Last year, AMC’s The Walking Dead sparked an outrage. The gory season 7 premiere threw away beloved characters in the name of archvillain Negan, and audiences followed suit: by the time the midseason finale rolled around, ratings had dropped 40 percent.
Now the show has returned for the second half of the season. It’s an opportunity to chart a new course, to correct the mistakes it’s made, and convince viewers that the story of Rick Grimes is still worth following. The only question is whether the series can pull it off.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Nick Statt: I wish I could be going into this finale with higher hopes, but this season has done very little to instill confidence. Bryan, after last year’s premiere, and the grotesque and manipulative deaths of Glenn and Abraham, we both assumed the show would have something to prove, that crumbling ratings just might push the show past its cheap tricks and shallow storylines. It seemed self-evident that redemption was the aim, to make up for having forfeited the heart of the narrative in favor of tasteless shock and a slavish commitment to the source material.
It would have at least been interesting if the show failed at those goals in spectacular fashion. Instead, it’s mostly spun its wheels, neither course-correcting nor going all-in on one particular narrative strategy. That’s made for a frustrating season where the big moments have all been forgettable and the subplots have been circuitous and dull. Maybe the show was always destined to devolve into a passable comic book adaptation. But it was not so long ago The Walking Dead was praised for its ability to take risks. At this point it’s not clear to me what a risk would even look like, save knocking Rick off and installing a new main character — something I’m sure will never happen.
Bryan Bishop: It’s definitely been a frustrating season. A dismal first half, followed by a second half that was promising at times before circling the same drain of frustration the last few weeks. Given how all of this started — given the premise of the Redemption Club itself — I went into the season 7 premiere looking for two things: the first was catharsis, something that would actually make Glenn and Abraham’s deaths mean something, or at least give viewers some sense of true closure. The fact that it’s April 2017 and that hasn’t been dealt with in a satisfactory way is absurd.
But even more important was some sense of narrative purpose. The Walking Dead has long been accused of treading water when it should be creating an engaging story and moving it forward. That sense has only become more heightened the last few seasons, as Negan was endlessly teased, before showing up and being just generally terrible. You suggested that Negan may not die in the season finale, and while that could be okay, either way the show will have to demonstrate that it is doing something with its storyline and themes that go beyond what has become a seemingly eternal back-and-forth where nobody changes, nothing evolves, and the audience is left wondering why we should be watching outside of sheer habit.
So let’s see if The Walking Dead redeemed itself.
The iPod Opener
Bryan: The last few episodes of The Walking Dead have really been into opening images, and this time we get a close-up of Sasha, in a dark, undisclosed location, listening to headphones. She slowly seems to get drowsy, until her eyes finally close, and that’s when the show kicks into the opening credits. The image of Headphone Sasha recurs repeatedly throughout the episode, usually when the show comes back from commercial breaks, paired with a kind of flashback / dream sequence where Sasha gets to see Abraham again. Their interactions are dreamy, her seemingly thinking back to better times and making peace with what she’s lost.
But in this first instance, she snaps back to reality: she’s stuck in Negan’s cell, still, and he wants her help for his grand plan to bring Rick to heel. “Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, Sasha,” he tells her, before unveiling a pancake breakfast — with a blueberry happy face. That Negan. Such a kidder.
A Chat with Dwight
Nick: In the comics, Dwight’s betrayal of Negan is a big turning point for Rick and crew, giving them the edge over the Saviors they desperately need. Of course, you wouldn’t know any of that by watching how that storyline played out it tonight’s finale. Dwight, who mysteriously slipped out of Negan’s Sanctuary last week, tells Rick he’s there to help. We get a scene where Daryl almost slits his throat after some insistent pleading from Tara, who’s still pretty torn up about her girlfriend getting an arrow through the eye last season.
Of course, Daryl relents and Rick decides to ask Dwight for some valuable insight. That valuable insight turns out to be telling Alexandria to put some trees in the road to stall Negan — yes, really. I’m not sure if this whole Dwight arc is supposed to be more fleshed out in the future, but it felt silly and out of place in last night’s episode. Later on, we see the turncoat carrying on by Negan’s side as if everything is normal. If almost feels like an entire segment of the script concerning Dwight’s grander plan was chopped out, leaving a gaping hole in the episode that feels painfully unfilled.
