The structure of tonight’s "The Walking Dead" finale is indicative of where the show is right now: struggling to come back to television. (Spoiler Alert.)
For the first half hour, picking up a bit before the penultimate episode left off, we are treated to a zompocalypse. The herd of zombies who came out of the woods after Shane’s killing are discovered in Atlanta, low on food but startled by the sight and sound of a helicopter. (No, we don’t see the copter again; it’s a little fan-boy tease, presumably to return in another season.)
We already know, of course, where they are going to end up: on Herschel’s farm. The result is a half-hour of action film. Ernest R. Dickerson, once again directing, is fine at this. But, of course, action is one of the few things that American films still do well. Television doesn’t have the budget.
So the first half of the finale hovers between B-movie on-a-budget grit (the source of the underlying material) and the somewhat more expensive, slicker style of the series.
Notice, however, that the big action sequence came first. This is usually what you build towards, not move away from.
What distinguishes TV right now is that it has become the refuge of character drama. And "The Walking Dead" at its best serves simultaneously as a genre and a character drama. In its moral complexity, it has staked out exactly the territory that film had mid-century.
And that is where this episode, written by Robert Kirkman & Glen Mazzara, finally goes: towards Rick finally walking over the edge, more than a little mad (in the mode of James Stewart’s psychotic period), terrifying the others who can’t really get away from him. (Except for Andrea – a woman of action left in serious jeopardy.)
Watching this, I couldn’t help thinking that it must be very strange to be Kirkman, who plotted this entire thing out for years, only to now be working on the alternate narrative version of the same story. Of course, with Shane dead and Rick out of control, we’re about where Kirkman left us at the end of Book 3 of the comics, emotionally and morally if not physically.