Josh Jackson and Jim Vorel review each week’s episode of The Walking Dead in a series of letters
Well Josh, when this episode of The Walking Dead began with a banner reading “Carl’s Journey Ends,” that pretty much put an end to your “Carl carries some strain of immunity” theory from last season. What we got here was an appropriately emotional, if not particularly eventful, kick-off to season 8’s second half. It was a character-driven rather than plot-driven 82 minutes, which isn’t such a bad thing, I guess. The stage is now set for the rest of this season’s war against Negan … who might end up as a beaming tomato farmer???
Yes, that shot in the closing minute was certainly the “WTF!” moment of this particular episode. I’ve taken to calling these two possible futures—I assume that’s what they are—the “Bleary Eyes Future” and the “Old Man Rick” future. In one, Rick ends up bleeding out under a tree, imploring forgiveness from the world. I couldn’t tell, but did it look like his wrists were slit to you in that closing shot? That obviously presents a significantly different connotation than if he’s been shot.
And then there’s the Barbara Walters-filtered version of the future with Old Man Rick. This seems to be a best case scenario—a glimpse at the dream of Carl’s ideal future, where past grudges have been laid aside and everyone is working together, including Siddiq (the guy Carl saved), Michonne, Eugene and yes, even Negan, which seems to border on the impossible. Those who have read the Walking Dead comics know that there is significance to this possible future, but this show is tricky—it likes to tease events from the comics without them ever actually coming to pass. And then there are the times it chooses to diverge entirely, as in the death of Carl … who is actually still alive in the comics (at least the last time I checked in). His death here represents one of the biggest deviations from the comic script in recent memory.
Elsewhere, Carol and Morgan lead a commando raid throughout this episode in order to rescue Ezekiel, and in doing so they basically wipe out the entire Savior garrison of The Kingdom with little to no trouble. It’s yet another instance of the “Just how many people do The Saviors have to throw away?” trope that I have been banging on about since last season. By my count, Carol and Morgan kill at least 15 more Saviors on screen alone, but we’re always apparently meant to think that these numbers are insignificant. The last few seasons have made death feel so inconsequential because people are constantly being killed, but they’re all faceless mooks who respawn in the enemy HQ after 30 seconds. I can promise you that if the Grimes Coalition lost 15 people, it would be a huge deal. Here, it’s instantly forgotten.
Some stray observations and questions for you, Josh.
— We just heard Judith’s first lines in the Old Man Rick future, did we not? Related: My girlfriend’s first observation upon seeing Judith’s face was “She looks like Shane!” So there you go. No Maury paternity test required. Also: We got an official Passing of the Hat from Carl to Judith. I want to see that little girl in Rick’s sheriff hat, sooner rather than later.
— What do you make of the presence of Negan in Carl’s vision of the future? Do you really think that Carl would ever advocate for the sparing of Negan, to incorporate him into some future idyllic society? Would the members of that community ever be able to come to terms with having this guy walking around in their midst? And even if they could, do you think Negan could ever stand to become just a cog in Rick’s machine? I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who would ever be content to just take orders from someone else.
— I liked the fact that after all this time, Carl is still reflecting on random decisions he made in the heat of the moment, years earlier. The fact that he’s still talking on his death bed about a snap decision that took the life of another kid at the prison was a nice character touch that shows the baggage he’s lived with ever since that moment.
— Is it just me, or was that indie folk tune in the beginning horrifically out of place with the montage of Carl grappling with his mortality? Also: This kid totally deteriorated at a much slower rate than any other person who’s ever been bitten by a walker. He walked around showing no ill effects for at least 48 hours, if not more, after being bit. And then suddenly he just went all pale and ghoulish on us.
I think it’s safe to assume that with this out of the way, the rest of season 8 will be the conclusion of all out war with The Saviors. Do you think one of the two futures we’ve seen will come to pass? Or will it be something else entirely, a combination of the two?
I especially loved the scene where Rick finished burying son, walked to the top of a hill as fog rolled by and with lens flares obscuring the view, looked to the heavens and shouted, “CORRRRALLLLL!!!!” Oh wait, that didn’t make the final cut? Wasted. Opportunity.
Okay, I shouldn’t make fun of what was actually the best episode the show has cranked out in a long while. Yes, The Walking Dead formula of a character getting much more likable right before they die was in full force, but this one was earned. We’ve watched Carl grow up from adorable kid to petulant pre-teen to caring, responsible, heroic hope for the future. He’s been carrying the weight of killing a kid not much older than himself who was ready to surrender for years now, and that’s helped shape him, helped him hang on to his conscience, his humanity, his idealism when so many other people, kids or adults, would have been hardened beyond redemption. Carl had become the hero of The Walking Dead, and we all expected him to take the mantle of leadership from his father, who had become too hardened to lead in peacetime.
But Carl, in his death, promises a change for Rick that nothing else could. Of course, we also learn that the idyllic future that has been teased all season long has just been Carl’s dream, and an alternate future now shows Rick wounded, alone and drenched in blood. I don’t think any of those injuries looked self-inflicted—a bloody arm in this world can just mean you ripped an enemy’s guts out through a bullet hole in the abdomen (thanks for that, Morgan; you even freaked out Carol, which I’d assumed was impossible).
