Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon. Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

At its flesh-eating heart, “The Walking Dead” is about survival, so the ultimate point of every mid- and season finale is about thinning the herd, who lives and dies. The show also strives — sometimes clumsily — to be about the survival of what Cormac McCarthy would call “the flame.” You know, civilization, decency, strong men and courageous women fighting for a life worth living, not just drawing oxygen.

There is risk in doing this too often, because the show is teaching us that all the big stuff will happen at the breaks. But “Dead” is nothing if not Cliffhanger U, so…

In tonight’s episode, nobody is more in play than our hero, Rick Grimes. Last week, after he got in a bloody fight with the wife-beating Pete, then telling the crowd in the street what’s what with a pistol in his hand and a face full of blood, Michonne ran up from behind and knocked him cold. Who’s lost sight of the flame? Rick? Michonne? Those knuckleheads in Rural Alexandria?

Let’s get to it!


Extreme short version for busy people who just want to fake it in the office: Everybody in Rick & the Gang survived. Two of the people in Rural Alexandria bought it: Pete and Reg. Pete killed Reg (at the town meeting) and Rick then executed Pete after Deanna told him, “Do it.” Morgan showed up from the wilderness and saved Daryl and Aaron from a parking lot full of walkers. The Real Bad Guys are The Wolves, who are the ones who have been cutting people in half and carving W into foreheads. Glenn got winged with a gunshot from Nicholas, but survived. The knowing line to toss is, “And I want my plate clean when I get it back.” From Carol, natch.

Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The longer version for the rest of you: Morgan! Morgan, Morgan, MORGAN. After trailing the group all season, he opens the final episode. Two of those crazy people with W on their forehead show up at his campfire (the W stands for “Wolves,” the gun-toting guy explains, like the beasts of prey who roamed the land before the Europeans showed up). When his buddy tries to sneak up from behind, Morgan beats them to a pulp WITH. NOTHING. BUT. A. STICK. Then he dumps their seemingly comatose (but possibly dead, it wasn’t clear) bodies in a car and honks the horn to attract walkers.

Daryl and Aaron are off out in the boonies, trying to find new recruits, some 50 miles away from the camp. (Pardon. An aside for our D.C. readers. Seriously? There is not one living soul in or around the entire Beltway? All of D.C., Hyattsville, Suitland, Bethesda, Arlington, not even nuclear-free Takoma Park? McLean? Think of all the nice places Our Gang could move into, man — the White House! They could play Frisbee in the Rotunda! Talk about a lookout post, how ’bout the Washington Monument? Okay. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Daryl and Aaron come across this freakish scene out in the woods, where a woman has been tied to a tree, apparently while alive, and a herd of walkers allowed to eat her guts out. Then all the walkers were cut in half and dismembered. The “W” in the victim’s forehead I.D. hers as one of the Wolves. Freaky.

In an open field, they spot a potential recruit in the distance, some guy wearing a red poncho. They lose track of him but stumble across a food warehouse with huge trailers parked at the loading docks. Figuring there are canned goods galore in the trailers, they open one — but it’s a trap! All of the trailer doors are rigged to open, and a herd of walkers storm out! Those, that is, who are not hung from meat hooks in the back, their bottom halves hacked off.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Ross Marquand as Aaron. Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Daryl makes like Marshawn Lynch and makes a Beast Quake run to a car in the parking lot, with Aaron right behind. But then they’re trapped inside, with dozens of walkers beating on the windows. Just when they’re about to try a hopeless break for it, who shows up, whacking walkers heads clean off, but…Morgan! Still armed with NOTHING. BUT. A. STICK.

When they get safely outside the parking lot fence, Morgan says he’s lost and hands Daryl the map he’s carrying. It is, of course, the map that Abraham left with Rick back at the church, showing him their route to Washington, with Rick’s name on it. Morgan saved Rick’s hide in the very first episode of the series, so you know he wants to catch up with the Ricktator. Daryl looks up at him and, hey, we’ve got Morgan back. YAY.

Meanwhile, Sasha continues her walker-wasting ways, hanging out in the tower and picking them off with head shots when they come up to the wall. (Sure do seem to be a lot of them since Rick & the Gang got there; maybe they’re walker magnets?) When she’s done, she takes the bodies off in a cart and dumps them in a mass grave. Then she gets in the grave with them, laying down on top of them and closing her eyes, like she’s taking a nap. SASHA DONE GONE CRAY CRAY.

Everybody in town just can’t get over Rick’s beatdown of Pete last week (am I the only one suprised at what a good scrap Pete put up?) and What Should Be Done. Deanna and Reg tell Maggie, the deputy mayor in training, that their little town is about peace and civilization and goodness me, Rick actually pointed a gun at somebody. Deanna calls a town meeting at sundown and it looks like she’s going to rig a vote to expel him.

Rick and Pete have been sent to separate houses to cool off. Glenn, Michonne, Abe and Carol come by to check on Rick, who got a lot of facial cuts but who is okay. In this pow wow, Carol fakes a story about how Rick’s gun that he had in that dust up with Pete was his alone — because, she tells him later, she doesn’t trust Michonne, what with her being Constable of the Week and whopping Rick upside the head. She doesn’t want Michonne to know that they have more guns, because maybe she’s not on the team anymore.

