"A" is the sixteenth and final episode of the fourth season finale and 51st episode overall of the post-apocalyptic horror television series The Walking Dead, which aired on AMC on March 30, 2014. The episode was written by Scott M. Gimple and Angela Kang, and directed by Michelle MacLaren.
Themes explored in the episode include preparedness and the extremities of living in a lawless world. The latter is explored through Rick Grimes' guilt and trauma after being forced to brutally murder several men to protect his son, Carl.
In flashbacks to the survivors' time at the prison, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) arrives back from a run and Carol and Tyreese have been killing walkers at the fence, along with numerous other prison residents. After telling Carl that he had a little trouble and showing the blood on his hands, Rick takes Carol's crowbar and joins others at the fence, killing walkers even though there are others doing the job.
In the present, Rick, Carl and Michonne (Danai Gurira) are following signs along train tracks to Terminus. They hear a man nearby cry for help, and find him surrounded by walkers. They move to help, but there are too many to take without using guns to reduce their numbers, and Rick warns that they need to conserve their ammunition, which is more precious than the stranger's life. They leave the man to be consumed by the walkers and flee back to the tracks. Rick has flashbacks of Hershel, encouraging Rick to spend some time without his guns, and to get up early in the morning to join Beth and Judith.
While camping that night, the three are ambushed by Joe (Jeff Kober) and his gang of scavengers; they had been tracking Rick's group since Rick had killed one of their own. Joe has a gun to Rick's head and is counting down before assassinating him when Daryl (Norman Reedus), who had previously been forced to join Joe's group, appears. Daryl proclaims that Rick is a good man, and that he will take any punishment that Joe wants to offer, but Joe refuses, declares Daryl a liar, and orders his other men to beat Daryl to death. Joe returns his attention to Rick and allows another man, Dan, to have his way with Michonne and Carl. Dan prepares to sexually assault Carl, angering Rick enough to headbutt Joe, startling him to fire his weapon which misses Rick but makes him temporarily deaf. Rick proceeds to fight Joe, but Joe eventually pins Rick's arms, claiming victory. Rick surprises everyone by biting and ripping out Joe's jugular vein. Daryl and Michonne use the moment to kill all of the other men. Dan begs for his life, but Rick slaughters him.
There is another flashback, with Hershel convincing Rick to turn to less violent pursuits, to try and farm. Rick insists that he is needed on the fences and the runs. Hershel questions Rick's ultimate values and urges him to be a proper role model for Carl, by turning away from guns and learning to farm, so that Carl can learn farming for the future.
Back in the present, after assuring that Carl was unharmed save for a cut on his face, Rick and Daryl reconcile, each forgiving of past transgressions. Daryl explains that he got separated from Beth but does not know her fate. After camping, they continue towards Terminus, discovering it to be a large, secured train yard. Rick is cautious and buries most of their weapons before they scale the fence and enter it. There, they meet Gareth (Andrew J. West) and Alex (Tate Ellington), who have their weapons checked before returned to them and welcomes them to Terminus. Alex takes them to get food from Mary (Denise Crosby). As they talk, Rick notices that Gareth and the others have various items he recognizes from others in his group, such as the watch that Hershel had given to Glenn. Rick takes Alex hostage with his gun, demanding to know where they got the items. Gareth approaches them, appearing ready to talk, but instead discreetly signals an attack. Other men in Terminus suddenly fire on the group; Rick uses Alex as a bullet shield before scrambling for cover with the others. The gunmen continue to fire, forcing the group towards a closed-in area. With snipers trained on them, Rick and his group surrender, turning over their weapons. Gareth orders them into a nearby train car where they find Glenn (Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and meet Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), Rosita (Christian Serratos), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), and Tara (Alanna Masterson). Now reunited with his group, Rick delivers the final line of the season. "They're gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out...they're screwing with the wrong people."
"A" was co-written by executive producer and showrunner Scott M. Gimple and producer Angela Kang; it was each their third writing credit for the season. It was directed by Michelle MacLaren, who previously directed season two's "Pretty Much Dead Already" and season one's "Guts".
It marks the final episode to feature Hershel, although in a flashback sequence, following the character's death in "Too Far Gone". For this episode, Scott Wilson is readded to the opening credits after being removed after the ninth episode of the season.
The episode marks the final appearance of recurring character Joe (played by Jeff Kober) as he was killed by Rick Grimes by biting out his jugular vein. The scene where Rick, Michonne and Carl are captured by Joe's gang was intentionally shot and produced to follow a certain portion of the plotline in "Volume 10", "Issue #57" of the comic book series. The main difference is in the comics, Rick, Carl, and Abraham are captured by three bandits, whereas in the show, Rick, Carl, and Michonne are captured by Joe's gang of five men.
During filming of the final scene, Andrew Lincoln remarked that he delivered the final line which was very close to the one found in "Volume #11", "Issue #64" of the comic book series. Scott Gimple noted that this would never have passed the network censors, so they had to re-take another version of the final scene without the swearing. Despite this, the scene with the swearing is considered the canonical version. The home video release of the episode shows the uncensored version of the final line of the season "They're fucking with the wrong people."
Upon airing, the episode was watched by 15.68 million American viewers, and received an 18-49 rating of 8.0. This marks a rise in total viewers and ratings from the previous episode, which received an 18-49 rating of 6.7 and 13.47 million viewers. This rating represents the season finale high to date, but below the all-time high of the season 4 premiere episode. Overall, season 4's average viewership of 13.3 million viewers was an increase of 20% over season 3.
The episode received generally positive reviews from critics. Writing for Forbes, Allen St. John, commented the finale positively, saying, "This episode, directed masterfully by Michelle McLaren of Breaking Bad fame, puts The Walking Dead in an interesting place. The story line takes our heroes into a dark place—and what can be darker than a locked railroad car?"
IGN's Roth Cornet rated the episode a "Great" 8.0, writing, "The Walking Dead Season 4 finale served as a response to a question Rick has been asking himself nearly since the start of the series: What kind of man am I? The answer, at least to some degree, is whatever kind of man the moment demands of him; which is exactly what he’d need to be in order to make a strong and viable leader in this world. While I do feel that the conclusion could have been stronger, this was one of the most well-directed and executed episodes of the latter half of this season."