Sunday, February 8, 2015
On a show that can be fairly routinely criticized for tedious plot twists that hinge on characters’ lack of common sense, The Walking Dead may have outdone itself with its Season 5 mid-season finale that many viewers found… perplexing, to put it lightly. Read critics’ reviews from around the web, and you’ll see the climactic death scene more harshly described variously as “nonsensical,” “inexplicable,” “random,” “manipulative,” and “hollow.” Discussion forums immediately following the episode’s original airing were awash with comments expressing not so much frustration as plain bewilderment at what viewers had just witnessed and why. Why did Beth stab Dawn? What was she thinking? Is it that she wasn’t thinking? Was there any point to her death? Was the whole moment purely for cheap shock value and nothing more? Were people supposed to be more angry or sad at how it all went down? Because they mostly seemed confused. For sure, The Walking Dead TV series has had some major logic issues over its four-and-a-half seasons so far, but, actually, I’m not sure this is one of them. Personally, I kind of get it.
First, before I go on, I should say that, on reason, I do not think it reasonable to evaluate the events of a scripted and finite genre show strictly literally. It does not do to judge the logic of a TV character’s decisions the same way that we would criticize, say, a sports team’s questionable play in the big game. That doesn’t mean it’s excusable for characters to act like idiots; it means that a character’s arc need not abide by the practical realities that rule our own lives, so long as it consistently observes a valid thematic truth. Beth’s death on The Walking Dead was, in my opinion, the fitting fulfillment of the theme to that half-season, and also true to her character as it had developed up to that point.
Second, I should also add that I think The Walking Dead is a series whose arcs are ideally consumed fully in marathon form, even though the show is not broadcast that way. The middle episodes of each half-season tend to be slow and uneventful. For as popular as this show has become, very rarely does a single episode live up to the preceding week of anticipation. As a result, it becomes very easy for viewers to drift and lose sight of the larger thematic whole across eight weeks.
The tagline for the first half of The Walking Dead Season 5 is “Hunt or be hunted,” ostensibly referring to the group’s conflict with the Terminus cannibals. The cannibals are out of the picture after three episodes, but their foundational ethos, as voiced by their society’s matriarch, Mary—”You’re the butcher or you’re the cattle”—haunts the protagonists throughout the remainder of the arc. Again and again, they are brutally shown that altruism, or even trust, toward others only endangers their own group, and, more and more, Rick especially, as their leader, begins to adopt a policy of basing decisions less on “the right thing to do” and more on “us first,” which is exactly how the Terminans operated.
The season opens with a flashback revealing that the cannibals were not always so. Once upon a time, their signs promising sanctuary were sincere. They were trying to do something good, until the signposts drew a group of marauders, who then proceeded to rape and kill the people of Terminus. Mary and her son, Gareth, eventually led their people to take back control, but not before learning the hard way the price for trying to be human beings in the new post-zombocalypse world. Thus, they decided thereafter that they would be the butchers and not the cattle.
The Terminans’ own treachery then impresses upon Rick’s group the same lesson, which is further driven home by subsequent experiences. After they are taken captive by the revealed cannibals, Rick and a few others break free first and go looking for their friends still held captive in some traincar. They pass other cars along the way, and Glenn suggests that those cars must also be full of prisoners in need of their help, which elicits an incredulous glare from Rick. “It’s still who we are,” Glenn insists. “It’s gotta be.” And so Rick relents, unlocking one of the cars, only to be met with the raving madman inside—one of the marauders who tormented Gareth’s people, we later find out via flashback.
Next, after the group successfully escapes Terminus, which is at that point burning down and under zombie siege, Rick tells the others to take up sniping posts along the fence, so that they can pick off any surviving cannibals. “They don’t get to live,” he says. The others, appalled at the idea, dissuade him of it, reasoning that any cannibals the zombies might fail to finish off will be put to flight and no longer pose any threat. But they’re wrong. A small band of cannibals led by Gareth survives to stalk them, and Bob Stookey ends up paying the price with his leg for the group’s mercy. This time, nobody stops Rick, as he slaughters the last of the cannibals.
Not everyone in the group is entirely easy with the idea that they must be ruthless to survive, but Carol later seems to affirm Rick’s sentiments: “I don’t think we get to save people anymore.” Of course, she was the one who, last season, murdered two of the group's own simply because they might have been contagious with a deadly flu, and then also put down a little girl because apparently she was too crazy to take along but they also couldn’t leave her behind.
Meanwhile, this whole time, Beth is stuck in the city in a hospital run by a group of former police officers led by the clearly deranged and delusional Dawn. Although they are not literally eating people, the hospital operates, under Dawn, as a “cannibalistic” society, where, as Beth observes, “Everyone uses people to get what they want.” Dawn’s officers bring wounded into the hospital and give them treatment and shelter, but this is no altruism. No service is rendered without expectation of payment, which, for Beth and the other civilians in the hospital, basically means being slaves to the officers. Even the one doctor, who appears at first compassionate, is an adherent to the system in place, as the friendship he extends to Beth turns out to be only a ploy to manipulate her to his personal advantage within the hospital. Like everyone else, he’s looking out only for himself, and helping others only when it helps him.
