The Walking Dead's Mid-Season Premiere Was Pretty Good Despite Itself

The world's pre-eminent source of zombie entertainment has never exactly been afraid of shooting itself in the foot now and again. It's like the show has some sort of crippling self-esteem issues, and can't help sabotaging itself. But this episode in particular felt like The Walking Dead wanted to offer us a delicious cookie, but couldn't help licking it first.

When we last left our intrepid survivors, they were barely intrepidly surviving after the Saviors had escaped the trap Rick and the Alexandria, Hilltop, and Kingdom colonies had put them in, and come to Alexandria and systematically destroyed it. As you'll recall, it was Carl who saved everybody - first by coordinating their escape, and second by stalling for time with Negan, essentially asking him, "What good is all this killing actually doing?" (Other than keeping the ratings up, not much.) Eventually, all the Alexandrians, along with Rick, Carl, and Michonne, met up in the sewers with no home and no plan - which is when Carl revealed he'd been bitten by a zombie.

Carl and Judith (Kinsey Isla Dillon) high-five after massacring the Smurf village.Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

"Honour" is mainly The Carl Show, for obvious reasons, at least after the same mysterious shots that opened the season premiere: A close-up of Rick's red-rimmed eyes, and Rick and Michonne digging a grave, neither of which are mysterious. Then it's all about Carl flashbacks, starting with getting bitten helping Siddiq, him realising he's going to die, making a sort of peace, then playing with Judith, writing farewell letters to everybody, worrying when his dad and Michonne are going to get back home and if he'll see them before he dies. It also includes his conversation with Negan from the mid-season finale, where his volunteering to be a sacrifice takes on a new meaning. It's all set to Bright Eyes' "At the Bottom of Everything," which is on-the-nose but no less effective because of it. As montages go, it's one of Walking Dead's best.

In the present, Carl dies slowly over the course of the entire episode so he can have a goodbye tour with the most important people in his life… and also Siddiq. Siddiq clearly feels distraught that this kid was bitten helping him, and swears that he will honour Carl's memory - most specifically, Carl's willingness to help those in need, to hope for the good in people, to try to make the world a better place. Daryl reminds him that the reason everyone in Alexandria is alive is because of his actions, coordinating the escape, talking to Negan to give everyone time to board to the bus, etc. Then Carl talks to Judith, giving her a big, tearful spiel about how his mum had told him that he "was gonna beat this world," but she was wrong and that Judith will be the one to do it, handing over the ceremonial sheriff's hat he's been wearing since season one.

This last moment should be emotionally devastating, but it's undercut by the fact that the toddler who plays Judith doesn't speak, has never spoken, and by all accounts has no idea what Carl is saying to her. Carl is nearly sobbing and trying to pass the torch here, while Judith is eating her hand. Poor Chandler Riggs might as well be doing the scene with an American Girl doll. But it's by no means Judith's fault alone. When Siddiq goes through his earnest, teary-eyed tirade about swearing to honour Carl it's a nice sentiment that goes on so long that it becomes absurd. It's like when you're at your wedding, and some cousin-twice-removed from the other side of the family comes up to you and wants to give you his 20-minutes spiel of relationship advice. This is not the time to pretend you're a primary character yet, Siddiq.

Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) make things awkward.Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Eventually, the survivors sneak away to Hilltop and form one big mega-colony to take on the Saviors (since the Saviors also took the Kingdom but Ezekiel helped his people escape and sent them to Hilltop, too, but more on that later). That leaves father, son, and quasi-stepmom/pal alone together. Here, Carl and Michonne get their goodbyes. They have obviously lived together as a family for a while now; as two of the longest-surviving cast members, they're comrades in arms; and they both care deeply about Rick. They share a deep bond that arguably no one else on the show does and their scene where they say goodbye is heartrending… mostly.

Would I call Michonne and Carl BFFs? No, I would not, but the show sure does. Carl and Michonne literally weep "You're my best friend" to each other, and it just felt… weird. I'm sure plenty of you didn't have a problem with it, but it took me out of the scene because it forced me to think about if Carl and Michonne had confided anything in each other that wasn't about Rick - that we ever saw them connecting, emotionally, as equals. I'm sure a couple scenes can be found that could imply a relationship like this, but for me, it took another gripping, dramatic moment, and made a big record scratch noise over it.

