Frank Ockenfels/AMC
People TV Critic Tom Gliatto
March 30, 2014 11:20 PM

The Walking Dead‘s season-ender Sunday night led us through and past some disturbing sights – that certainly looked like a mess of human bones with bits of red meat still on them – and then into an abandoned railroad car.

Then a walker tottered in front of the camera, his bony shoulders barely able to hold up a hand-painted sandwich board that said: “THAT’S ALL FOR NOW! SEE YOU NEXT TIME!”

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead.

I made that last item up, obviously, but that was the gist of the hour. Viewers had been gripped in anticipation of the death of a major character – there had even been speculation that star Andrew Lincoln, Rick himself, might be a goner.

Instead, you could argue that the show accomplished the opposite: that the episode gave us Rick’s rebirth, or a kind of rebirth.

You could argue that the overarching aim of this finale was to prepare us for the Rick who stood in that railroad car at the end. When not being shown in flashbacks to happier times farming at the ol’ prison compound, he was being battered and brutalized – to the point, ultimately, of being ready to battle another set of human enemies, possibly even more perverse and evil than the Governor.

“They’re going to feel pretty stupid when they find out,” he said of these fresh enemies, while the music on the sound track welled with a little more emotion than it strictly needed. “They’re screwing with the wrong people.”

It reminds me of an old movie tagline: “They made one mistake. They forgot they were dealing with Rambo.”

And yet it’s hard to imagine Rick ever being quite so gonzo-macho.

Now, how did we get here?

Entering Terminus, Rick, son Carl, Michonne and Daryl were greeted by several young men who wouldn’t look too out of place ordering espressos on Girls, then were lead out to be fed heaping slabs of fresh-grilled meat.

However, Rick couldn’t help noticing things that were familiar-looking to him – notably a watch that had belonged to the now-gone Hershel. Ignoring the usual, roundabout etiquette of asking if anyone had happened to attend a swap meet nearby, Rick grabbed a gun and everything went to hell.

The hour ended with Rick, Carl, Michonne and Daryl ordered to step into that abandoned railroad car, where they were reunited with their other friends and acquaintances who arrived at the Terminus BBQ at the end of the previous episode.

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That leaves next season to explore the sinister mysteries of Terminus. We saw a room filled with lighted candles, the grilled meat, the discarded skeletons, the railroad car (marked “A”). There were doubtless other clues that will be explored in the future.

The truly decisive moment, though, happened before the half-hour mark: At that point, Rick, Carl and Michonne were set upon by the gang of marauding desperadoes that Daryl had recently fallen in with. (The gang supposedly operated by a strict code, but their rules were horrifying.) Rick prevailed, but only after he bit clear through leader Joe’s jugular and stabbed another assailant over and over.

By now, we have seen again and again that the humans on The Walking Dead can be as monstrous as the monsters, or moreso, because they understand gain, loss and survival. The walkers are out there, lurching from meal to meal. It’s unlikely they’ll ever dig a tiger pit or operate a Ponzi scheme.

And yet, despite being stunned and shaken by his own savagery, Rick found a new spark of humanity: “You’re my brother,” he told Daryl. For the likes of Daryl, whom I wouldn’t want as a cosigner on anything, this is high praise.

Perhaps Rick will be a Rambo, but a high-minded, kind one.

In general, it was an odd end to a season that has been criticized for being tedious, and it often was. With the death of the Governor and the collapse of his community, the festive party mood was bound to let up. A lot of time was spent affording us greater intimacy with smaller clusters of characters, but this paid off only with the electrifying episode in which Carol felt compelled to kill the mentally unstable young Lizzie.

Carol made her decision about Lizzie with an almost bureaucrat euphemism for extermination.

“She can’t be around other people.”

That’s the line I’ll remember.

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