Everybody Finally Decides to Pitch In
Bryan: Thinking back on it, it’s actually pretty amazing how much shoe leather The Walking Dead spent on the simple idea of getting the various communities to band together against the Saviors. Negan and his crew are just the most evil force in the world as far as they’ve all been concerned and can turn on them at any moment. Still, the show needed to fill 16 episodes somehow… and today is when it finally pays off.
Maggie and Jesus talk about whether Hilltop should join the battle. Gregory left last week, if you’ll recall (not that he ever shows up in this week’s episode). Maggie is daunted by the seriousness of the decision, knowing that she could be leading people to their death, but Jesus is relieved — because he trusts Maggie to make the right choice.
Meanwhile, Ezekiel and Team Kingdom are prowling when they come across Morgan, who had gone rogue earlier. As Ezekiel notes, he’s wearing Benjamin’s armor, because after everything that’s happened Morgan has decided he’s cool with killing again and has gone on a one-man revenge mission. But Ezekiel won’t let him stay out on his own. “Morgan,” he tells him, “you are not stuck.” And that seems to do the trick, and the team is back on their way.
The Little Birdie and Sasha’s Last Stand
Nick: Ever since Negan’s subtle “little birdie” line in last week’s episode, there’s been a dark shadow hanging over Rick’s planning, which he suspiciously pulled off with just a minor hiccup or two. Who’s been giving the Saviors intel, and to what end? The answer reveals itself when Rosita goes to detonate her explosives upon Negan’s arrival for the big showdown and nothing happens. As Rick exchanges worried looks with the others, Jadis and her silent trash heap denizens turn their weapons on the Alexandrians. It’s a surprise moment in a show otherwise devoid of twists, and mostly succeeds in shaking things up in an episode that feels like every beat could be seen coming a mile away.
The show decides to go for a strong one-two knockout by slamming the Jadis betrayal up against the big Sasha reveal. Given that the character was rolled out in a coffin — for dramatic effect (maybe?) — it was only natural that when Negan pried the door open, a zombified Sasha leaps out. (Thanks Eugene’s poison!) In the chaos of the moment, Carl decides to start shooting and the whole scene devolves into a messy gun fight. It wouldn’t be a finale of The Walking Dead if there wasn’t a frenzied shootout, and I have to admit that it’s this kind of wild scrambling that reminds me that this show is at its best when it channels its inner action movie.
A Pair of Convenient Entrances
Nick: Naturally, things don’t go too smoothly for Rick and the rest of Alexandria when the bullets start flying. After he gets shot in the side and tossed off a sniper perch by Jadis, Rick finds himself and Carl at gunpoint as the rest of the remaining survivors are rounded up by the Saviors. It’s here that Negan outlines his master plan: he’s going to kill Carl with Lucille and then chop both of Rick’s hands off. Instead of falling into despair, Rick delivers perhaps his most definitive and resilient lines in well over a season. “I’m going to kill you,” he tells Negan. “In fact,” he says, leaning in, “you’re all already dead.”
It’s a sinister little exchange, and the glint of madness in Andrew Lincoln’s eyes reminds me of what a great character Rick can really be when the show stops funneling him into a thousand different leadership roles and just lets him give in to his more primal instincts. Of course, Negan finds this all very laughable. Yet just as he’s about to bring the bat down on Carl’s head, Ezekiel's tiger jumps into the fray from out of nowhere.
This is where the episode pretty much flies off the rails. Because of course the Kingdom and Hilltop had to arrive at some point. They also had to do so without ever telegraphing this to Rick and the others, who seemingly spent an entire half of the season meticulously planning this moment, but never once coordinating how the communities would actually come together and fight. Thankfully, because this is a TV show that refuses to incorporate even a modicum of realism, no main character dies in the ensuing gunfight and the Saviors and Jadis’ group are successfully driven back. Oh, I almost forgot — nobody shoots the tiger.
