As someone who hasn't read the Walking Dead comic books -- just as I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s books that form the basis for Game of Thrones -- I take in all the information simply as it’s doled out, without being privy to older nonshow references or working with the knowledge of what’s ahead.
But I didn’t want the finale and the group’s trek to Terminus and what that foreshadowed to slip away (the onslaught of Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Fargo and others is near) before revisiting it. When first introduced to Terminus -- at the end of a journey the season was leading viewers along -- I got the distinct feeling (as others did, or at least should have), that Terminus is no sanctuary. Rather, hints abounded that a modern-day Soylent Green story was unfolding.
And though it’s pretty clear there’s cannibalism going on at Terminus, the producers are being coy about it.
In the episode where Glenn and Maggie, etc., walked into the welcoming arms of Terminus, red flags were everywhere. The people at Terminus had an awful lot of meat, first of all. The grill -- with its willing grill-master -- was always framed prominently and was the first stop to gaining interior access to Terminus. Just by positioning it right there in the open, out front, the Walking Dead brain trust was making the grill and all that might conjure, a significant visual element. Then it was, "Hey, grab a plate, have yourself a meal. You’re welcome here." But was that meat from unseen calves or pigs -- or was that Beth, or others?
Of course Terminus seemed pretty desolate for a major destination meet-up for wandering survivors. The “Those Who Arrive Survive” signage would certainly indicate more people should be hanging around -- unless those people are surviving in spirit, as sustenance. And the Terminus explanation of why in the hell anyone would be so generous, letting in hordes of freeloaders -- “the more people become part of us, we get stronger” was certainly a big hint.
With a plethora of clues turning up, the one that probably sealed it was the quick shot (but not too quick) of what looked like the stripped carcasses of humans (and later an altar room to remember them for their sacrifice).
I’m fine with the cannibal notion -- it’s not revolutionary for the zombie genre and all through the series I've been wondering when the hungry hordes of survivors would finally go Hannibal on the weaker of their number. In the finale, so much portent about hunger and trapping was afoot. But I don’t think it was overkill -- the writers rather adeptly handled the storyline of Rick showing Carl how to trap a rabbit with the Terminus parallel hanging over it like a noose. Our group of plucky core members were being led, just like the rabbit, down a chute to their own demise.
Whereas my most nagging thought after the finale was how the hell Rick and company would get out of the cattle car and overtake a larger group of vastly better-armed adversaries, the actual scene that stuck in my head was the last five minutes of herding.
That was impressively done -- and made up for the literal last shot of Rick announcing revenge in an all-too-pat blockbuster movie kind of way.
In the scene, as the snipers are shooting at the feet of Rick and Daryl, etc., my initial reaction was a slight groan about the poor marksmanship so prevalent on TV and in movies -- but it then becomes clear that the shooters are missing on purpose. They're not trying to kill, they're trying to herd. It was the start of something that became really something to behold, not only for the execution itself but for the level of detail and research that went into it.
Alternatively shot from above -- emphasizing power and giving viewers a long shot of the railroad/cattle car at the top of the frame and the futility of Rick, Daryl, Michonne and Carl in the foreground -- we then got the crowning elements. Gareth, the leader of Terminus, is going to walk them to slaughter (though it’s important to remember this is all implied -- the finale made no hard nod toward cannibalism). Still, the scene all but seals it. If you research how cattle are killed, the optimum approach is to have them take a series of corner turns before getting close -- if they see they’re being led to slaughter, chaos ensues. The camera follows Rick and company in a circular route through Terminus until they get out into the clearing.
Cattle are also, as they near slaughter, guided in single file -- something Gareth did meticulously with each character, leading them to the railroad/cattle car in the short distance. There is also a “correct handler position for driving cattle” -- and director Michelle MacLaren set up the final scene by positioning Gareth in a perfect, textbook handler position.
She also created maximum tension by showing the distance between Carl, the last of the group to be herded toward the rail car, and Rick. The panic that arose on Rick’s face as Gareth forced him to be first while keeping Carl behind in a vulnerable position, was captured superbly by MacLaren. Proper handling procedures also indicate that calves go last (or, if you will, parents go first -- reversing it causes panic and a chance the cattle will disperse). And lastly, what the scene captured in a kind of haunting by-the-book approach, is that cattle go forward in a single-file line but shouldn’t actually see livestock in front of them -- which is why Glenn and Maggie and the others were shunted to the rear of the car.
All of that was both chillingly calculated and beautifully constructed (and the powdered milk containers -- clearly being used to fatten everybody up -- were a nice touch). I may have wished for a more dramatic cliff-hanger (a shoot-out, or perhaps reinforcements to use those guns Rick buried), but I did, especially on further inspection, appreciate the artistry in the construction of that finale scene.
Now all that’s left to find out when season five begins is who gets slaughtered -- or maybe who already has been slaughtered (and grilled).