This year’s mid-season finale of ‘The Walking Dead’ will likely be a make-or-break point for a lot of viewers who’ve been disenchanted with the show’s downturn in quality. Can one episode convince them to come back and continue watching when the series returns in February?
That remains to be seen. While this may be the best episode of the season so far, that’s not saying much. In fact, in a lot of ways it reminds me of the very divisive Season 6 finale, which was the point where our former recapper Shannon dropped out.
The last episode ended with Rick bringing the Heapsters to the Sanctuary, expecting to show off his great victory, only to get there and discover that the horde of Walkers has been dispersed. While the episode never exactly explains what Eugene did, Rick finds two giant piles of Walker bodies with a path plowed between them. His beautiful plan shot to hell, he looks panicked even bother gunfire rings out. The Heapsters, never exactly the most trustworthy of allies, immediately retreat and abandon him.
Fortunately, Carol and Jerry rescue Rick by pulling him into a car and speeding away. This leads to one of those pretentious montages of facial close-ups the show occasionally indulges in to signify that something very momentous and sad has happened. It won’t be the last one in the episode.
This group will later split up and take separate cars to warn all the communities that Negan is coming. Jerry doesn’t make it to his destination. His car is T-boned while en route.
Aaron and Enid leave Alexandria on a mission to recruit the Oceansiders to their cause. Considering how badly Rick screwed over the Oceansiders by stealing all their guns, I can’t imagine how they expect to win them over now. From the sounds of it, they don’t even have a plan for doing so, except perhaps to beg.
On the way, Enid spots a sign for a distillery and suggests bringing a gift with them. It sure is a good thing nobody else discovered this building since the apocalypse broke out. They leave with a truck full of whiskey – or, at the very least, with a truck that’s labeled to be hauling whiskey.
The two of them park their car and the truck near the woods around Oceanside and wait. What they expect to happen isn’t at all clear. Once night falls, they spot a figure creeping around the truck, so they split up to ambush it from two sides. Enid shoots and kills the person, who’s revealed to be Natania, leader of Oceanside. She dies without a single line of dialogue. A bunch of other horrified Oceansiders then rush in to capture Enid and Aaron.
This is no way to win over new friends.
All seems quiet at Alexandria. Rick and Tara believe their plan worked and the Saviors must have been wiped out by now.
Carl is seen writing what looks like a goodbye note to his dad. This will be important later.
The calm is pierced in the middle of the night when Negan comes knocking at the gate, bellowing, “You lose. It’s over.” Everyone is terrified and panics. Carl takes charge and immediately begins organizing an evacuation plan, against objections from Daryl, who wants to fight it out. Carl believes it’s more important that they live to fight another day.
A second group of Saviors, led by Gavin, invade the Kingdom and quickly overcome the population there. (All their best fighters are dead, so the people surrender without any resistance.) Ezekiel hides. Gavin gives a speech laying out the details of how the Kingdom is now under full Savior control and will become the new home for the Saviors while all the able-bodied men and women of the community work at rebuilding the Sanctuary for them. He demands that they turn over Ezekiel, who will be executed as an example. No one will give up their king, despite threats that Gavin will have to start murdering people in front of their own children.
Ezekiel sneaks around and sets off a giant explosion to lure Saviors away, then drives up in a school bus to rescue his people. (Are there really so few left that they can all fit on a single bus?) He sends them out and stays behind, closing the gate just as Carol arrives. Ezekiel locks her out and allows himself to be captured. (Morgan is also seen outside the gate later.) Ezekiel knows that Negan wants him alive.
While leading a convoy to Alexandria, Maggie and Jesus are ambushed at a Savior roadblock. They know they’re screwed and don’t resist. Simon drives up in a truck and reveals that he has Jerry as a prisoner. He hauls out a coffin (the same one Sasha died in) and threatens to murder Jerry unless the Hilltoppers turn over their guns. Maggie grudgingly orders everyone to comply.
Simon explains that the Hilltop is very fortunate. Because its farm will be needed to feed the Saviors, the community has been selected to survive. However, he’ll still need to kill one of their people as an example, as is the Savior way. He shoots the guy sitting behind Maggie in the car. (He was identified as “Neil” in the ‘Talking Dead’ aftershow. Were we supposed to know who he was?)
Simon tells Maggie that she has to make a decision: Either immediately turn around and return home to prepare the Hilltop for service to the Saviors, or stay and be murdered. Maggie agrees to return, on the condition that Simon let her have the coffin, allegedly so she can bury Neil. Simon doesn’t see the harm in it and lets her have it.
