For all the snickering comparisons to Lost generated by last week’s reveal of a mysterious man in a bunker, the season finale of The Walking Dead actually played out like an episode of 24. The ticking clock, the too-advanced technology, the slow-motion leap from an explosion, the even bigger blast that doesn’t cause nearly as much damage as it should — it was all there. And, much like an episode of 24, it wasn’t all that good.
“TS-19” starts out promising enough, with a flashback — yeah, yeah, enough with the Lost jibes — of a panicked Shane attempting to rescue a comatose Rick from the hospital while chaos erupts all around. As soldiers gun down the remaining doctors and nurses, presumably in a brutal attempt to contain the outbreak, and walkers pour in, Shane fumbles with the web of wires and tubes connecting his partner to machines. When the power goes out, Shane checks for Rick’s heartbeat before blocking the door with a gurney in a final, futile effort to help the friend he genuinely believes to be dead. It’s a terrific opening, filled with a sense of futility and images of brutality, that provides developer Frank Darabont & Co. with yet another opportunity to redeem Shane — hey, he didn’t purposely lie to Lori about her husband’s death! — only so they may lay bare his more loathsome nature later.
That feeling of promise quickly fades as we move back to the Centers for Disease Control, where the survivors meet the secretive Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich), the facility’s only remaining scientist. He agrees to provide shelter, food and, best of all, hot water, as long as everyone agrees to submit to a blood test. Hey, who wants to be trapped in an underground fortress with a dozen infected people? Safe for the first time in ages, the group settles in for an evening of food and wine, the latter of which leads Shane to confront Lori about his lie, confess his love — only Lori’s clawing at Shane’s neck prevents the altercation from escalating to rape — and remind her that she and son Carl owe him their lives.
The following morning Jenner shows them futuristic video of Test Subject 19, a bite victim who agreed to allow him to record her brain during her death and (brief) resurrection. Presumably for the benefit of the post-Lost TV audience, Jenner launches into a quasi-scientific lecture on how the zombie disease — no one knows whether it’s “microbial, viral, parasitic, fungal” or, as Jacqui not-so-helpfully offers, “the wrath of god” — seems to work, something the comic series has so far wisely avoided. If MRI footage of TS-19 receiving a bullet to the brain weren’t sobering enough, that the test subject was his wife, the lead scientist at the lab. What’s more, he hasn’t been able to communicate with any other facilities for nearly a month.
And then there’s the matter of that enormous clock on the wall that no one but Dale noticed. That little thing? Oh, it’s just ticking down the minutes until the generators run out of fuel, triggering a facility-wide “decontamination” — a fiery flash designed to prevent the myriad lethal organisms stored at the CDC from being unleashed. Resigned to his fate, Jenner locks everyone in the bunker’s command center, assuring them that near-instantaneous incineration is a far better fate than what awaits them outside. (It’s tough to argue with him, really.) Amid the crying, pleading and threats of violence, a desperate Rick finally convinces Jenner to release them. The not-so-good doctor has one more revelation for Rick, which he whispers in his ear. (It’s probably safe to presume the secret has something to do with the blood samples.) But as the survivors flee to the building above, where they still have to get past doors that Jenner can’t unlock, Jacqui announces that she won’t be going with them; she’d rather be flash-fried than go through what Amy and Jim did. Andrea, who’s been crumbling in the hours after her sister’s death, says she, too, will remain — a decision Dale can’t abide. (Apparently no one likes Jacqui enough to try to change her mind.)
Confronted with locked doors and unbreakable windows, the survivors frantically hammer at the glass until Carol conveniently remembers she’s been holding onto the grenade that Rick took from the dead soldier in the tank. Rick pulls the pin and leaps — in slow motion, no less — as the detonation blows a hole in what not long before was an impregnable building. They flee to the caravan, with Dale and Andrea on their heels, as the CDC explodes in a not-quite-convincing CGI fireball that doesn’t touch their nearby vehicles.
For a series that has so far nailed its episode openings and closings, even when making the occasional misstep in between, that ending — that season ending — is one of the most cliche-filled I can recall seeing since … well, since 24 was canceled. The character moments, such as the altercation between Shane and Lori, Rick’s drunken confession of feelings of hopelessness, and Shane’s attempts to find flaws in Rick’s decisions, were compelling. But I can’t help but wonder what purpose “TS-19” served, other than to offer an incomplete scientific information or to acknowledge that, yes, the CDC is headquartered in Atlanta. It certainly didn’t provide the kind of satisfying finale I was hoping for.