‘The Walking Dead’ was off the air for the past two months and, frankly, I bet that a lot of its viewers were grateful for the break. I know I was. This season has been underwhelming, to put it mildly. The show returned on Sunday, but did all of its audience come back with it?
I don’t follow ratings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the series took a dive as a lot of disenchanted fans gave up on it at the mid-season finale. On the other hand, could the recent news that show-runner Scott Gimple is stepping away and someone else will take over next season help to keep some viewers hanging on a little longer?
In the meantime, the back half of the season opened with an extra-long 83-minute episode. In typical ‘Walking Dead’ fashion, that means it had twice as many commercials and probably around five minutes of actual additional content. Most of that screen time was spent rehashing stuff we already knew and giving one departing character a prolonged farewell.
As we learned in the mid-season finale, Carl’s a goner. He explains to his dad, “I got bit” at least 17 times in this episode. In case that isn’t enough to get through to you, the episode opens with flashbacks showing how he got bit, and then following Carl through his last day as he writes goodbye notes to all his loved ones and spends some quality time with baby sister Judith.
To the show’s credit, in my last recap I predicted that Carl’s death would be dragged out for the rest of the season, and that he’d try to infiltrate the Saviors first and eventually chomp down on Negan. I was wrong about that. This is Chandler Riggs’ final episode, and the show gives itself over mostly to him.
This amounts to a lot of crying and teeth-gnashing, mostly from Rick. Carl lectures his dad about the importance of mercy. He repeatedly tells him, “You can’t kill them all” and “There’s gotta be something after.” We learn during all this that the soft-focus Old Man Rick flash-forwards we saw earlier this season were not Rick’s fantasy after all, but were Carl’s the whole time. He continues to picture a sunny utopian future where all hostilities are set aside and former enemies (like Eugene and even Negan himself!) can be welcomed as friends and become a productive part of the community. Rick promises to make that vision real.
Also revealed is that Siddiq, the guy Carl brought in from the woods (and who is basically responsible for Carl getting bitten) is a former medical resident. That’s convenient. He vows to honor Carl by making himself useful.
Most of these conversations occur in the sewers as the Alexandrians listen to the Saviors destroying their town. Judith (the quietist toddler who has ever lived!) never makes a peep during any of this. Carl gives her the sheriff’s hat that Rick had passed down to him. After the Saviors finally leave, Daryl takes Judith and leads the survivors to the Hilltop. Rick and Michonne stay behind to take care of Carl, who’s too weak to be transported far. They carry him above ground and bring him to the only house that remains standing. He says yet another round of goodbyes and the three of them shed more tears. Carl insists on ending his own life on his own terms. As the sun rises, Rick and Michonne wait outside until they hear a gunshot. Then they bury him.
The episode ends with another flash-forward, not to Old Man Rick, but to the bleary-eyed and distraught Rick we’ve also seen several times before. While it may seem at first like he’s just upset about losing his son, in fact we see that he’s injured and bloody. How that happens will have to be revealed later.
The other half of the episode takes place at the Kingdom. After helping his people escape, Ezekiel surrendered himself to the Savior known as Gavin. Carol leads the refugees through the woods toward her cottage and then turns back. The young boy named Henry wants to follow her, but she insists that he stay. It will be zero surprise to any viewer that he doesn’t listen to her.
Carol runs into Morgan, who has also made his way back to the Kingdom after his sniper position at the Sanctuary was overrun and the Saviors there all escaped. The two of them sneak around, killing Saviors and searching for Ezekiel. Morgan has taken a decidedly dark turn and makes a point of recklessly murdering extra Saviors that it would be easier to just avoid.
Ezekiel tries to turn Gavin to his side, repeatedly insisting, “It is not too late to walk back from something decided.” But Gavin is set in his decisions. He doesn’t consider himself an evil person, and is very disappointed that Ezekiel will have to die, but he’s committed to being a Savior, for good or ill.
Gavin gets suspicious when some of his people don’t respond on the walkie-talkie. He rounds up the rest of his men and drags Ezekiel into the theater throne room. Of course, it’s an ambush. Carol and Morgan come in with guns blazing. Gavin is shot in the leg and drops his gun, which Ezekiel picks up and helps the other two mop up all the other Saviors. Morgan gets jumped by a Savior and kills the man by slicing into his stomach and yanking all his guts out by hand.
Gavin limps away. Morgan stalks him around for a little bit before cornering him. Gavin begs for his life. Morgan won’t hear it. Carol and Ezekiel, who had just moments earlier finished machine-gunning down multiple people, try to talk Morgan down and convince him to spare Gavin. Morgan won’t listen and prepares to strike, but just as he raises his staff, young Henry sneaks up behind Gavin and takes care of it himself by stabbing him through the back of the neck with another staff.
Carol is furious that this precious young angel has been sullied by murder, just like literally every other surviving human on the planet already has. Ezekiel can only respond that, “All will be resolved.”
All things considered, this is a decent enough episode for something this late in the show’s run. By ignoring Negan (who only appears in Carl’s fantasy) as well as many of the other dumb subplots that have dragged down this season (the Heapsters, Aaron & Enid’s road trip to Oceanside, etc.), the episode focuses all of its efforts onto two storylines with a minimum of abject stupidity. Even so, it’s bloated and needlessly drags. And of course, all those other things are still out there. We’ll have to come back to them shortly.
Carl is a major character and this is a fitting enough ending for him. However, after eight seasons, we’ve gone through so many similar losses that it’s extremely difficult for any individual character’s death to have the type of impact the same scene might have made back in Season 1 or 2. His exit is tastefully handled, but doesn’t have the blunt shock of Glenn’s savage murder and the heartstring-pulling feels forced.
I really dislike the idea of Rick trying to make peace with Negan. That seems like a terrible idea and I can only hope the show doesn’t actually go that direction. After everything he’s done, Negan can’t be forgiven. He has to be killed, and soon. I fear that this will just be an excuse to keep Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the show for yet another season. I don’t know that I could sit through that.