War and Peaceful Voice-Over
Bryan: After all of that, Negan gets away, and as he regroups at Saviors HQ he wonders aloud just what happened that causes Sasha to die in the coffin. Eugene whips up an excuse on the spot, and for a brief moment it seems that Lucille finally is going to have a sacrifice. But in the end, Negan leaves Eugene untouched, and instead walks out to rouse the dozens and dozens of waiting Saviors just outside. “We are going to war!” he bellows — because in The Walking Dead, nothing ever ends. Ever.
On the other side of the fence, the surviving members of Hilltop and the Kingdom are setting up home in Alexandria. Jesus and Maggie go out to find Sasha so they can properly lay her to rest, Rick helps nurse a wounded-but-alive Michonne back to health, and as we see everyone trying to put the pieces back together a lovely voice-over from Maggie sets the tone. The decision for Hilltop to join forces with Alexandria in the fight against Negan was hers to make, but the real decision had been made years ago, she says, when a young Glenn Rhee decided to stick his neck out for Rick Grimes before they’d even met.
“Glenn chose to be there for you that day, a long time ago. That was the decision that changed everything,” she says. “It started with both of you, and it just grew. All of us. To sacrifice for each other. To suffer, and stand. To grieve. To give, to love, to live. To fight for each other. Glenn made the decision, Rick. I was just following his lead.”
Within the context of the episode, it’s a gauzy, forced moment that seems to come out of nowhere, a convenient button on a episode that didn’t really earn one. But for audiences that have been desperate for any kind of emotional catharsis over Glenn’s death — one that we’ve been waiting for since October of last year — it did what was needed. Perfect? Not even close. Jammed in? Absolutely. But did my cold, cynical, zombie-watching heart feel something? Yes, it did.
The Road to Redemption
Nick: So I think the kindest takeaway we can have here is thank god this season didn’t end on a cliffhanger. Of course, that doesn’t absolve the finale episode from its obvious shortcomings. We suffered through 15 hours of filler and build up for… a character death we all saw coming and a declaration of war that was obviously inevitable, it seems. We’ve known for a while now that the Saviors and the Rick’s united communities would be going into a prolonged battle — the show was never going to kill Negan this soon.
We knew that it would all be coming to a head in the form of some kind of shootout, and although the action was welcomed, it still felt like one of the weakest and most risk-averse finales the show has ever delivered. That’s partly because the path we took to get here was so bloated and boring that there was no possible way one single episode could reverse a season’s worth of bad tendencies. Sure, Sasha taking Eugene’s pill in a last-ditch attempt to take out Negan was a pleasant surprise. But Jadis’ betrayal felt too convenient, as did the Kingdom and Hilltop’s arrival at just the right moment. Negan declaring war might as well have been met with shrugged shoulders.
Again, this all makes me think The Walking Dead’s only tactic at this point is to cautiously stall until it has something better to deliver — except I can’t even imagine what it is we’re all waiting for anymore. The show’s formula and its dreadful pacing likely won’t change, and I can’t help but think that ratings will just continue to slide. If the narrative can recover from the decisions made during this Negan arc, I’d consider it a miracle.
Bryan: Again, going into this episode I was looking for two things: catharsis and narrative intent. While the execution was clumsy, I got the first one. After all this time, The Walking Dead finally drew a line connecting Glenn to the future, framing him as the originator of the ethos of sacrifice and support that have guided Rick’s friends ever since. It was a fitting tribute, and finally allowed an emotional release that offset what could arguably be considered the most poorly handled move in the show’s history.
But when it came to the second, the episode was a crushing disappointment. Negan getting away and declaring war on Alexandria was the show proving once again that it is just a merry-go-round of the same moves, plays, and conflicts run again… and again… and again. Is there a point to any of this? Is there some larger takeaway that the show is getting at? At this point, I really don’t think so. And without that, it’s nearly impossible to contemplate heading back to this show for another season, because ultimately nothing really matters.
Or perhaps that’s the show’s secret message. Maybe The Walking Dead, at its core, is just a existential rumination on the futility of trying to create order in a world full of chaos. But even if that is the case, it’s a lesson I learned a long time ago — and I don’t really think I need to a few more years’ worth of Rick and Negan near-misses to get the point.