THE WALKING DEAD has a pretty lousy record with season enders. They do the equivalent of 2 per year, and some of them are among the worst TWD eps of the entire run. In general, this season was, overall, easily the best since the first, and tonight's finale, simply titled "A," wanted to be very good, but ended up--as so many eps of the season--a somewhat frustratingly mixed bag.
The central focus of "A" was Rick getting in touch with his inner Ugly. Flashbacks throughout the episode fill us in on the events leading to the birth of Rick 6.0, the pacifist farmer.
At the beginning of the season, I interpreted this version of Rick as
showrunner Scott Gimple's thumb in the eye of the prior TWD regime's
handling of Rick--the writers offered a version of the various weak,
stupid Ricks introduced under showrunner Glen Mazzara, had him realize
how entirely inappropriate that was given the world in which he lives,
and had him elect to put on his guns again. The series almost
immediately began thumbing my interpretation in the eye--it
wasn't quite done with weak, stupid Rick just yet. Tonight, Rick, his
son, and his friends face a horrible fate, and Rick finally gets his
mean on, and in a big way. The flashbacks show a different time from
which the world has moved on, and the current events suggest it's time
for a much harder edge to face that world. So maybe my thoughts weren't
entirely wrong. This part of the series is, in any event, moving in the
right direction, if it doesn't regress again next fall.
Rick tears open a fellow's throat with his teeth and mercilessly
carves up a would-be pedophile rapist who was about to go all
DELIVERANCE on Carl's ass. Good stuff. But he then has to indulge in one
of the least fortunate habits of TWD's Mazzara era: he sits around and
talks about his feelings about what just happened. One of the first rules of screenwriting is "Show, Don't Tell." It's a rule to which TWD's writers rarely seem to have
been exposed. In general, nothing of this sort can pass as a
matter-of-fact thing. It all has to be analyzed, and, worse, the
post-mortem conveyed via painfully bad, anti-naturalistic dialogue.
Melodrama, of the kind that gives melodrama its bad name. Daryl has to
get in on the action too, making excuses for traveling with the bad men
they'd just put down, as if there was anything in that for which to
apologize--he does this so Rick can tell him he'd done nothing wrong. A
very sweet, entirely pointless, and actively pernicious waste of several
minutes of screentime.
Rick and co. make it to the Shangri-La the characters have been
pursuing, the terminus of the railroad line where, they've been assured
by the signs posted along the way, they'll find sanctuary. It turns out
not to be the friendly place for which they'd hoped, and that's the
point on which "A" hits its "z." To be continued.
Overall, this season saw a major turnaround of a series
that had been creatively dead for two years. We've gotten some of the
best episodes of TWD ever produced--a slew of them--but no matter how
much TWD has improved, it can't seem to shake the poisonous influence
and crushing baggage of those bad ol' days, and I'm still left to look
at the season as a whole as a disappointment. There's absolutely no
reason why TWD can't be one of the best shows on television. It's had
that potential from the day it launched--the comics make that crystal
clear. No matter how good it's gotten, it continues to fail to live up
to that potential, and even its best episodes are plagued by problematic
The early portion of the season offered a great set-up. Someone
was feeding the dead at night, resulting in great swarms of them
besieging the prison; a mysterious and deadly disease broke out within
its walls; an unknown murderer began killing the living. The horror
elements of TWD, so neglected under the previous regime, were brought to
the fore by these overlapping events; the prison that had become a
sanctuary and place of freedom became a prison again, confining the
characters in a claustrophobic space beset with constant dangers, both
seen and unseen. It's impossible not to feel disappointment at the
writers' failure to capitalize on this atmosphere after weaving it, and
that disappointment becomes rather profound in light of the subject they
pursued instead--a string of episodes devoted to bringing back GINO,
one of the worst pieces of baggage from the previous regime, leading up
to a fairly dismal rehash of the season 3 finale. By an intelligent
extrapolation, by the writers, of her experiences, Carol was made the
most interesting character then made to go way out-of-character in order
to commit a pair of senseless murders to serve the season's big Theme.
She was then written out of the show for most of the rest of the season.
That big, pretentious Theme
loomed large over most of the season, but, by the end, the writers had
mostly abandoned it, which is another mark in their favor. The second
half of the season saw the characters, in the aftermath of the prison's
collapse, broken into smaller groups and wandering around having
individual adventures, many of which were quite good but all of which
are carried out in the shadow of the utterly ridiculous lack of interest
they show in finding one another. Solely because the writers want them
to meet up at the railroad terminus, they all happen across the signs
promising sanctuary, and all decide to pursue that option. Idiot Plot
Syndrome was a perpetual problem with TWD in the two prior season; it
remained a recurring feature of this one.
TWD improved remarkably this season, but for TWD, there's a
galaxy of space between "improving remarkably" and Great. I'd like to
see it move--and move a hell of a lot faster--toward the latter.
 Kudos to the writers for a season ender in which none of the
regulars die. That may seem odd praise--a series like TWD should kill
off regulars from time to time--but Mazzara used character deaths as
cheap stunts. For shock
 Filler remained a problem this season as well. Last week's ep, "Us," was mostly an uninteresting filler episode--two different problems but certainly related. Excess filler is a problem the Gimple Gang seemed to recognize, and there was nowhere near as much of it this season as under Mazzara (where a single episode of plot would be stretched to fill six and seven eps), but it's still something that could use some attention. In a well-executed TWD, the writers would be straining every week to get in everything, not struggling to fill out the hour.
UPDATE (3 April, 2014) - Regular reader "Max Headroom," in the comments section, notes that the flashbacks in the season finale were probably full of continuity errors. I noticed problems with it, too, and, given my work on the show's timeline, it was probably something I should have covered.
The flashbacks do have continuity errors, but Gimple also seemed to be trying to work in a correction to one of the infinity of continuity problems that came as a consequence of Mazzara's non-existent timeline (and ended up making some more problems). Season 3 took place over a period of about 3 weeks story-time, which, going by the timeline from the end of season 2 (which ignored everything leading up to it), would have meant it concluded some time in July. Except it was already getting cold again by the end of S3; visible breath, everyone wearing jackets, and the leaves had turned and were falling. Sunday's flashback retcons that. In it, Hershel says they've been at the prison for two months now, and it was time to start planting. That would put the flashbacks at about five weeks after the conclusion of S3, deep into the fall by Mazzara's "timeline," but still in the summer if one goes by how much time had actually passed.
And in those flashbacks, Rick already seems to be pretty much recovered from his time as Crazy Rick. He's even making regular supply runs and seems to be rather pleased with things. Other than, of course, Carl's growing coldness. This is a complete contradiction to the opening of S4, which gave the impression of Rick having become
Farmer Rick the Pacifist as a means of recovering from his Crazy Rick
period. Everything was written around
that, and he still seemed pretty messed up. He had, in a rather shockingly overbearing way, forcibly infantilized his son--recall Carl's near-terrified, apologetic reaction after having to confess he's used a gun at one point. And, of course, Farmer Rick the Pacifist is still showing signs of Crazy Rick--he's the guy who acts as if he's almost afraid to wear his gun, and who doesn't put it on, even when he goes outside. He continued to seem pretty messed up throughout much of the just-concluded
season (recall his absolutely pathetic behavior when GINO came calling). The flashbacks make it appear Farmer Rick the Pacifist was an intentional choice made by him after he was already back to being himself rather than a recovery period taken as a necessity to try to pull himself together. The latter is how it was depicted and even described at the opening of the season.