The Walking Dead’s season four finale has now thematically coalesced into something they’ve been building, really, the entire series, but they’ve taken it to the next level with this season. The thematic buildup can be expressed in one simple sentence: The Walking Dead is now attempting to reverse the moral status of the living and the dead.
We’ve seen it since the beginning—Shane’s violent actions against the living, and ultimately his attempt to murder Rick; random pillagers; The Governor’s being more savage, ruthless, and efficient a killer than any Walker, and so on. But in season four, the lines have been blurred even further, escalating every episode, until the transformation is seemingly finalized in the last episode. Here’s what it comes down to: the Walkers have no choice. Their humanity is destroyed, and they’re reduced to base level flesh-devouring automatons. But those who haven’t “turned,” the living—they still have the ability to empathize, to comfort and aide one another, to offer succor and forgiveness and compassion. But surviving so long and seeing so much brutality and death and misery, it’s turned many of the characters into creatures far more evil than the helpless Dead. Several of the starkest examples of this: (1) Lizzy, who almost suffocated baby Judith, who killed and dissected nonhuman animals “for fun,” and who finally killed her own sister because she was unable to see the great distinction between the living and dead (relevant here is how Carol was the one to kill Lizzy—Carol, who’s changed perhaps more than anyone, who’s justified ruthless behavior in the name of survival time and again; using ruthless violence to survive, just like the Walkers); (2) The “Claim Gang,” essentially a group of post-apocalyptic pirates, plundering, beating and even killing their own members who digress too far from their stated rules. How fitting that Rick’s “seismic shift,” as the actor who portrays him described it, comes during his attempt to overcome that very Claim Gang. In that one scene, there are at least three things that flip the script, as it were, between what we’ve come to expect from humans and Walkers—Daryl kills one of the men by stomp-crushing his skull, which was prior to that only done to Walkers; Rick also kills one of the Gang members in a way we usually only associate with the killing of Walkers, stabbing his son’s attacker over and over and over; and then, of course, the shocking moment when Rick bites out the jugular of his own captor, the gang leader Joe—utilizing a killing method we’ve seen literally dozens of times from Walkers.
Many of the characters are shown trying to come to terms with their dwindling humanity. Michonne and Carl both call themselves “monsters,” a term that could obviously be applied to the Walkers. Carol finally admits to Tyrese that she was the one who killed and burned the two bodies back at the prison. Others—most notably Rick—simply embrace a cutthroat, killer attitude. He will protect his son and his friends, at the expense of any shred of humanity he might have left for those outside that circle.
In the end, what we’re left with at Terminus is one dramatic, burning question: Just who exactly does the show’s title refer to? Is it the zombies who are “the walking dead,” or is it actually the living survivors? I can only guess that this question will only become more blurred, more difficult, next season. And I can’t wait.