At the time, though, Rick tells the crew, shucks, we’ll give these knuckleheads a chance to make it work, but if they don’t … then we’ll kill a coupla of the head honchos and take over.

But that’s not until dark and heck, it’s hardly even noon!

Carol bakes a casserole and takes it to Pete, who is alone in his cooling-off house. She gets inside, whips out a knife with steel knuckles for a grip, puts it to his neck and dares, no, double-dares him to try her. She calls him weak and pathetic and then, leaving, drops the line of the show: “I want my plate clean when you bring it back.” Bahahaha. We (heart) you, Carol!

Glenn tells Nicholas, that coward, that he is like a total loser and better not go outside the gates again and Nicholas gets all in his face about it. Nicholas runs out into the woods and digs up … that pistol that Rick had hidden in the coffee can! So it was HIM. Later, he lures Glenn out into the woods and … shoots him! High up, in the shoulder! Glenn staggers off, but they wind up in a mano-a-mano fight, with walkers dragging their maggot-ridden carcasses right up on top of them.

Michonne swings back by to chat with Rick, and he plays it straight with her. Tells her that Carol, Daryl and him worked out a plan to get some guns from the armory, just in case, and maybe she’s got a problem with it. She explains that she hit him because he was getting carried away after his fight with Pete: “That was for you, not them.” She says she thinks they can find a way to work it out — but if they can’t, she’s still with him. “Something’s going to happen,” she says. “Just don’t make it happen.” He offers her his gun, still, but she pushes it back to him. HOW COULD I HAVE DOUBTED YOU, MICHONNE OF MY HEART? I feel bad, y’all.

Meanwhile, Father Gabe, finally without the collar, goes for a leisurely stroll outside the gates, sans gun. “The Word of God is the only protection I need,” he says. Um. He walks until he comes across a walker in the road, eating some recently dead dude. He spreads his arms like Christ on the cross and shouts, “I’m ready!” Hooray! Eat him up! But when the walker staggers over, Father Gabe beats him to his second death. Then he goes over and smashes the dead guy’s head and sits down to have a good cry. He finally gets back to Rural Alexandria and LEAVES THE GATE UNLOCKED.

You know Sasha has truly gone off the edge because she comes to this nut job for some pastorly words of wisdom. He tells her, as any man of the cloth would, that she’s lowlife scum and that she, Tyrese and Bob all deserve the pits of hell.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee: I hate Father Gabe.

All of this comes to a head during the around-the-campfire meeting after dark. While Deanna is holding this “civilized” gab fest, with people giving their loving or not-so-much assesments of Rick, the man himself is busy strangling a walker that Father Gabe let in the compound with that unlocked gate. Glenn, out in the woods at dark, is battling Nicholas in a fight to death! Sasha and Gabe are locked in mortal combat!

Rick, his face covered with blood and gore, walks into the town meeting with the dead walker over his shoulder and dumps it by the fire. It’s a good attention-getter.

“We’ll survive, I’ll show you how,” he tells them. “I was thinking ‘How many of you do I have to kill to save your lives.’ But I’m not going to do that. You’re going to change.”

He’s just about winning them over when Pete staggers up with what looks to be Michonne’s sword, yelling for the group not to trust Rick. He lunges for Rick, but Reg, Deanna’s husband, steps up to him to be the peacemaker — and gets his throat cut for the trouble. Pete is tackled, Deanna wails over her dying husband, turns to Rick and says, “Do it.”

Rick shoots Pete, who is being held down on the ground, in the head.

Meanwhile, Glenn has the gun and the drop on Nicholas out in the woods, but doesn’t shoot him, instead force-marching him back to town. Maggie shows up in time to stop Sashsa from plugging Father Gabe in the head at point-blank range. (Dang.) Daryl, Aaron and Morgan show up at the town meeting, just after Rick has executed Pete, and Morgan and Rick exchange a look of, “Dude, is that you?”

And we see that Tara, badly wounded in that melee a couple of weeks ago, pulls through, and she smiles at Rosita.

This, kids, is as close to a happy ending as you’re ever going to get on “Dead.”

In the final coda, we see Michonne going back to the house and taking down her sword from above the fireplace, putting it back on, showing she’s done with that constable crap.

And, finally, in our foreshadowing for next year, we cut back to the food warehouse parking lot. Two Wolves show up at the fence, leading the guy in the red poncho. The walkers are roaming the parking lot, but one of the Wolves hits a remote that cranks up music and lights inside the trailers and they all stagger back in like good little blood-drinking sheep. Then the Wolves slash the guy in the poncho, killing him and letting him turn into a walker, leaving him to stagger around the parking lot. The camera pulls back so that see “Wolves Not Far” written on the car. Aaaannnndddd we fade to black.

Sleep tight, boys and girls. Rick’s in charge and Carol’s got a knife. We’re good.