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The Ending Of The Walking Dead Season 1 Explained

Unless you've been hiding in the woods far away from civilization lately, you know that the current season of "The Walking Dead" will be its last. After almost 12 years of making the zombie apocalypse trendy and traumatizing us with the deaths of countless beloved characters, the cast is hanging up their rifles, crossbows, and barbed-wire baseball bats. And though we will still have the spin-off "Fear the Walking Dead" to follow, the imminent end of the series has some people revisiting some of its best moments.

Season 1 seems like a long time ago. That's partly because it is, but also because it had an almost entirely different cast of characters. With the exception of Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus), just about every member of the original group of survivors has either died or (in the case of Rick Grimes, famously played by Andrew Lincoln) disappeared. But the Season 1 finale is worth revisiting because it answered questions about how "The Walking Dead" planned to get so much mileage out of its premise. So let's recap.

A refresher for the dead

The series starts, famously, with Sheriff Rick Grimes awakening from a coma into a nightmarish new reality. The dead have risen and the US government has collapsed. Weak and disoriented, Rick is taken in by Morgan (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner). They give Rick shelter — and the bad news.

After Rick comes to grips with what has happened, he bids Duane and Morgan farewell and heads into Atlanta, where he reckons his wife Laurie (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) must be. They aren't. Instead, he finds that Atlanta is decimated and overrun with walkers. But by a stroke of luck, other members of a surviving group have come back to the city for supplies. After Rick helps stop them from getting eaten, they take him to their camp far outside the city where he reunites with his family, along with his best friend and partner Shane (John Bernthal).

Where to survive?

There is, of course, plenty of tension almost as soon as Rick arrives — from the fact that he's left Daryl's brother Merle (Michael Rooker) handcuffed on a roof, to the fact that Laurie and Shane have been secretly having an affair. But the biggest source of conflict comes when the camp is swarmed with walkers in the middle of the night. Rick insists that the group has to find a more secure place to survive, and so he leads them — some hopefully, others more reluctantly — back into the Atlanta area. The goal? To find the Center for Disease Control, and with it, they hope, a safe place to live, rebuild, and perhaps even find a cure.

When the group arrives at the CDC, though, they find that there is one lone doctor left there: Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich). When we first meet Dr. Jenner, he is watching the last batch of the Wildfire virus being accidentally incinerated deep inside the CDC's fortress-like headquarters. With all samples for experiments — and with them, all hope for a cure — now lost, Jenner has given up hope. He even contemplates letting Rick's group be devoured out front by a horde of walkers rather than let them in, but thankfully changes his mind at the last minute.

Surrender all hope

This is where the Season 1 finale, "TS-19," picks up. The Center for Disease Control's HQ is airtight, near-impregnable, and has electricity, food, running water, and even wine. Not a bad place to wait out the apocalypse. The group celebrates their newfound safety with dinner and plenty of drinks.

The next morning, however, a maudlin Dr. Jenner shows the group what he knows about the Wildfire virus that has turned most of the world into a shuffling, ravenous horde. Test Subject 19 — Jenner's own wife — had volunteered to be observed after she was bitten. From this, Jenner learned that the virus kills the host and reanimates the brain. He reveals that, in his view, the hope for a cure has vanished and that with all contact between the CDC and other research stations cut off, the world has likely gone dark.

Jenner then reveals that the compound's fuel reserves are very nearly exhausted. What's more, when they finally run out, the HQ's computer will detonate a high-impulse thermobaric weapon to wipe out all diseases the facility may be carrying. Their deaths will be quick, Jenner calmly tells them, and he refuses to let them leave.

As most of the group pound on the doors demanding to be let out, some members wonder if maybe Jenner has the right idea after all. What future is there for them outside? A desperate hardscrabble just to survive? Watching their loved ones be killed? Or even worse, turned into one of the walking dead?

Why survive?

By the time Dr. Jenner finally opens the doors, Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott Sales) and Andrea (Laurie Holden) have decided that, like the good doctor, they would rather "opt out." So they sit, waiting for the self-destruct mechanism's final minute to count down.

Most everyone else, panicked and afraid, flees for the exit (though not before Jenner whispers some rather important information to Rick). Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), who sees Andrea as the closest thing he has to a daughter, remains behind. He sits down next to Andrea and refuses to leave without her. "See you don't get to do that," he tells her. "To come into somebody's life, make them care, and then just check out."

Andrea, unable to stand the idea of Dale dying, relents. As Jenner and Jacqui wait to be incinerated, Dale and Andrea exit the compound just in time to see the CDC explode into a fireball. And so, the group of survivors is back to square one: outside, exposed, wondering where they can find safety. Only now, they are down a member. They've also been shown just how badly the odds of survival are stacked against them. Not only must they face untold millions of reanimated corpses, but the soul-crushing idea that, with the world dying, survival may no longer be worth it.