The Walking Dead: To Live and Die in Atlanta

I’m smiling ear to ear.

I was somewhat leery of the trajectory that last week’s episode was setting up for the finale. All I could think of was a cliché-ridden episode in which we learn all about the origins of the zombie virus and the back-story of the outbreak. Images of the survivors being rescued by the military or the CDC being overrun by the undead were all I could think of. What we got was an episode that diverged heavily from the events of the source material but adhered to the spirit of it. In this world there are only moments of triumph tainted by some type of loss.

‘TS-19’ gave us a first season finale that was chock full of dramatic moments, multidimensional characters and surprising plot twists similar to what the comic book gives us on a monthly basis. The finale picks up immediately after the end of the last episode. Rick and the rest of the survivors are frozen, staring at the open door standing before them. They enter the CDC and are met by one Dr. Edwin Jenner, the last surviving member of the CDC. I’ll be honest when I say that this made me laugh out loud. As devotee of LOST, this was very similar to the whole ‘hatch’ scenario in which we meet Desmond and learn about Kelvin & Radzinsky, the last surviving members of the DHARMA Initiative. It was a scenario that had been done before on what I deem to be one of the best television shows of the last 20 years.

With that said, the survivors follow Dr. Jenner into the command center of the CDC, which just happens to be several levels below ground. At this point, I was smiling ear to ear again. I could already see the set-up of a Day of the Dead vibe with a sprinkle of the Hatch adventures from LOST. What followed was something that threw me off a bit. Jenner makes the survivors submit to blood tests in order to prove that they are in fact no infected. He is not willing to negotiate as it’s, the price of admission.’ After parting with some of their precious fluids, the scene shifts to the survivors feasting in the CDC cafeteria.

Copious amounts of food is being eaten and wine is being consumed at an alarming rate. They actually feel safe and are just letting loose with all the creature comforts they’ve been lacking for the past month or two. Daryl smiles, Glenn grins sheepishly as he slowly gets drunk and Shane eventually ruins the mood by asking what happened to the rest of the staff of the CDC. Jenner explains that most left when the outbreak occurred and the rest that remained eventually committed suicide. As interesting as that revelation was, I would have asked Jenner if wine has always been served at the CDC. I mean, really?

As the meal comes to an end, Jenner shows the survivors around ‘Zone 5’, the last habitable portion of the complex. He allows them to take hot showers, much to delight of Glenn and T-Dog. Couches and cots are the sleeping surfaces of choice, but let’s be honest in saying that a couch is much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. A montage of happy survivors showering is broken up by a shot of Andrea sitting of the floor of the shower. She’s curled up into fetal position and stares blankly at the floor. Amy’s death has obviously hit her big sister hard. It’s not hard to tell that Andrea is in the throes of a massive depression.

After what had to have been the best shower ever, Lori goes to the Rec Room to peruse the book collection while Rick goes off to speak with Dr. Jenner. As Rick chats with the good doctor, Shane enters the Rec Room. In full drunken-mode, he proceeds to tell Lori that he is sorry for what happened loves regarding Rick. He says that her and Carl, and that he wants nothing more than to protect them and keep them safe. As he becomes more adamant, his aggression grows. What ensued was a scene that was spiraling towards rape. It’s interesting to see Shane so conflicted, but his moment of professing love for Lori is completely undone by his aggression. Alcohol be damned, we were seeing the real Shane: Aggressive, emotional and possessive. Lori escapes the situation by scratching Shane and retreating to the room where Carl is sleeping. As she lies quietly under the covers, a drunken Rick enters and snuggles up behind her. He tells he that everything is alright and that they are safe now. Hearing this made me close my eyes and wonder exactly how terrible things were about to get.

The next scene is one of the survivors quietly eating breakfast in the cafeteria. Carl chides his dad for having a hangover, T-Dog raves about his skills making powdered eggs and Glenn moans about what must be a hangover for the ages. Once again, the mood is soured by a survivor. Dale, as played with a quiet and emotional authority by Jeffrey DeMunn, asks about the cure. Jenner then brings the survivors to the main workstation area of the facility and shows them the playback of a test subject (the eponymous TS-19) who allowed themselves to be bitten and the transformation process studied and documented.

Jenner explains that the disease is not unlike meningitis and kills by essentially shutting down the brain. Within 8 hours it reactivates the brain stem and the infected begins their new existence as a zombie. When asked how it happened, he professes his complete and utter ignorance. It could be viral or microbial or, as Jaqui states, ‘the wrath of God.’ The last option is one that Jenner does not dispute. This scene had the potential to make me very angry, but it did not. The explanation of the mechanics of Zombification was quite interesting, but the qualification that the actual cause remained unknown gave me another reason to smile.

The easy route would have been to completely reveal the cause of the outbreak and the events that lead to the collapse of society, but the producers of the show teased us with only a small kernel of knowledge. Kirkman has gone on record saying that we will never find out the cause of the outbreak in the comic book, so this was a decent compromise for the common television viewers that need answers and closure.

What follows is the twist I was waiting for. Dale inquires about the countdown clock on the wall of the CDC command center. Jenner walks off after telling them that it’s when the facility will run out of power. It is quickly revealed that upon running out of power, a facility wide decontamination will occur. Now, some people might think that means that everything gets drenched in hand sanitizer, but we know that can’t be the case.

Jenner is pressured into revealing what is entailed in a facility wide decontamination. He reveals that it has something to do with a High Impulse Thermobaric Device. I know, it sounds really technical, but it’s essentially just a big bomb that sets the air on fire. Think about that, the CDC is a facility full of lethal strains of viruses and diseases that we’ve never even heard of. You would need a bomb powerful enough to completely destroy these diseases so they don’t escape into the atmosphere. It wouldn’t matter much, now that humanity is a goner, but it’s not a process Jenner has any ability to stop.

But it seems that Jenner is all too happy to meet an explosive end. He extols the virtue of accepting your fate in the face of overwhelming odds. His rationale is that this zombie apocalypse is the extinction level event for humanity. The dinosaurs faced it, as did countless other species, so why can’t humanity? He then locks the door to the command center and tells the survivors that the facility is now secure and that they can’t escape.

The ensuing chaos was truly harrowing. Rick and his band of survivors plead with Jenner to let them go. Rick says that regardless of the odds, they deserve a chance to fight for their lives. They deserve the opportunity to see if they can somehow make it in this world. It was an interesting situation that was a microcosm of the lives of the survivors in this strange new world. Odds stacked against them, the survivors wouldn’t give up. Daryl relentless hacks at the security door, Rick pleads with Jenner and Shane goes so far as to threaten Jenner with a shotgun to the face.

Jenner relents and opens the security door. He tells the survivors that they should go, but the security doors upstairs are locked and cannot be opened. Rick thanks him for the chance and, before he can flee, Jenner pulls him close and whispers something into his ear. Ricks eyes open slightly and his face flashes with subdued surprise. Lori grabs him and he joins the survivors in a race against time to escape the CDC. Unfortunately, Jaqui agrees to remain with Jenner and meet her end on her terms. Andrea agrees as well, much to the horror of Dale.

Dale pleads with Andrea. He tells he that, ‘You can’t come into someone’s life and then just check out!’ He screams, ‘Amy wouldn’t want this!’ but the depression that grips Andrea is to deep. She just looks at Dale and replies that Amy is dead. So Dale sits down and agrees to die alongside Andrea. This angers her but he says that there is nothing she can do about it. I was touched by this scene. It spoke to the solidarity between the survivors and that they are all now truly a family.

As Rick, Shane and the rest of the gang make it to the ground level, they attempt to break out. They try in vain to shatter an impact proof window. Daryl and Shane hammer away with axes and T-Dog slams the window with a steel frame chair. Shane’s shotgun is proven useless and then the most unlikely survivor comes to the rescue. Carol presents Rick with the grenade that he found in the second episode. He places it on the window sill, pulls the clip and runs for his life. The ensuing explosion shatters the window and the survivors scramble for their vehicles. The grenade immediately struck me as a deus ex machine, but I remembered Rick finding it earlier in the series. It was a plot point that I thought was a casualty of bad editing or a changing storyline, but it actually came to light in the end.

As the survivors reached their vehicles, they noticed Dale and Andrea exit the building. While I was happy to see that Andrea came to her senses, it was a kind of a letdown that there was no real dramatic tension depicting her change of heart and eventual flight to escape. A transitional scene showing Andrea and Dale making their way up the darkened steps, running for their lives, might have helped the scene feel a bit more natural. What was touching was the scene in which Jaqui and Jenner looked on as their friends made it out safely. It spoke to the fact that even though they realized they weren’t strong enough to carry on in such a world, they were still happy that their friends held on to that strength. Alas, Dale and Andrea make it out and reach cover just as the building goes kablooey.

The special effects budget must not have been that big as the explosion was fairly pedestrian as far as CGI goes. When you’re spoiled by the digital wizardry of Zoic Studios on Battlestar Galactica, I guess almost anything else on television pales in comparison. Regardless, it was an ending that sent the survivors back on the road. An exodus of sorts began and the survivors hit the road for parts unknown. And with that, the first season is over. But a few questions and plot threads have been left dangling.

What did Jenner tell Rick? Was it a something about the zombie virus? Did Jenner see on camera what Shane did to Lori? What happened to Merle? Did he die somewhere between Atlanta and the camp? Or did he head off somewhere to lick his wounds and plot his revenge? Did Morgan and Duane head out for Atlanta? Did they hunker down for the long haul in Kentucky? And what about Lori? Is she pregnant? These are only a few things floating around in the ether of potential plot lines for next season. The comic book is a wealth of potential story concepts and if the show is half as good, we’re in for a treat.

Overall, this season was a solid B+. There were some weak spots and the producers obviously made some concessions in terms of plot and character development due to the length of the season and the nature of the television medium. I mean, as similar as comics and television are, they are very different beasts and changes must be made accordingly when adapting a property from one to the other. As a fan of the comic, I was thoroughly engrossed by season one and look forward to a fuller, more robust season 2. What were your thoughts?

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