We all knew Rick's siege against the Saviors couldn't work. There's no way our heroes could fight an antagonist so powerful and defeat him with a single attack. Moreover, we knew Negan would never be beaten in a mere mid-season finale. So the question wasn't if Rick was going to lose, but what he was going to lose.
All images: AMC
I had some reservations about "How It's Gotta Be" going in, mainly because I've enjoyed season eight so far, and I was seriously worried the show wouldn't be able to stick the landing. I think it mostly did - at the least, it didn't squander any of the stores of goodwill I'd been slowly building back up through this first half of the season. It didn't much add to those stores, but I'll call a draw a win here.
The episode is primarily about Negan Striking Back, although the Saviors are infinitely more calm than I expected after having had several outposts hit and their home base attacked and flooded with zombies. As Rick saw, Sanctuary was basically deserted, which means Negan and his soldiers are on the move, and looking to retaliate.
Ol' lieutenant Gavin arrives in the Kingdom and not only announces that the Kingdom is now an official Savior outpost (they will still make food/crops/things for the Saviors, but now they will only keep as much as is necessary to stay alive and keep producing), but also demands the people turn over Ezekiel. If they don't do it, soon, people are going to start getting killed, as per standard procedure. None of his subjects give their depressed king away, though, and Ezekiel, suddenly galvanised by the plight of his people, rigs an explosion as a distraction, drives a school bus to his subjects, and orders them to get away while he… well, lets himself be caught, really. You could argue that he's driven both by a desire to protect his people and survivor's guilt at living through the massacre at the compound, but it seems like he could have easily slipped through a gate, and instead chains himself inside the compound. So it's pretty contrived, but it's nice to see Ezekiel back in action and leading/saving his people again - even if now he's going to be murdered horribly and publicly as a warning to others to stay in line.
Meanwhile, Maggie and Jesus are leading the convoy of Hilltop people to Alexandria to help out, but they run into a tree blocking the road and are quickly surrounded by Simon and his Savior band, who are holding Right Hand of the King Jerry hostage. Simon offers two options: 1) Go home and get back to serving the Saviors, or 2) do anything else, in which case Jerry dies, Maggie will be put into a coffin (with air holes) for transport to Negan, and basically a great, great many more people die. To really drive the gravity of the situation home, Simon shoots one of the people in the back seat of Maggie and Jesus' car.
Maggie chooses door number one and has the badarsedness to actually even ask Simon for a favour - she wants that coffin to bury her car-mate in. Simon acquiesces (which seems incredibly magnanimous after the attack, but I also don't know why Simon is letting Maggie go at all, giving how much Negan wants her along with "the King" and Rick). But oh ho! That's not what Maggie wants it for at all. When she and the others return to Hilltop, she goes immediately to the makeshift prison with the surrendered Saviors in it, finds the guy who attacked Jesus previously, shoots him, sticks him in the coffin, writes "I HAVE 38 MORE STAND DOWN" on it in magic marker and tells a peon to leave it where the Saviors can see it.
And, of course, the main story is about Negan and his forces arriving at Alexandria to confront Rick… except Rick isn't there. When all the Saviors' cars drive up, it's Carl - who was put in change of Alexandria while Rick was gone, back in the season premiere - who takes control and orders everyone to get out of their cars and escape through the back. When Negan gets on his loudspeaker and demands Rick come out, it's Carl that answers, without a hint of fear. Carl actually tries to make peace, of a sort, with Negan. Not in a fully naïve way, but in a more philosophical "Seriously, what is the point of killing each other?" way. Carl mentions there are kids in Alexandria; Negan promptly replies there are kids in Sanctuary and there was a baby at one of the outposts, too.
When Negan says he has to kill Rick, Carl volunteers to die in his father's stead - that if a death is needed to restore peace, he'll make that sacrifice. "You want to die?" Negan asks.
"No, I don't," Carl answers. "But I will. It's gonna happen. And if me dying can stop this, if it can make things different for us, for you, for all those other kids, it'd be worth it. Hey, was this the plan? Was it supposed to be this way? Is this who you wanted to be?"
It's a bit hokey, sure, but Chandler Riggs has a certain simplicity in his tone that makes it really feel like Carl finds all this fighting exhausting and futile. And Negan's façade seems rocked a bit by Carl's direct questions - but then the Alexandrian convoy manages to burst through the Savior blockade (led by Dwight) and Negan realises Carl is stalling. Negan orders his soldiers to blow Alexandria completely up, which they do, because apparently they have a lot of grenade launchers.
There are a couple of interesting things here, first and foremost that it looks like Alexandria is gone. It's like when the Governor blew up part of the prison and the zombies swarmed in; it's worse here, because it looks like every single home in the safe zone is destroyed. The second thing is that the show does a very cool job of portraying Alexandria's destruction through Carl. He runs though the town, dropping smoke grenades like some sort of smoke ninja, confusing and delaying the Saviors even further, as things blow up all around him. Eventually he scuttles down a sewer grate and escapes.