There's brief talk of trying to get Carl to Hilltop, but Rick is not so traumatized not to realise that's pointless. Once the Saviors have left, they do get Carl above ground back into the light, into the bombed-out church. Here, Carl has his final moments with his father, and his final moments, period. There's a lot to like here, and I found it genuinely moving as Carl looks back at his short life, and his attempts to make it mean something by pushing Rick back into the light.

Carl grew up basically as the world had fallen apart, watching civilisation crumble to nothing as people killed not only to survive but simply out of fear. He tells Rick about the time a kid held a gun on him (back in the third season finale) but began surrendering, and young Carl shot him anyway. Present-day Carl bemoans how easy it was to shoot that kid, how easy it is for anybody to kill anybody, compared to the difficulty of trying to live and work together. Rick says he was just a kid, having to deal with this new reality, but that's not Carl's point.

Carl thanks his dad for seeing what life was doing to him and making a change - for putting his guns down, for bringing people from Woodbury in and trying to live together with them, and to make a better life. "It was right," says Carl. "It still is. You can be like that again." When Rick tries to say it's different now, Carl empathically argues, "You can't kill all of them! There has to be an after," a sentiment echoed in the season's first half by the similarly peace-minded Jesus.

Eugene (Josh McDermitt) stares bravely into the madness that is Rick's beard.Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Then there's a reveal I feel pretty stupid for not realising way, way earlier - this season's flash-forwards into the future? Where Rick has the cane and that giant, weird beard? - that's Carl's vision of what the future could be: An Alexandria of peace, of new homes, new crops, a new community. And as the vision is explored further throughout the episode, we see that Eugene is there, giving an apple to the elder Judith while Rick smiles benignly at them, the past clearly having been forgiven. "If you can still be how you were, that's how it could be," whispers Carl.

"Everything I did was for you," Rick replies, accidentally or purposefully addressing the question many viewers have had since we saw Carl's bite. Rick's entire motivation, throughout the series, has primarily been about Carl, about keeping him safe. He's wanted to protect others, too, and led them to do so, but his desire to build a better, safer world was always about making it for Carl. Rick said as much to him in the middle of the fifth season when he was unconscious, having just had his eye shot out. With Alexandria saved, it was the first time Rick truly had hope for the future, and the main reason he cared is that he so desperately wanted Carl to be a part of it.

Rick has back been on the moral upswing since season eight began - starting after he scared away Siddiq rather than helping him. Slowly, he began to not want instantly kill Saviors even if they posed no immediate threat. He didn't want to not to blow a hole in their Sanctuary compound to let the zombies flood in because it would endanger the innocent people who toil for Negan. Losing his son and primary reason for living seems like it would almost instantly turn Rick back into a nearly soulless killing machine (a role he's dabbled with heavily in the past). But Carl has power over his father like no other, and Rick can do nothing but try to follow his son's final wish. "Carl, I promise," he swears. "I'm gonna make [your vision] real."

And that's when Carl tells Rick and Michonne to go outside so he can shoot himself, sparing themselves the pain. After they hear the bullet, they go out to build the grave we kept catching glimpses of this season. The episode ends with one more glimpse at the future Carl envisioned: One where Judith wanders through the Alexandria farm and says hello to someone planting tomatoes. It's Negan. Because for Carl, even peace could be made with him.

No, it's not particularly subtle.Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

I'm not gonna lie; this shit had me teary-eyed more than a little. Anytime a show or movie includes a scene where a parent loses a child it's gonna get me, and the fact that I have effectively watched Carl grow up over seven and a half years made it hit harder. Yes, it was certainly hokey, but you know I love The Walking Dead when Rick is a force of good, and not just the lesser of whatever evils are running around, so I welcomed that hokeyness.

There's only one major problem with Carl's final scene, and then one missed opportunity. The first is that the B-plot of the episode is about Morgan and Carol rescuing Ezekiel from lieutenant Gavin and his bunch of Saviors. They basically Splinter Cell/Assassin's Creed throughout the otherwise empty Kingdom, taking out guys one-by-one, except whenever Carol just knocks one unconscious, Morgan runs over and stabs him with his spear, making sure everyone they encounter dies. Even Carol, no stranger to murder, is perturbed.

