SPOILER ALERT: The recap for the "A" episode of "The Walking Dead" contains storyline and character spoilers.
It was an incredibly tension-filled, storyline-packed season finale of "The Walking Dead," and it featured one of the most brutal, nearly unwatchable scenes in the series' history. Because of that, we want to start off with a bit of levity: Wow, that Rick Grimes really went for the jugular, didn't he?
So the levity also happens to be literally true, as the vicious season-ender everyone from "TWD" creator Robert Kirkman to series star Andrew Lincoln had been hinting at involved Rick proving — to himself, friends and family, and viewers — that he could and would do anything to protect son Carl.
In "A," that meant when Joe and his "Claimers" pals threatened to sexually attack and then kill Carl (and Michonne), a weaponless Rick stood up to Joe and bit off a giant piece of his neck, leaving Joe to a painful death as blood spurted from his jugular, while Rick calmly looked at him and spit out a mouthful of flesh.
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And then there was Dan, the guy who had ripped Carl from inside a truck, beat him up, and thrown him to the ground. With Joe dying and the rest of the Claimers killed by Michonne and Daryl (more on that reunion in a bit), only Carl's attacker remained, and Rick declared, "He's mine" before stabbing Dan — gutting him, actually — with the sounds of Rick's knife work almost as graphic as his zombie-like chomp of Joe.
Rick was shaken by his own actions, briefly, but then seemed resigned to what he'd done, and what it revealed about what he was capable of, and what he would be committed to going forward. "What you did last night… anybody would have done that," Daryl told Rick the morning after the Claimers attack.
"No, not that," Rick said. "You saw what I did to Tyreese [at the prison]. It ain't all of it, but that's me. That's why I'm here now, and that's why Carl is. I'm going to keep him safe. That's all that matters."
Hershel… Aw, Hershel
In a series of flashbacks that remind us of how much we love and miss Hershel, we learn what prompted Rick's ultimately futile attempt at becoming a farmer at the prison. During the time period between the end of Season 3 — after Carl shot and killed that teenage boy — and where we meet up with the gang at the beginning of Season 4, Hershel convinced Rick he could slow down, stop going on runs outside the prison, stop worrying about leading the group, and instead focus on building a community at the prison and giving Carl a different reason for living.
"I teach you how to do this, you teach Carl," Hershel tells Rick about farming the prison. "He needs his father to show him the way. What way are you going to show him? What's his life going to be? What's yours?"
Hershel tells Rick the "war" is over — this was after the Governor's first attack on the prison and his subsequent disappearance. "We can make this better," Hershel says, and it's heartbreaking that he really believed that, especially knowing what happened to him, at the Governor's hand, when the war resumed.
Hershel wanted more for Rick and Carl, and throughout the flashbacks, he briefly helped forge that new direction for the Grimes fellas. "It can be like this all the time," Hershel says when he, Rick, Carl, Beth, and Judith are laughing and enjoying time together while planting the garden. "It's like this now. That's enough," says Rick.
But it's another sentiment Rick expresses, in response to Hershel's plans to "make this better," that proves to be the truest: "Things changing in here doesn't change things out there."
Daryl was traveling with Joe and the Claimers, and knew they were stalking the man who'd killed their friend Lou, but he didn't know that man was Rick until the moment Joe, who'd traveled a bit ahead of him, pulled his gun on Rick and began a "day of reckoning."
Daryl tells Joe not to kill Rick — he even offers himself up in place of Rick — and then tells Joe that Rick, Michonne, and Carl are good people.
"This man killed our friend. You say he's good people. That's a lie," says Joe, who's made it clear that lying is one of the major no-nos in his code. "Teach him, fellas," Joe directs the Claimers about Daryl. "Teach him all the way."
The day of reckoning ends with Joe and his friends' deaths, and Daryl feels responsible for what they were going to do to Rick. "I didn't know what they were," he tells Rick. "I didn't know what they could do," he continues, explaining he met up with them after Beth went missing.
"It's not on you," Rick assures him. "You being back with us here, now… that's everything. You're my brother."
Michonne Tells Carl About Her Pets
Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Carl resume the trek towards Terminus after the Claimers attack, but Carl is keeping his distance from his dad. When he and Michonne have a moment alone together after the four arrive outside Terminus, she tells Carl the rest of the story about her son, Andre.
He was with her, her boyfriend Mike, and Mike's friend Terry at a survivor's camp, she says. Mike and Terry had given up hope about life post-apocalypse, but Michonne hadn't. She'd gone on a supply run, and left Andre with his dad and Terry. When she returned, she found the camp had been destroyed and Andre had been killed, because Mike and Terry were high and hadn't protected him.