There have been plenty of unsuccessful prophets in Rick’s group, doing their best to ensure the group never crosses lines it can’t recover from: Dale, Hershel, Tyreese and Bob have all served as the angel on Rick’s soldier getting shouted down by his demons. And all of them are now dead. But Carl’s voice is one he won’t ever be able to tune out. That his son could see the same horrors he’s lived through and still see the good in humanity should be a powerful motivation for the rest of Rick’s life. Of course, this is the apocalypse, so that will be tried and tested as long as AMC keeps renewing their golden zombie goose.
But alas, as one kid confesses his cold-blooded murder, another kid commits one. If Carl will always be Rick’s anchor to empathy, my guess is that Henry will now be Morgan’s. The zen master has been on a “Clear”-era Morgan bender, but if he doesn’t look back on this night in horror, he’s truly lost. I think the sight of Henry stabbing Gavin through the back of the neck will be the act that finally pulls him back from the brink. Of course, Morgan has had so many veers off into one extreme or the other that watching it causes whiplash. Hopefully, as he makes his much-publicized journey west, he’ll settle into some rational view between unwavering pacifist and psychopathic killer.
By the way, that indie folk song at the beginning was Bright Eyes’ “At the Bottom of Everything.” Conor Oberst is pretty emo, but this was quite the jaunty selection for Carl’s final day. I get why that chose it over something more obviously melancholy (I would bet $1,000 someone suggested “Hallelujah.”) Carl handled his impending death bravely, smiling up at the sun, and mopey wouldn’t do here.
I don’t want to try to guess what future we’re headed towards, but Rick has a new goal, and that can’t come to pass without bringing the Saviors to heel. One can only hope that will be by season’s end. We’ve seen enough changes to the comics that what happens to Negan at the end of this war is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to imagine him happily farming crops or Maggie ever letting him loose even if she lets him live. But even the Governor had a two-episode redemption arc, so your guess is as good as mine.
Can you play general for a minute and remind where troops are at the moment? Does the Hilltop still have Savior prisoners? What’s Negan’s next move?
Okay, let me recall where the pieces are on this chess board:
— Maggie still has Savior prisoners in the paddock at The Hilltop, I believe. She shot one of them to prove a point and put the fear of God in them, which only makes sense. Of course, it’s rather ridiculous that she was allowed to go back there at all. Her group was waylaid by Simon’s group of Saviors and then stupidly allowed to return to The Hilltop after swearing fealty with guns against their temples. Any rational person would have sent a detachment of Saviors back with Maggie and at least disarmed the soldiers of The Hilltop. They also would have discovered their POW’s in the process.
— Rick, Michonne and the remaining Alexandrians have pretty much no choice but to head toward The Hilltop as well. Their community has been mostly blown up and burned down at this point. Daryl seems to insist that regardless of where they go, they’re all sticking together.
— Ezekiel, Carol, Morgan and the population of The Kingdom are also presumably converging on The Hilltop, which certainly seems to make The Hilltop the setting for the largest single battle of this war.
— Negan is … out there somewhere, prowling with an instantaneously regenerating army of endless Saviors.
— You may have forgotten about this, but Aaron and Enid went on a weirdo side quest to recruit the women of Oceanside, which immediately (and hilariously) went south when Enid got an itchy trigger finger and shot Natania, the community’s matriarch, dead. Despite the fact that Aaron and Enid will certainly be captured by the other Oceanside members, I fully expect Cyndie (Tara’s friend in Oceanside) to say something like “It’s okay, they didn’t really mean to murder Grandma; now let’s go fight their war!”
— The Trash People are presumably sitting comfortably in their junk fortress, where we can only hope and pray they will remain for the rest of the series.
— Never forget: Someone is piloting helicopters around this zombie apocalypse. We still have no idea who that is supposed to be, but I have a feeling it won’t come back into play until after the war with The Saviors is concluded.
As you said, Rick is currently experiencing another tweak to his worldview. He swore what amounts to an oath to Carl here, promising him that he would make Carl’s vision a reality. Perhaps that’s just something you say to comfort a dying young man in his last moments, but you know how rigidly Rick takes his promises. This is the guy who made time to make radio calls back to Morgan for months after first meeting the guy, after all. I think it’s safe to say that the goal of “making it real” will now be the all-encompassing necessity that fuels Rick through the conflict to come. If that means offering an olive branch to a bunch of the Savior soldiers in the end, then so be it. The only difficult question is what to do with Negan as the ringleader. Rick has already sworn on more than one occasion that he will personally be killing Negan, so it sort of feels like he now has two conflicting oaths to deal with here.
Somehow, my gut tells me that the narrative gods are on Negan’s side—that even after losing the war, he’ll live on in some weird way we don’t currently understand. But that’s just a guess.
As for next week, I guess we’ll probably see some of the pieces moving into position for what will no doubt be a huge battle.
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon.