Alex (Tate Ellington) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead
  • Gene Page/AMC
  • Alex (Tate Ellington) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead

Whenever I have zombie apocalypse nightmares—which I do a lot; it’s awful—zombies aren’t the antagonists. Instead it’s the gang of men with leashed Dobermans who want the last of the canned food I have stashed in the strange bedroom I’ve hidden in for weeks, living in darkness so no one knows I’m there. Something like that. Or exactly that. The zombies are more like inconveniences—hungry, moody, overgrown toddlers with spoiled meat rattling around in their papier-mache skulls.

The Walking Dead has really excelled at driving home that crises make monsters of people—and hardly just the dead ones. In a broken-down society, what people become before they die is a shitload scarier than what they become after they die. They don’t stagger around sniffing out the living and feasting on their flesh to satiate a hunger they’re hardly conscious of. No. They methodically lure people to supposed safe havens then herd them like cattle into train cars, fatten them up on powdered milk, and then feast on their flesh.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves . . .

The second half of this fourth season—which wrapped up on Sunday—was as good as the show has ever been. The makeshift civilization our protagonists set up at the prison was blown to smithereens by gun, tank, and one really crucial decapitation. The group’s members, scattered hither and thither, form small, unlikely satellite groupings that become more like families as time passes. Beth helps Daryl recapture some of his humanity and smooth his rough edges. Bob, once completely alone, finds comfort—happiness, practically—in the companionship of Sasha and Maggie, even if Maggie has her one-track mind fixed on finding Glenn. Tyrese, Carol, and the three little girls who’ve become their charges settle into something that resembles a preapocalypse life at a farmhouse, which is all very sweet and idyllic until (spoiler) Lizzie forces Carol to murder her. Which Carol does in the sweetest possible way.

At one point or another, each individual group, upon finding lodging and even some food if they’re lucky, considers staying where they are, settling for a somewhat safe existence, even if it means never seeing the rest of the group ever again. Of course, that option was taken off the table for Rick, Carl, and Michonne when their temporary accommodations were rudely invaded by a band raping, farting, murdering apocalypse pirates, who become an important part of the late-season storyline (at least temporarily).

Alas, they all move on, by force or by choice, the upside being that there’s hope for a reunion at Terminus, a society set up at the convergence of several train lines that takes in anyone. If you arrive, you survive! Desperation and a few dehydrated, chewed-up shreds of optimism allow everyone to believe this might actually be true. It’s like they haven’t even been watching their own show.

And everything seems pretty OK at first! Rick, Carl, Daryl, and Michonne sneak into Terminus and no one’s too terribly upset about it. There’s a guy named Gareth and he’s kinda nice. What’s that on the grill, lady? Smells great. But why are they doing this, why take people in? “The more people are a part of us, the stronger we get,” one of Terminus’s residents tells them. It’s either a nice sentiment or a person who eats people having a little fun. Things go from zero to sinister in no time flat when Rick notices Glenn’s watch in Gareth’s pocket. They flee, dodging snipers’ bullets, which, it turns out, is a lot easier when the snipers aren’t actually trying to kill you. The four are herded first into a candle-lit ceremonial chamber. Written on the wall: “Never again. Never trust. We first always.” Then they’re directed through door A and subsequently forced into a shipping container, also labeled A. A for Auschwitz? A for anarchy? A for “Aw, you guys are so fucked.”

But maybe they aren’t. They’ve been reunited with Glenn, Maggie, and the newbies. And at episode’s end, Rick utters a line that might’ve been cheesy if we weren’t just so excited that he’s become the ruthless sonofabitch we always dreamed he could be. This is a Rick who bites jugular veins out of necks. Who eviscerates men from stomach to sternum. A Rick who’s become a monster in his own right—but to the benefit of the people he cares about. He says the villains at Terminus are “screwing with the wrong people,” and we can actually believe him.