Ultimately, we knew that in The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale we would see one of our survivor’s lives come to an end. In fact, fans had already surmised that the candidates most likely to die were either Beth or Carol – so we knew it was coming. But watching Beth’s death and the immediate aftermath on the group delivered a one-two emotional punch that made “Coda” surprisingly heartbreaking.
The episode opens with Rick chasing after a handcuffed Lamson, who just escaped after knocking Sasha unconscious. Rick isn’t playing games any longer, so he runs Lamson over in a police vehicle, then proceeds to shoot him after Lamson pleads to be taken back to the hospital. There’s no doubt that in this season, we’ve seen Rick as we’ve never quite seen him before: A leader who is willing to get blood on his hands in order to keep his people safe; He’s all business when it comes to surviving in this brutal landscape – get in his way, and he’ll take you out. Should Rick have killed Lamson? Probably not, but a Rick who is this decisive and action-oriented is satisfying to watch – right or wrong.
Gabriel is busy in this episode as well; After secretly leaving the church, he goes to the school to investigate the Termites’ camp – all in order to determine if Rick’s group was telling the truth about the Termites’ brutality (and therefore justifying the group’s actions in Gabriel’s mind). After surveying the scene and finding the remnants of Bob’s leg, Gabriel realizes how monstrous people have become and begins to weep.
Now, after having been holed up in the church all this time, Gabriel’s surprise and sorrow at what has become of humanity is reasonable, but he’s still judgmental and sanctimonious, especially after his own cowardly act of selfishness right at the start of the apocalypse. It’s ironic, then, when the walkers at the school break through the doors, shambling after Gabriel, and he ends up in front of the locked church, screaming for help as the zombies surround him. However, unlike Gabriel’s own actions in the face of such a threat, Carl and Michonne (with baby Judith on her back no less) crack open the barricades and risking their own lives, help Gabriel get inside. The irony doesn’t go unnoticed by Gabriel, because, as the small group hides in Gabriel’s office, he holds the walkers off so Michonne, Judith and Carl can escape the church, finally seeming to grasp that “the fight is worth it.”
Abraham and his group arrive in the fire truck at just the right moment to dispose of the walker threat, and then we’re treated to the only cheerful moment in the episode as Michonne tells Maggie that Beth is alive. Maggie’s been pretty silent over Beth’s disappearance all this time, but the show is telling us with Michonne’s revelation that Maggie thought Beth was dead. Maggie’s pure joy at hearing her sister is alive, coupled with Tara’s optimistic declaration to join in the rescue mission, provided a moment of lightness that made what was to follow even more heart wrenching.
With the other survivors coming together at the church, the true focus of this episode came from the hospital rescue mission. While Rick and the others make their final plans to set everything in motion, Dawn is trying to radio her missing officers. The action halts momentarily to give us some backstory about her sorrow over her fallen comrades – even displaying their badges in her room. In this scene we get to sympathize with Dawn just a tiny bit (as we did with the Termites’ tragic past), but it’s not enough to change our disdain for the character (just as it wasn’t for Gareth or the others). Beth seems to have Dawn pegged, though, as she continues to call her on her crap. It’s interesting that when Officer O’Donnell (one of the cops that was abusing a patient) comes in challenging Dawn’s authority and the two start to fight, Beth does assist Dawn –together the two women end up killing the officer. But even in saving Dawn, Beth doesn’t buy into her justifications or overall philosophy of using people as a means to an end. In fact, when Beth and Dawn are in Carol’s room, Beth adamantly tells Dawn that she’s had enough and is intent on leaving.
Outside, the game is on as Rick confronts two officers in a squad car to propose the trade. After the officers ask where his people are (and Sasha takes out a walker with one shot from the roof) Rick calmly declares “they’re close,” beautifully illustrating his advantage in the situation. This Rick is so much fun to watch, that it’s a shame things quickly went south from here.
The exchange goes down in the cramped halls of the hospital, providing the most intense minutes of the episode. And though it was inevitable that someone wasn’t going to make it, the scene was brimming with tension, delivering enough suspense that for a few moments, it really seemed like anyone could be fair game.
