s leg, but a swarm of zombies trapped inside the school break through the doors and chase after Gabriel.

Gabriel runs back to the church, and in a moment dripping with irony begins screaming for Michonne and Carl, barricaded inside, to let him in. Unlike Gabriel, they actually try to help him, tearing off the boards and dragging him inside, with the swarm of zombies pouring in quickly after. The three (and baby Judith, strapped to Michonne’s back during the ordeal) manage to escape through the hole Gabriel dug in his office floor, then trap the swarm of zombies inside the church. At that moment, Abe, Glenn, Maggie, Tara, Rosita and Eugene show up in their firetruck, help with dispatching the zombies, and learn where Rick and the others have gone. Maggie is almost overwhelmed by the news that her sister is still alive, which must surely mean the episode has a happy ending, right?

Meanwhile, at the hospital Beth is getting a much closer look at just how precarious things are, not only for the people the Grady cops have kidnapped and forced into servitude, but also for Dawn, whose grip on power is rapidly declining. Beth witnesses one of Dawn’s officers berating and then beating an old man for failing to repair a hole in his uniform. After pushing the old man down, he turns his attention to Beth, eyeing her with creepy appraisal, and asks if she knows how to sew. Dawn walks in at that moment and claims Beth is needed to help her with something, the implication that she just saved Beth from being raped obvious.

Later, at the elevator shaft last seen when Beth and Noah made their escape attempt, the two have a frank conversation about the state of things, and Dawn finally reveals how she ended up in charge of the Grady group. Their previous commanding officer, her mentor, lost his shit. Dawn explains that her officers “risk their lives every time they go out there. It has to mean something.” What that something is, she doesn’t come out and say, but her former commander lost sight of that, and Dawn was forced to kill him. The implication seems to be that his loss of control had to do with the rape culture the Grady officers have demonstrated again and again; rightly realizing what would happen if someone else ended up in charge, she killed her commander to establish her authority. If she can’t stop them from becoming a rape gang, she can at least channel it away from her and her other female officer.

Chilling stuff, but it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for her. She’s losing control of the group precisely because she has allowed them to become increasingly disgusting, and at this point is only trying desperately to maintain control. Beth alludes to this, prompting Dawn to call Beth out for having killed Hanson, the officer who tried raping her a few episodes back. The implied threat is that Dawn could at any moment reveal to her officers what Beth did, at which point Beth would be at their mercy. That threat doesn’t go much farther however, because the creepy cop from earlier turns out to have been spying on Beth and Dawn.

He knows he has Dawn’s number and informs her he intends to tell the other cops that she covered up Beth’s involvement in Hanson’s death. This leads to a near-breakdown by Dawn; having finally reached her limit for tolerating all the raping, she draws her gun and forces the officer back into the room. After making the mistake of monologuing for too long and too close, the two fight. Beth joins in and she and Dawn managed to push the officer out into the elevator shaft and down to a richly deserved death. Later, Beth accuses Dawn of using her to eliminate rivals without getting her hands dirty and further, she needs to accept that the bad things she has done aren’t a temporary blip in between stints of civilization, it’s just how she is now. This is important, as it feeds into what happens next.

At last, we get to the prisoner exchange. Rick, Daryl, Tyrse, Sasha and Noah gingerly escort their captives in, while what remains of the Grady group do the same with Carol and Beth. Once the exchange happens, Dawn demonstrates how craven she really is by demanding that Rick and co. turn Noah over to her. She straight up talks about Noah as though he is her property, and makes it clear she will start shooting if he isn’t returned to her. Noah immediately agrees in order to stave off further bloodshed, but Beth, who has clearly had enough of this bullshit, can’t let it go. She coldly tells Dawn “I get it now,” and stabs her in the chest with a pair of scissors.

This causes Dawn to involuntarily fire her weapon, sending a bullet right through Beth’s head and killing her instantly. Dawn immediately realizes what she’s done – Rick and co. definitely look like the wrong people to be screwing with – but her gasped apologies don’t matter. Daryl drops her with a single shot to the head and the others aim their guns at the freaked out remaining members of the Grady group, who are now outnumbered and outmatched.

The Grady group immediately stands down, which saves them, and they invite Rick and co. to stay. They insist it’s safe and the best option, but Rick, overcome with grief and keenly aware of how awful their little society is, declines their offer. He does invite anyone trapped at Grady who wants to leave to come with him and his group. However, they leave, and we see only Noah accepted that offer. The episode ends as the fire truck arrives with the remaining survivors, giving us a final shot of a devastated Maggie as she learns of her sister’s fate.

  • This season has done a fine job of taking two horribly underdeveloped characters – Carol and Beth – and turning them into the season’s most interesting. Beth was suicidal and self-abusing, while Carol suffered abuse from her deceased husband. Both characters have since evolved into hardened people, who more often than not make the hard decisions even Rick and Daryl can’t make. This makes Beth’s final act of defiance almost a triumph. She might be dead, but she went out on her terms.
  • Further, the way this season has used Carol and Beth has served to underscore the importance of community in helping to reinforce and support, for lack of a better way to put it, decent values. Our survivors have been contrasted with other groups who devolved into varying kinds of monsters, groups whose members embraced and encouraged the descent into evil. Seeing Rick struggle with his grief over Beth’s murder, only to be silently talked out of killing the remaining Grady cops by Carol, beautifully illustrated how his group has avoided similar outcomes.
  • It’s interesting that only Noah chose to leave. The remaining Grady prisoners/officers must surely know how bad things were getting. But the central appeal of fascism is that it establishes order. Further, the thing about totalitarianism and the crimes that often happen within it, is that everyone becomes somewhat complicit (see East Germany). This was a very effective demonstration of that sad fact.
  • This episode contains some truly fantastic shots, any one of which might be worth an entire article. Rick ramming into officer Hydra, the shot of a zombie pushing its face into a machete and getting sliced in half, the way the sniper scene is framed. This season hasn’t just seen a dramatic leap in the quality of writing, it’s also demonstrating a vastly increased level of artistry in cinematography. I can’t wait for the show’s return.
  • I’ve talked a little bit about this season’s heavy use of religious symbolism, but looking back on the last 8 episodes, the real undercurrent has been a lengthy riff off Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Rick and his group are obvious stand-ins for the Sandleford rabbits, in broad strokes, but I’m more interested with the way the two opposing groups of survivors they’ve encountered match up nicely to the two other warrens that novel spends time on. BTW, if you haven’t read Watership Down, rectify that immediately.

Bottom Line: My favorite episode of the season, “Coda” is touching, brutal, beautifully shot and excellently written.

Recommendation: An amazing episode and fitting end to a brutal and exciting half-season. I can’t wait for the show’s return in February.

[rating=4.5]

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