Mike and Terry had been bitten, too, and she let them turn, chopping off their arms and jaws and shackling them together, and taking them with her everywhere she went.
"Felt like what I deserved, dragging them around so I'd always know," she told Carl. "That was me. I was gone for a long time. Then Andrea brought me back. Your dad brought me back. You did."
She tells Carl he shouldn't be afraid of Rick, but Carl reveals that's not his problem.
"He told me the other day he was proud of me, that I was a good man," Carl says. "But I'm not. I know more now about what he wanted from me. I tried… but I still have these thoughts. I'm not what he thinks I am. I'm just another monster, too."
Earlier in the episode, Carl had run off to help a man who was being attacked by a throng of walkers, and Rick had to stop him, telling him there were too many to fight. Carl still has the instinct to help people, but what he's telling Michonne is that he also has his father's ability to do whatever it takes to survive. Unlike Mika, who knew she couldn't kill another human under any circumstance, Carl knows the opposite: that he can, and will.
Does that make him a monster? Or, in this world of walkers and even scarier humans, simply a survivor?
Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Carl enter Terminus through a back door, and are greeted by Gareth (a character who does not appear in the "Walking Dead" comics). He says everyone at Terminus came for "sanctuary," and asks if that's why Rick and company are there.
Rick and the others are asked to put down their weapons for inspection — though they're allowed to keep them — and then Terminus-ite Alex takes them to get food. Mary is still at the grill, and as she offers up plates of meat, Rick spies a watch, a pocket watch, on Alex, and grabs him and pulls his gun on him.
Rick assumes the watch is Glenn's, and after also spotting the riot gear from the prison and Maggie's poncho on other Terminus residents, demands to know where his friends are. Gareth appears and tries to calm Rick, while many Terminus-ites have appeared with weapons drawn. There are snipers on the roofs of the buildings. Gareth gives a signal with his hand, and a gunshot was meant for Rick, who turns around and blocks it with Alex's body.
Open gunfire ensues, and Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Carl are chased through a maze of buildings and open areas outdoors, until they end up, surrounded by people with weapons, near a railroad car. Gareth makes them enter the car, and locks the door behind them. Once inside the dark car, someone walks towards them and says, "Rick?"
It's Glenn, who's followed out of the shadows by Maggie, Sasha, and Bob, along with Tara, Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita.
"They're our friends," Maggie says of the latter four. "They helped save us."
"Yeah. Now they're friends of ours," says Daryl, prompting Abraham, who's no doubt ticked off he didn't insist his group head towards Washington instead of sticking with Glenn, to reply, "For however long that'll be."
"No," Rick answers. "They're going to feel pretty stupid when they find out."
Abraham: "Find out what?"
Rick: "They're screwing with the wrong people."
Go behind the scenes of this week's "Walking Dead" finale with the cast and crew:
* Easter eggs from the episode that are likely to factor into next season in ways big and small: Rick teaching Carl and Michonne how to set a trap to snare animals (we're guessing that might be used on humans in Season 5); Rick burying that bag of guns in the woods outside Terminus "just in case," as he tells Daryl; during Joe's attempt to get his day of reckoning, he mentions it's New Year's Eve; and Beth told Daryl he would miss her when she's "gone," not dead, and when Rick asks him if Beth is dead, Daryl answers, "She's just gone."
* Another Easter egg: the episode's title, "A," which must refer to the "A's" that were painted on the walls throughout the Terminus maze Rick and his group were forced through, as well as the giant "A" painted on the railroad car they're forced into. But what does "A" stand for or signify? Almost certainly nothing good.
* Hershel tells Rick he never knows what time it is since he gave Glenn his pocket watch. "It's always right now," he says, which is a great line on its own, but also nicely ties in later when spotting Glenn's pocket watch on Alex — Glenn would never willingly let such a prized possession go — makes Rick realize his Terminus hosts aren't the friendly dudes and dudettes they're pretending to be.
* Though we saw Beth, Carol, and Tyreese in the prison flashbacks, we didn't see them in any present-time scenes in the finale. Can we assume from that they're all still alive? Let's, especially since we're waiting until October, at least, for new episodes.
* Another great line, in an episode pretty packed with them: Alex, upon getting a close-up of Daryl's banged-up face, says, "I'd hate to see the other guy," prompting Rick to reply, "You would."
Now share your feelings with the group, "Dead"-heads: What, exactly, are those Terminus people up to? Why did they shoot, but not to kill? Where are Carol, Tyreese, and Beth? How afraid of the new no-holds-barred Rick should Gareth and his cohorts be? And can you believe we have to wait at least six months for Season 5?