The Walking Dead: Gone Girl

Dissecting "Coda," the mid-season finale of the fifth season

Gene Page/AMC

Lenika Cruz and David Sims discuss the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Cruz: At the risk of sounding naive, I have to say that I didn’t quite see that end coming. Maybe it was the fact that for the first time, I watched an episode of The Walking Dead in a bar with about a dozen other people sipping $5.55 Zombie cocktails, so I was a little distracted. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to believe that someone had to die before the show reached its winter break. After all, there are worse (and more interesting) things that can happen to a person other than dying, right?

Looking back now, it makes perfect sense that Beth died. The show took a character that admittedly few people cared about and gave her depth over the course of a couple episodes in a truly standout season. But the show managed to catch me off guard with the way it executed (sorry) the moment. With less than 10 minutes left in the episode, I think everyone was wondering the same thing: Okay, when’s the showdown coming? That immense breath-holding paid off, albeit in a few sickening jets of blood catalyzed by Chekov's surgical scissors. And is there anything more upsetting than seeing Daryl’s face crumple like that again? I still need time to process this a little, David. Beth wasn’t my absolute favorite character, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t clasp both my hands to my mouth in horror when that gun went off.

Sims: I hate to sound like a mean old cynic, Lenika, but I barely blinked at Beth’s death, outside of noting its gory brutality (which, of course, is very on-point for The Walking Dead). If there was going to be a casualty from this half-season, it made sense to have it be her, since as you noted the show had done a decent job of building her up to the point where you just about cared what happened to her. But still, Beth remained pretty expendable, especially considering that everything interesting about her related to her time in Slabtown. The show needed something to end on, and losing Beth hurts without having much of a grander impact. I think that’s partly why I’ve already noticed people on Twitter complaining that “Coda” ended with a bit of a thud, after such a nice run for the show—losing Beth and Dawn didn’t make for much of a showdown.

But I’m still pretty happy with how these eight episodes went. I like that as much as Rick continues to trend ruthless (the way he ran that cop down, hoo boy), the gang made the wise decision not to try and mow through the hospital. As Dawn’s lieutenant said after her boss died, “It was about her.” Power had corrupted, as we’ve seen it corrupt so many people on this show, and with Dawn out of the way there wasn’t even that much to be mad about. Yes, there’s probably some bad apples at Slabtown and yes, the inherent concept of the hospital’s operation is plenty creepy, but why throw away even more of the gang’s humanity in a bloody shootout at the hospital? Beth’s sacrifice indicated she’d reached some understanding of Dawn—and realized that she had lost sight of why she even wanted to be in charge. There’s nothing more for the gang to understand there.

Cruz: I'm glad you recognized Beth's action as a sacrifice, even if it seems at first glance like a suicide-by-cop. Remember her cutting incident back at the farm and how that was meant to signal her immaturity? Well this move indicated the opposite: That Beth realized that Dawn had to go, just like Dawn's predecessor had to go. I can't be the only one who noticed the horror etched in Dawn's face after she shot Beth; it seems like she reacted instinctively to Beth stabbing her in her bulletproof vest and tried to defend herself, but the damage was done.

I'd hate to continue to dwell just on the last few minutes of the episode at the expense of the 95 percent that came before, so just a few more thoughts. One, you're right, it seems like the Slabtown thread has been wrapped completely, so February will return with a big question mark. Two, when the prisoner exchange happened, and Carol was the first to be traded, I heard a woman in the bar blurt out "Oh, THANK GOD," reminding me (cruelly) just how much more people adore Carol over Beth. Three, let's take a moment to remember Beth's sad words to Daryl from last season:

Rick's actions with that cop earlier (Lamson?) didn't seem ruthless to me; it seemed like he was trying to restore a balance that had been upset by the betrayal. He had given the fugitive several chances to give it up and save his life. "You just had to stop," Rick said, standing over his paralyzed body, as the cop essentially accuses him of being a monster. As I've said before I still think the group, Rick included, has come back into much of its humanity. That they didn't ditch Eugene or keep Father Gabriel locked outside more than proves this point. If, as Beth said, you are who you are in this world and there's no "when-this-is-all-over," then I think the gang are pretty damn good people.