Maggie indeed returns to the Hilltop (with no Savior escort, conveniently), but her first order of business is to pull the asshole Savior prisoner named Dean out of the holding cell and shoot him dead on the spot, in front of all the others. She tells Jesus that the Hilltop will not bow to the Saviors. They will take in all the survivors from Alexandria and the Kingdom and make a last stand.
Maggie then puts Dean’s corpse into the coffin and scrawls a note on the lid: “We have 38 more. Stand down.” Cold.
The Sanctuary (2)
Despite being the Savior hero of the day, Eugene is very sad. He continues to try to drink away his worries, to no avail. Eventually, he sneaks over to the infirmary and tells Gabriel and Dr. Carson that he will help them escape so that the doctor can tend to Maggie’s pregnancy. Although he won’t go with them, he’s cleared a path for them by slipping one of the guards a powerful laxative. He also leaves them a set of keys for a car waiting by the exit.
Does it not occur to Eugene that the Hilltop may no longer be a safe sanctuary for anyone? For all he knows, Maggie could already be dead.
Still outside the gate, Negan demands to speak to Rick. Carl instead answers and tells Negan that his dad’s not there. He says that he wants to de-escalate the situation and volunteers to be the one to die, if someone has to. Negan is impressed, both that he had the balls to stand up and that he’s willing to sacrifice himself.
While they talk, Daryl loads a bunch of people into a truck convoy and smashes through the back gate, easily plowing past an obviously insufficient Savior barricade. Dwight and Laura (the Savior lieutenant with the neck tattoo) give chase. Negan is pissed and orders his people at the front gate to fire grenade launchers over the wall. Carl climbs down and sets off smoke canisters while the other Alexandrians scatter and flee. He appears to get injured when an explosion goes off near him.
Daryl, Michonne, Tara and Rosita set up an ambush on the road, which Dwight intentionally drives right into, allowing his Savior team to get pinned down. Dwight then shoots several of his own people. Laura realizes that he’s the traitor and shoots him in the arm, then escapes. As soon as the shooting dies down, Daryl finds Dwight and debates whether it’s time to kill him. Dwight says that he wants to join their side and can still be useful. He suggests that any beef between them can wait until after Negan is dead. Daryl snarls his acceptance, but takes back his sleeveless vest with the angel wings.
Negan smashes down the front gate and demands that Carl be captured alive. He also orders all the houses to be burned down, except Rick’s. He’s going there himself to make some spaghetti and wait.
Rick returns just in time to watch Alexandria burn. He works his way through the chaos back to his house, searching for Carl and Judith. All he finds is Negan, who clubs him with Lucille. The two fight. Rick gets his hands on Lucille for a moment, which enrages Negan. He lunges at Rick and tosses him through a window like they’re having some sort of old-fashioned Western saloon brawl.
Rick runs and finds Michonne going apeshit on a Savior. She brings him to a sewer grate and leads him to a small shelter underground where a bunch of Alexandrians are cowering. Rick finds among them Rosita, Tara, Dwight and Judith. (If Daryl’s there, I may have missed him.) At the end of the line is Carl’s new friend Siddiq, who tells Rick that he found Carl and brought him there. Rick turns to look at his son, and we get another sad-faces montage before the final revelation of the episode. Carl lifts up his shirt and removes a bandage on his stomach, beneath which are bloody teeth marks. Oh no, Carl got bit!!
If you pay attention, the episode is littered with clues to Carl’s fate from the beginning, when he writes his goodbye note to Rick. This leads to the conclusion that he was bitten during that dumb and otherwise pointless scuffle in the forest a couple episodes ago, and knew this whole episode that he’s a goner. (Reportedly, actor Chandler Riggs is leaving the show because he wants to go to college.) He’s not quite gone yet, though. With the speed this narrative moves, I fully expect Carl to last the rest of the season before succumbing to his infection. In fact, it seems inevitable to me that he’ll infiltrate the Saviors and, after dying and turning, will be the one to finally bring down Negan. Is there even a chance this story could end any other way now?
Like almost every episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ these days, the mid-season finale has a fair amount of dumb plotting. Aaron and Enid’s trip to Oceanside makes no damn sense at all. Were they actually trying to kill someone, and if so, what the hell did they think that would accomplish? Likewise, Simon allowing Maggie and Jesus return to the Hilltop unsupervised, like they’re on the Honor System now, is both incredibly convenient for them and incredibly unlikely.
Despite its deficiencies, the episode is pretty tense and suspenseful. However, the fact that the only losses were all redshirt characters (Carl will be around for a while still, I guarantee it) feels like a major copout considering the stakes the Saviors have to reassert control. Also, it’s damned disappointing that we’re still going to have to deal with more Negan for at least the rest of the season.
I’m still with the show. I’ll be back in February, but I can’t deny that I’ve been considering making this the last season I watch unless the back half of the episodes show a positive turnaround.