This sort of manipulative ploy in the interest of self-preservation was exercised even within the main group by Eugene, who used the false hope of a cure to string along people to protect him, including many who died believing in him prior to his first appearance on the show. Again, the message seems to be that “right or wrong” is no longer meaningful in the new world, and surviving is all that matters.
As the mid-season finale begins, Rick’s group has captured a trio of Dawn’s officers, whom they plan to exchange for Beth and Carol, both being held at the hospital. (The prisoner exchange, by the way, was Tyreese’s idea. Rick’s original plan was to go in guns blazing and massacre the hospital gang.) When one of the officers escapes, after having feigned cooperation, Rick responds by running down the unarmed, fleeing man with a police car—a new level of cold-bloodedness for our hero. It’s clear that he is done suffering fools. In a chillingly ironic bit of symmetry, Rick’s words to the mangled officer even echo exactly those of Gareth to the captive group near the beginning of the season premiere: “Can’t go back, Bob.” In the premiere, it was Bob Stookey pleading that the group had a plan to set the world back the way it was. In the finale, it was Officer Bob begging to be taken back to the hospital. If the context was not precisely the same, nevertheless the point was made. Rick understood now, as Gareth did, that the old world was gone, its values obsolete.
Which brings us finally to the close of this arc and that fateful prisoner exchange. The two officers are returned to Dawn in trade for Beth and Carol, and everything seems okay, until Dawn asks that Rick’s group give up Noah, her former “ward” (i.e. slave), who had earlier escaped and provided the group with intel on the hospital. Rick and Daryl object, but only until Noah surrenders himself to avert a shootout. At that point, with the safety of their group of utmost concern, they’re probably relieved not to have to fight for Noah, since he was never really part of the group. But Beth is not okay with that.
Beth alone flatly rejects this new insane way of living. Like her father, Hershel, who ultimately remained an upright man in a fallen world (even when he had only one leg and was then forced to his knees to boot), she doesn’t just react to circumstance and fall in line, but rather has her own moral compass that isn’t open to compromise. She recognizes that it actually isn’t okay but is totally broken—this “us first” attitude of only looking out for your own, this nonsense of “butchers” and “cattle” and of subsisting by feeding off one’s fellow human, whether literally or figuratively. Where all those around her, concerned only with surviving, even at the expense of their humanity, have become “the walking dead,” she alone understands that there are things worth more than one’s own life. And so she gives up that life in a shockingly selfless act, sacrificing herself to remove the monster, Dawn—not just to save Noah, but to flip the script for everyone watching, to reach those that can still be reached, and show them that there is another way. Thus, in dying, Beth becomes the girl who lived.
Sure enough, her sacrifice at last shatters the binary “hunt or be hunted” paradigm that has defined the season up to this point. Where, a moment prior, we had essentially two armed gangs eyeing each other warily from opposite ends of the hallway, each hoping just to hold on to what was theirs, now suddenly each group, cleansed in the wake of Beth’s unthinkable sacrifice, is offering to take in the other.
Now, the natural question is, did she really have to let Dawn kill her, in order to get across this message? If Dawn had to go, couldn’t Rick or Daryl just have taken her out easily without Beth having to die first? Maybe. But everybody was already leery and on edge, anticipating that something might go wrong with the exchange. Even though Dawn’s own people hated her, they might, on reflex, have retaliated to such a direct attack in cold blood, and then all hell would have broken loose with both sides opening up on one another. No, Beth had to do it in such a way as to 1) stun everybody, Dawn included, and 2) set it up so that Daryl executing Dawn would have appeared, in that moment, completely justified even to the other side.
So I don’t think Beth’s actions were random or inexplicable. On the contrary, I think they were calculated. She understood that there would be a price to be paid for being a human being. That lesson was not lost on her. But where everybody else only made it that far, she alone graduated in choosing to pay the price fully herself, giving everything that she had or could ever have to give, knowing that she would never personally benefit. That’s when everybody else finally got it too—the real point of the lesson, which Beth wouldn't allow them to walk out without confronting. The paradigm was binary, but Beth’s sacrifice reframed it back to what it originally was: "right or wrong," the distinction still immutable even in the new world.
In summary, I do believe that there was a point to the way Beth died. Now, if this were real life, then what Beth did would be quite stupid, in my opinion, because I don’t generally believe, in the real world in this day and age, that the power of a gesture ever endures long enough to justify a life in exchange. In a more finite work of fiction, however, where every character is just an embodiment of the artists’ words and ideas, there is no higher pursuit for any character than to make a statement that can actually affect those of us in the real world. Because a fictional character doesn't truly have a life to lose, but, in saying something real, they can attain a life beyond what is fiction.
Alas, even within the fiction of The Walking Dead, Beth's sacrifice will likely be rendered hollow, probably quite soon, as future arcs will no doubt see the show going in circles (as it already has been) to contradict this arc's message and regress the group back to a "humanity is a liability" way of thinking. Although, as I argued, it’s preferable to marathon an arc in its entirety, I also think the show surely falls apart if you try to consume more than that at once.