Of course, this ends with Ezekiel rescued and Gavin on the run from an undeniably murderous Morgan, at which point the show turns into a straight-up horror film where Gavin is the poor victim, hiding from the unstoppable monster (only Morgan's spear-tip, dragging in the ground, and his shadow are seen here). Gavin is no "final girl," unfortunately, and Morgan finds him and pulls him to his feet to murder the Saviour in cold blood. Both Ezekiel and Carol tell him he doesn't have to do it, that he shouldn't, that he doesn't even want to. Morgan nearly sobs when he says he "has" to, and raises his appear - only for Henry, the little brother of the young man who was shot over a cantaloupe that broke Morgan and turned him back in to the killer he is today. Henry is almost as exactly as young as Carl was when the TV show first began. And, following Morgan's example and his desire to kill, Henry has now taken his first life.

Henry (Macsen Lintz) learned it by watching Morgan.Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

You can see what director Greg Nicotero was going for here; contrasting Carl's vision for a peaceful future with the team's most murderous, least forgiving member, as well as the grown-up, wiser Carl talking about the cost of growing up in violence, especially as a kid, while another kid takes his first step down the dark path. Cutting back and forth between the two scenes, so that Carl is effectively commenting on Morgan's deliberate path to executing Gavin, does give the Morgan side a little extra gravity. But what it adds there it takes away from Carl's death, especially in terms of momentum. This is inarguably one of the biggest, most important moments in the entire damn series, and it keeps getting interrupted over and over again by checking in with Morgan being a murderous weirdo. Is he still killing people or trying to find people to kill! Yes! Every single time! Stop licking that cookie, dammit!

Soggy cookie or not, there's suddenly a lot of potential for The Walking Dead to do something new from this point on. The primary motivation for the primary character is gone, which demands a major shift (at the very least like, say, turning Judith into a character and not just a prop). The main setting has been destroyed, so that's another new status quo. There's even a new showrunner, Angela Kang, coming when season nine premieres this fall.

And Rick, of course, could try his best to bring peace to the post-apocalypse, but he's tried that before, and you can see how well that worked out. At any rate, I honestly don't know what the future of the show will be, and that's kind of exciting. I just hope it doesn't have nearly as much saliva on it.

Not gonna lie; I'm gonna get teary-eyed again the first time I spot Judith wearing that dumb hat.Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Assorted Musings:

• I was 100 per cent ready for the show not to kill Carl, for there to be some sort of bullshit work around in place, and I'll tell you why: not because it was going to be so crazy for the show to deviate so much from the comics, or because it destroyed Rick's narrative purpose, but because how quickly the show swore Carl was really gonna die, and how Riggs' father popped out of nowhere to yell very publicly about how it sucked. The makers of TWD have had zero qualms tricking viewers and then directly lying to us, so it seemed entirely plausible this was planned. Also, after the bullshit the show's pulled recently, I thought that maybe he was the first one to develop a resistance to the plague, or that the bite wasn't caused by a zombie but instead something else that looked uncannily like a zombie, or some other contrived nonsense.

• Honestly, even when I heard the bullet I thought Rick and Michonne would walk away without checking, but that eventually we'd discover Carl had passed out as he was pulling the trigger and missed, and woke up the next day, realising he was the first person to survive the zombie virus. He'd be too weak to do more than barely movie, so it would take weeks, if not months, for him to return in a shocking finale.

• But then I saw/remembered Rick and Michonne digging the grave, and realised they would have buried the body, so if the bullet did miss and Rick and Michonne didn't realise it and he still got better he'd still need to climb out of his grave, which is probably -- probably a bit too much, even for The Walking Dead. But this is what the producers' lies and bullshit has wrought -- I'm not concentrating on the story, because I'm too distracted trying to figure out if I'm being lied to again.

• The Saviors' plan to shoot down zombies in such a way to make a sort of wall of corpses seems… not that smart? I mean, it would still take a ton of bullet to shoot enough zombies to have them make their own barricade, but as we've seen constantly throughout the show, zombies have zero problems crawling over other zombies when living flesh is involved. And somehow it was a plan that works, it seems like someone should have had occasion to figure that out that strategy years and years ago.

• Another problem with this episode? It should 100 per cent have been the mid-season finale. Dragging out Carl's death for several months did nothing but lessen its emotional impact, because we all had so long to process it. It's the same thing that happened with the "who does Negan kill?" nonsense. Had this aired the week after the mid-season finale, the reveal would be so fresh in our minds that Carl's death would have been completely devastating. This is a recurring problem for The Walking Dead, and it's not just licking its cookies, it's blowing its nose on them.

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