LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you've seen "The Walking Dead" season five, episode eight, titled "Coda."
Well, that was inevitable. In true "Walking Dead" style, after the show spent hours building up a character, taking the time to make them empathetic and tying them into the emotional fabric of the story, the guillotine fell once again, and tonight it fell on Beth.
After her time at the prison serving as de facto caretaker for Judith while Rick was playing farmer, then through the loss of her father and her time on the road with Daryl, Beth was finally starting to recognize her own strength -- becoming a true survivor instead of simply a victim. Her journey has been one of the most compelling aspects of this season, and it's been a joy to see Emily Kinney discovering the steel in her character over the past few episodes. But alas, as soon as Beth grew into a position where she might've actually been useful to the group on the road, she outlived her usefulness to the show. While it's arguable that Beth had more evolving to do (count me among those who would've liked to see her follow a similar trajectory to Carol, shifting from being a burden to carrying the burdens of others), in death, she provides far more of a catalyst for story than she ever did in life. The loss of Beth will serve as the dramatic impetus for Maggie and Daryl and Rick and Noah in the back half of season five, and by extension, Glenn and Carol and Carl and Michonne, rippling out across the group to remind them that there are no happy endings here -- that even when they're together, they'll never truly be safe.
Considering that the season so far has been building up to this episode, "Coda" spent a lot of time spinning its narrative wheels, delaying a payoff until the episode's final ten minutes. Sure, we saw Gabriel come across the Termites' camp (and poor Bob's rotting leg) before almost getting himself, Michonne, Carl and Judith killed by leading a horde of walkers back to the church, but while the experience of finding himself locked outside the church and begging for help was hopefully a humbling wake-up call for the fallen pastor, it was undeniably frustrating to see him once again put others at risk because of his cowardice.
The hour also went to great lengths to emphasize Dawn's humanity, trying to position her as a woman who truly was trying to do the right thing in the wrong circumstances, defending Beth against yet another dirty cop in her force. Sadly, this image stood at odds with the ruthless woman who demanded that Rick's group hand Noah over against his will to replace Beth, and that choice ultimately resulted in both Dawn's death and Beth's. It served as another stark reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions in the world our survivors now inhabit, and while I've appreciated this season's attempts to reinforce the idea that there are no "good" people and "bad" people, only people in untenable circumstances, it's not a lesson that either the audience or our group needs to be reminded of at this stage in the game. Yes, humans are more of a threat than the walkers, and yes, the longer they're forced to live in this world, the harder it will be to hold on to their own humanity, but didn't we already tread this territory with the Governor and the Termites? I don't expect the story to be all rainbows and butterflies after a zombie apocalypse, but the unrelenting bleakness of the world does make for repetitive plotting the longer it goes on.
The episode's final few moments did prove to be some of the show's most powerful yet -- both Lauren Cohan and Norman Reedus gave truly gut-wrenching performances after Beth's death, and it was truly heartbreaking to see Maggie's rapid transition from elation at learning her sister was alive to utter devastation at seeing her dead over the course of twenty minutes. There has been a fair amount of criticism this season that Maggie hasn't spent enough time wondering where Beth is, and while a throwaway line here or there certainly would've helped, I don't think anyone can doubt Maggie's feelings for her sister or discount the emotional impact of that scene after Maggie collapsed on the ground at seeing Beth's body in Daryl's arms. It was powerful, but mostly because of Cohan and Reedus' reactions -- Beth has always seemed earmarked for death, and while she lasted longer than I expected her to, the moment was so abrupt, it was Maggie's reaction at having come so close to reuniting with her final remaining family member before losing her at the last moment that truly twisted the knife. I just wish we'd had a little more time to dwell on the loss -- especially in the wake of Maggie getting there too late to see her before the end, Beth's death felt a tad emotionally manipulative, rather than an organic progression that was earned by the story arc, which blunted its resonance for me.
But now the group is back together again, and Morgan is still on their trail (whether for good or ill remains to be seen) -- here's hoping he doesn't head to Washington after finding Abraham's map, since I can't wait to see his next encounter with Rick. We'll have to wait until February to see the fallout from tonight's bloody hour, but that leaves plenty of time to speculate on where our gang goes from here, and who will be the next survivor to bite the dust. Hit the comments with your theories.
"The Walking Dead" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.