While all this is happening, Negan makes spaghetti at Rick's house again. Also, Dwight leads his team of Saviors after the escaping Alexandrians. Specifically, he leads them right into an ambush he knows is there, getting most of the Saviors killed. Hell, he even shoots a few himself, although one woman does figure out Dwight's the traitor, shoots him in the arm, and manages to run off. There's no going back for Dwight, although he has to explain to Daryl and Tara again that he'll be very useful in the fight against Negan, so hey, maybe they should kill him later. But what they're really upset about is they're worried that by crashing that truck into Sanctuary they somehow allowed Negan and the Saviors to escape. But all Dwight can tell them is Eugene figured it out.
By about this point, Rick finally returns to Alexandria, as does Michonne (separately). They find it on fire, and full of Saviors. Michonne is in totally shock, and starts stalking through the smoke, killing people in a berserker rage. Rick brutally murders any zombie or Savior he sees and runs to his home, looking for his family, only to find Negan. The two have a pretty great one-on-one fight, both kicking the crap out of the other and having the crap kicked out of them, until Rick manages to wrest away Lucille the barbed-wire baseball bat. Negan gets more upset than we've ever seen him - like he isn't just mad, but also terrified to have someone else even touch it - and basically throws Rick out a window. He secures Lucille, but Rick escapes.
Rick then (very conveniently) finds Michonne and leads her away to a meeting spot in the sewers, where everyone has gathered. The Alexandrians are scared and lost. Daryl and Tara won't make eye contact with them, wracked with guilt that they may have ruined everything. Rick is happy to see Judith is safe, but then startled to see a stranger with them - it's Siddiq, the man Carl helped a couple of episodes ago. Carl introduces him, and Rick and Michonne realise Carl's hurt. As they go over to him, Carl raises his shirt to show them the zombie bite on his abdomen - one he got helping Siddiq.
Here's what I like about Carl's shocking, imminent and unchangeable death: It has nothing to do with Negan. It isn't a result of the war. Rick bears no direct responsibility for it, so the next eight episodes shouldn't be Rick in shock and hating himself, as he did after Glenn and Abraham died. I like that Carl will die because he tried to help somebody (even if that "helping somebody" seemed less "saving his life" and more "helping him kill zombies") and that because he isn't bitter or even upset, he obviously still feels it was the right thing to do. I like that this should not only keep Rick from murdering Siddiq for being the indirect cause of his son's death, but will hopefully inspire Rick to continue his path back to the compassionate, less murder-y side.
I also really like that Alexandria is destroyed - narratively speaking. We've seen so many characters die in the show's various finales that we expect them, and obviously Carl checks that box. But losing their community, their homes, their walls and their security puts Rick and the others in a new situation during the Savior/KAH war. It's the biggest change in The Walking Dead status quo in years. (Rick and crew entered it way back in season five!)
OK, sure, this is sort of the same as when the Governor blew up the prison and forced everyone to flee, but that ended up in chaos and everyone had to meet back up. Also, the Governor's threat ended there. Now, Rick has all these people to lead and keep safe, and nowhere to go. And the threat of the Saviors is very much out there. The Walking Dead is still trying something new, and I very, very much appreciate it.
So yeah, I'd say "How It's Gotta Be" stuck the landing. It wobbled a bit on the way down - there were certainly some contrivances to get there, cough Simon letting Maggie go cough Ezekiel letting himself be captured when it looked pretty clearly like he could have escaped cough Dwight predicting everything the Alexandrians were going to do cough - but I'm already looking forward to the show's return. And that's a major change in my Walking Dead status quo, too.
- Other thing that happened: Aaron and Enid decide to go to Oceanside, to see if they can enlist their help. They even stop by a distillery in order to bring them a gift. Then, when they wait for the Oceansiders to come to them, Natania gets the drop on Aaron and is about to kill him, forcing Enid to shoot the grandmother in the back. You only get one chance to make a first impression, guys!
- The Garbage People abandon Rick the second the remaining Saviors at Sanctuary open fire. QUELLE SURPRISE.
- There is some straight-up renaissance fair music playing during Ezekiel's distraction/rescue, and I loved it.
- So, did Daryl and Tara crashing the truck into the Savior compound make it possible for Eugene to devise a plan to break the Saviors out? Or maybe the indiscriminate attack that killed innocent workers inspired him to think of a plan? He was thoroughly furious after he saw that carnage last episode. Or it might not have had any impact at all. We don't know, and neither do Daryl and Tara, so they feel guilty as hell.
- Will Carl die off-screen in-between now and the midseason premiere? Riggs will definitely be in the mid-season premiere, but I would be thrilled for the show to have him in flashbacks instead of lingering on him succumbing to the virus. Especially since this episode was a pretty great swan song for the character.
- Oh! If you were wondering why Carl died, since he is very much alive in the comics, it is not because Riggs was recently accepted into university. According to an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Riggs said he's taking a year off school to concentrate on acting - and the decision to kill him off was made by the showrunners. So that's… weird. Carl is basically as important as Rick in the comics, and clearly the person who will lead the group whenever Rick eventually dies. So this is a major, major divergence from the source material - arguably the biggest one ever.
- We still don't know what the deal is with old man Rick from the season premiere. But since Carl is (soon-to-be) dead, we know this is a vision, presumably had by Rick. So my question is this: Is this Rick's final dream of a happy life that could have been, seen in his dying moments? Or are Michonne and Judith both going to die for the Rick's family death trifecta, making the vision completely impossible?