Carol is traded first, and then Beth finally gets to go to her people, greeted first by Rick, who gently kisses her head and protectively leads her to the rest of the group. It’s notable that this show not only finds brilliant ways to display the big walker action, but is consistently able to show these small, lovely moments where the characters quietly but outwardly display their fondness for one another. We see it in Tara’s fist bumps, Carol and Daryl’s facial expressions, and Rick’s understated physical affection. It may seem unimportant, but these subtle manifestations of the group’s connectedness magnifies their (still intact) humanity and facilitates the audience’s ability to relate to these characters.
Just when it seems like the exchange might take place without incident (though we really know better), Dawn lays down the condition that Noah must return as part of the deal. Rick resists, but Noah agrees to stay behind. As Beth gives Noah a goodbye hug, Dawn smugly tells Noah she knew he would be back, and that one statement pushes Beth over the edge, causing her to stab Dawn in the shoulder with a pair of scissors. It was a bit of a credibility stretch that Beth, who just got back with her group – the people she has been through hell and back with and has come to love – would be willing to risk herself and them for the sake of Noah – whom she just met – especially since Noah was willing to make the sacrifice. However, her behavior might be explainable if one looks at her character journey: Beth as the farm girl who found her strength through all the adversity she’s faced – her father’s murder in front of her, her time with Daryl, her determination to help Noah escape the hospital – all culminating in a woman who would not stand down in the face of Dawn’s controlling, power – hungry manipulations, even if it ultimately cost Beth her life.
After Dawn reflexively shoots Beth, she tries to explain to Rick’s group that it was an accident, But Daryl immediately retaliates by shooting Dawn in the head. Wanting no more bloodshed, the officers hold their fire, but before Rick leaves he makes an offer to the others that anyone who wants to leave could join his group – though only Noah accepts. It’s interesting that even in his shock and grief, Rick still cared enough to want to help the people in the hospital – illustrating that even though he’s become quite hardened this season, he’s still one of the good guys.
In the last moments of the episode, Maggie arrives with Abraham and the others, but instead of reuniting with the sister she just learned was alive, Maggie sees Daryl carrying a dead Beth out of the hospital entrance. This scene ran the risk of being melodramatic (how many times have we seen the dead being carried out of a battle in movies and TV) but the performances of all the actors, especially Norman Reedus and Lauren Cohan, elevated it to something much more affecting. The shot of Maggie screaming before falling to her knees and weeping uncontrollably was reminiscent of season 2 when Carol saw an undead Sophia emerge from the barn – and although not quite as heartbreaking as that scene, this one was effectively poignant.
After the closing credits we revisit Morgan, who finds the church and kneels in prayer at the altar. He spots Abraham’s map with the note to Rick on it, and then starts to laugh – in a bit of an ominous way. Morgan will probably find Rick’s group, but his motivations in doing so still remain a mystery.
The episode (in spite of being a little bogged down by the scenes of Gabriel at the school and Dawn’s exposition about Hanson) delivered an impactful hour, closing out the plotlines of the first half of the season and bringing the group together once more. And though showing the survivors a few at a time makes for interesting character development, the narrative becomes more emotionally powerful when the group faces things as a unit. Hopefully we’ll see them as such for the second half of the season.
This show constantly reinvents itself, and it hasn’t been afraid to take chances throughout the years – even though some risks paid off more than others. The ability to consistently create something new is one of the reasons the show has remained so successful. But the other reason, and most certainly the more important one, is that The Walking Dead is telling a human story. In reality, the walker action serves only as a backdrop to the human drama. Sometimes that drama is a bit heavy handed, and sometimes the characters make inexplicable – and therefore implausible – decisions. But ultimately, due to the intelligent writing and the actors’ strong performances, we (over 15 million of us) have come to care about these characters – their personal stories and their collective journey. And no matter how cool the zombies are, that’s what keeps us watching. Here’s to 8 more outstanding episodes when the show returns in February 2015.