Oh, that was just so goddamned sad.
And let’s be clear: The fact that it was able to be so sad—a single senseless death on a show that is pretty much nothing but senseless death—is a testament to just how far The Walking Dead has come as a show.
On the strength of this half-season, I am ready to assert that The Walking Dead, once a fun, diverting show with occasional flashes of brilliance, has become an example of truly great television. It’s always had a terrific premise, excellent source material and (mostly) exceptional actors, but its early seasons were also plagued by uneven writing, mediocre plotting and a downright terrible sense of pacing. Or, as one friend put it, The Walking Dead goes like this: slow-slow-slow-slow-slow-slow-aaaah zombies!-slow-slow-slow-slow-slow-slow-slow, etc. The apocalypse had arrived, and it was sorta boring.
But in the episodes since Rick and his people have been forced from the prison (the second half of last season and particularly the first half of this one), everything has tightened up. The pace has picked up; the show has become more involving, more exciting, the characters more complex, the deaths more devastating. And the writing has improved markedly, such that even the “slow” scenes crackle with tension and horror.
Some of this is down to the evolution of Rick Grimes’ character, from a soft-spoken guy with good leadership qualities and a levelheaded attitude to a guy who leads by his gut and has lost patience for the foibles of humanity. We see this in the very first scene of the episode, in which he runs the fleeing Officer Lambson over with his car, doing it almost casually. We’ve come a long way from the guy who agonized over every decision. And the truth is, we like this version of Rick, but we’re also a little afraid of what this shift means—and that makes for great television.
The other thing that has elevated this half-season: its willingness to play with the show’s allegories, to really dig into the symbolic order it has set up. Since it started, The Walking Dead has attached almost-reverent significance to particular objects (watches, bibles, weapons) and places (the farm, the prison, Woodbury). But this season, these symbols have come to the fore as central structures of the show, around which its central questions orbit.
Father Gabriel, it turns out, fled the church not (or not only) to escape from the murderous impulses of Rick and his people, but also to confirm that the Terminus guys were, in fact, the cannibals they made them out to be. As viewers, we may have already suspected that the show depicts a world where God is dead, or at least has abandoned us, but it is something else again to see a man of the cloth coming face to face with this reality. In turn, his church becomes a symbol of absence, the empty socket where the divine once resided.
What’s more, covered as it is with quotes about the Eucharist, about drinking blood and eating flesh, the church speaks to us (and to Gabriel) about what happens to our world in such a state of absence. The ideas, signs, symbols, even the words that we use to structure our world become horrifying parodies of themselves.
In part, that’s why Beth’s episode-closing death hurts so much: for the group, she still seemed to represent the innocence they’d all been forced to leave behind. Of course, that wasn’t really Beth as a person—she was actually tough as nails. Which makes it all even worse. In the world of The Walking Dead, true innocence looks like Gabriel, flailing around and putting everyone in danger. Beth, with her cornsilk hair and eyes that seemed to take up half her face, was only a symbol of innocence, for us and for the group. But then, of course, it was her non-innocent, eyes-open realization of what Dawn Lerner really was that got her killed.
In this same symbolic order, of course, once God is dead, you get a power vacuum. The leaders who are left on Earth become divine stand-ins, weird little gods of their own domains. So this half-season has been obsessed with the implications of leadership, via Rick, Abraham, even via psycho Terminan Gareth, but particularly in the case of Officer Lerner and the way she administers Grady.
Dawn’s precarious position makes perfect sense in light of the theological metaphor—in the absence of truly recognized authority, she’s just sitting on top by force of will and illusion, and must shore up power any way she can. We learn what we already knew: that Dawn became the hospital’s leader after she killed the previous chief, her mentor. Beth (now a cop-killer twice over) comes to realize that, all of Dawn’s self-justification aside, what is happening here has always been about maintaining power, mostly for its own sake.
Dawn doesn’t need Noah back, but if she allows the prisoner exchange to proceed under the rules that Rick has dictated, she loses too much face, and thus stands to lose authority over Grady. So she makes a demand that is outside of the deal. Beth is the only one who understands what is truly going on in this chess move—and she hates it—so she lashes out with the only weapon she has left at her disposal. And gets killed for her ineffectual intervention.
I can’t decide which is worse, the quiver in Daryl’s face or the utter devastation on Maggie’s. All I know is that Beth, young and sweet, with a voice that sang out in the darkest moments, looked to these people like hope for the future, like the possibility of innocence somehow regained. And now their life has been ripped apart once again. A tragic and fitting way to take us into the hiatus of a stellar and disturbing season of television.