Strip away everything that came before, all the humiliations and horrors of the road, and the fourth season of The Walking Dead ended with a man talking to a wall.
That's it. That's the bone the AMC threw to fans last Sunday night, to gnaw over until the series cranks up again in fall. It ended -- spoiler alert! -- with the show's band of battered protagonists trapped in a boxcar, herded there not by zombies but by post-apocalyptic hipsters of nefarious intent. Never trust someone who has time, in the middle of a zombie war, to get their hair cut at Hunter & Gunn, the message was.
The finale ended with embattled leader Rick Grimes standing with his grizzled jaw square to the featureless inner face of the boxcar door. An alpha-male stare-down of that boxcar door. A former sheriff's deputy transferring every ounce of state- and gender-bestowed authority onto that blank wall. "They're going to feel pretty stupid when they find out," he said, in a quasi-Clint Eastwood growl. "They're screwing with the wrong people."
Oh, how many of us heard that line and howled, or just shook our heads and groaned?
It was a comical end to the weight this season shouldered, though perhaps not in the way The Walking Dead's writers intended. Grimes' bravado, in that final moment, just seemed so out of step. Jarring against the dire situation facing the group, yes, but also crashing into the fourth season's themes of humility, of deconstructing the makings of humanity. The road, in these episodes, stripped our protagonists of their last scraps of innocence.
Apparently, it rebuilt Grimes as an action hero. Which seems something of a betrayal, because that's not what this show is about: not action, but disease -- our own.
Look, apocalyptic fiction is easy enough to understand as a cultural proxy war of sorts, or better yet, a mental test drive of our society's updated survival plans. Observe these leather seats, remnants of a time when human industry controlled what lived and died. Check out the latest in all-wheel drive, to haul your family from crumbling cities frightened, but alive. Note the double-thick safety glass: It might be enough to withstand a blast wave, if you're far enough away. Even a zombie attack.
Or, you know, you could just stare down a wall.
A confession: This isn't the column I want to write. "Be fearless" is the standard advice, but I've always been afraid of the pressure that can blow up this cultural marketplace. It's safer, sometimes, to sit and watch, and I'm not talking about TV. So in a way, this topic is my own little proxy war. A shot across the bow of the forces I, too, fear would tear me apart if they caught the scent of blood.
In the beginning, the zombies of western imagination were sometimes supernatural, taking cues from Haitian folklore, which described the dead in thrall to some unhappy magic. We were still afraid of the gods, back then. That fear faded as we plunged our hands into the atom, and shivered where the circle unites creation and destruction. We became death, destroyer of worlds. Or rather: destroyer of world, singular. Our own.
After that, other agents were blamed when corpses rose from the grave. Sometimes the reasons were extraterrestrial, as hinted in George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Sometimes they were technological, as in the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, and the H.P. Lovecraft story from earlier that century that gave that film its life. But in the real world, where life and death are finite, we beamed our technology out to the universe. So far, the aliens haven't come.
(Well, other than that one time in a cornfield in Iowa... never mind.)
At any rate, the resurrecting agent is now almost invariably biological. A virus. Something that slips unnoticed between us, a tiny speck of life that refuses to march mutely to slaughter. Instead, it enslaves our bodies in its own quest to survive, doing to us as we have done to others on this Earth. In this new zombie methodology, even before the point of death our bodies are weaponized.
A tacit cultural admission: We know the biological dams we've built are breaking. Kids are getting the measles again. Herd immunity is eroding on the back of bad science and discredited campaigns. Every week, a grim new study shows antibiotic resistance is rising. We are running out of ammunition against the diseases we've been fighting. We have only one weapon now against many strains of gonorrhea, few options against MRSA.
This march is not inexorable; things do not have to end this way -- except for humans, slow to change. We still allow animals to be brought into the world in vast concentrations and pumped full of antibiotics that help fatten them for mass consumption. In 2013, the American Centers for Disease Control bluntly warned of how this encourages antibiotic-resistant organisms to enter the human food supply.
This, maybe, is what that odd final moment of The Walking Dead got right: It's not the zombies; it never really was. It's that we're screwing with the wrong people.
Maybe we are, all, the wrong people.