Sims: That’s fair, there’s just a cold-heartedness to Rick that I think has been slowly growing this season—let’s not forget Daryl cooling him down last week before he shot Slabtown’s other cop. There was nothing really wrong with what Rick did, since his paramount interest is keeping his group safe. He could have left Lamson to get eaten to death and instead dispatched him quickly. But that “Oh, shut up” as he walked away from his corpse? Let’s just say I wonder what Rick’s big plan will be when we come back in February.

But you’re right—the group has a core decency that keeps it going, and that’s been proven true again and again this season. Michonne and Carl absolutely could have left Father Gabriel to die. He snuck out of the church on his own free will and quickly made a mess of his situation, forcing them to abandon their shelter. But still, they weren’t going to make the same calculation he made and listen to him get consumed, not when they have the means to protect him. It’s what will keep Eugene safe even after his lies are revealed. It’s what caused everyone to stick up for Noah when Dawn demanded him back—a bizarre overreach that served to illustrate the levels of her self-delusion. Why would she demand Noah’s presence when he already tried to flee her sanctuary? Can’t she tell that she’s lost the respect of everyone around her? And yet, at the same time, why did Beth have to die before for someone could take her out? Probably because Dawn remained effective, even as she lost the plot, and because people lacked the ruthlessness to crave her headache of a job. Beth’s sacrifice has maybe, just maybe, guaranteed some sanity for the residents of the hospital, and that’s not nothing. But I don’t think it’s worth dying for, hence my overall lukewarm feelings.

Cruz: I sensed an inevitability to the end of Dawn's reign, so it didn't seem utterly necessary that Beth had to die. But in some ways, I think Dawn and Beth dying at roughly the same time holds a strange significance, as if they canceled each other out. They were more alike than I think either of them realized. Each was supremely stubborn, tough, protective, convinced of her own clarity and humanity. I had thought of Dawn as blank and cold, but she revealed a glimmer of goodness later in the episode. She admitted to crying, unlike a stony-faced Beth. A tragic aura of fatedness surrounded that ending for me, much like the deaths of Lizzie and Mika; it just didn't feel like a throwaway climax!

Back to the rest of the group, I do think Beth's death will change things—certainly for Daryl, Maggie, and Carol, all three of whom have already suffered horrible losses in the last few seasons. I expect Beth's murder will transform the way they think, they way they interact with others, and the types of choices they're likely to make, therefore shifting the overall group dynamic. I wonder if this trauma will make them less sympathetic toward the obvious hangers-on, the weak links: Eugene and Father Gabriel. But whatever happens when the show returns, I'm thrilled that it'll involve the long-lost Morgan. I just hope he finds them all in a way as neat and ridiculous as that Deus ex firetruck scene.

Sims: Oh, that deus ex firetruck was one of my favorite moments of the whole episode. Eschew whatever dull plot reasoning might be required to have those folks show back up at the church—just get everyone together, at just the right time, rather than have them drift further apart. I think you’re right about Gabriel and Eugene, and not just because they’re weak links to the group. They could end up being weak links to the show in general, and that’s where The Walking Dead tends to be the most calculating in terms of killing people off. Who cares if you’re second-billed, or married to the main character? If you’ve outlived your narrative purpose, it’s time for you to go, and unless Gabriel and Eugene can stop wilting at the sight of zombies (the former seems less likely), I don’t know how long they’ll survive.

What I appreciated most about this episode was its open-endedness. Pretty much every pending storyline outside of Morgan is now wrapped up; there’s no Governor or Terminus lurking on the sidelines waiting to take our heroes out. There’s also no (obvious) hope in Washington D.C. or anywhere else to look forward to. What the show does have is the strongest, most engaging ensemble in its history, and, I feel, a renewed appreciation of storytelling for storytelling’s sake. Beth’s death and the hospital detente was not the most jaw-dropping or tense note (coda?) to end on, but they concisely served the themes the show was exploring this season, which is more than it's ever done before. There’s plenty of avenues to explore in the future—I’d love to see the gang venture a little further afield, rather than just come across another band of humans with a twisted take on survival in the Atlanta area. But for the first time I have faith in this show to pick an engaging direction to go in. “Coda” felt a little tepid, but by design. Perhaps foolishly, I refuse to be troubled by The Walking Dead’s interest in spinning quieter, slower-burning yarns. February can’t come soon enough.