One of the many idiosyncrasies of The Walking Dead is that the time between a zombie bite and death varies depending on the storyline. It’s convenient that way. Carl — who was bitten way back in episode 7 of the eighth season (or nearly three months ago, in real time) — managed to survive his bite long enough to bring Siddiq back to Alexandria and bond with him like a brother; write letters to his loved ones; enjoy a final hang with Judith; plant a tree; set up his own deathbed; and save Michonne and the rest of the Alexandrians from the Saviors. Carl does a lot for a guy about to die. In fact, up until Negan arrives, he has a sweet, serene final day set to Bright Eyes’ upbeat “At the Bottom of Everything.”
The nearly 24 hours it takes for Carl to die isn’t that unusual for The Walking Dead. It took Jim — bitten similarly in the mid-section — a day to die, as well as Bob (bitten in the leg), who was also allowed to offer his final goodbyes before expiring. In Carl’s case, his final hours coincide with Negan’s siege on Alexandria, so Daryl and company bid adieu to Carl while their homes are being destroyed, culminating with Judith’s almost comically bad farewell complete with dubbed-in crying effects that in no way sync to her body language (child actors are never easy, particularly those as young as Judith).
When everyone else escapes to The Hilltop, it’s Michonne and Rick who stay behind to see Carl off to his grave after they transport him to an empty house in Alexandria. Andrew Lincoln is a fine actor, but his range is limited, and that range apparently does not extend to grieving father. Meanwhile, Chandler Riggs has never been particularly great in this role (though, he has gotten much better in recent seasons), so it’s mostly left to Danai Gurira to do all the emoting while Lincoln grunts and Riggs rasps. I’m not sure the death scenes achieve their desired effect, but The Walking Dead often struggles with big, emotional moments that don’t involve Glenn (it’s in episodes like these where his absence is felt the most).
It is all very heavy-handed, as Carl belabors the point he is trying to make about uniting Alexandria with the Saviors post-All Out War.:
“It wasn’t the Saviors. It just happened. I got bit,” Carl tells Rick, who is aching to exact revenge on Negan.
“It’s gotta stop. It’s not supposed to be like this. I know it can be better,” Carl tells Michonne.
“Sometimes kids gotta show their parents the way,” Carl tells Judith, handing her Rick’s sheriff’s hat.
“Don’t carry this. Not this part,” he tells Siddiq.
“These people. You saved them all. That’s all you, man,” Daryl tells Carl.
“You’re my best friend, Michonne.”
And then, seconds from death, Carl reiterates the message one last final, unnecessary time. “You did it. You brought in those people from Woodbury,” he tells Rick. “You put away your gun so you could change, so that I could be who I am now. It was right. It still is. It can be like that again. You can still be like that again. You can’t kill all of them, Dad. There’s gotta be something after. For you. For them.”
It’s all a bit too much and hardly worth the extra 20 minutes tacked onto the episode, but even the most cynical, cold-hearted of fans must have felt a pang of heartache when Carl pulls the trigger to end his own life. Michonne’s grieved startle and Rick’s choked sob are easily the most powerful moments of the episode.
Of course, there is a point to Carl’s death: his insistence that Rick put down his gun and the visions of a future in which Eugene, Siddiq, Negan, Rick, Judith, and Michonne all live together peacefully in Alexandria. That point is so that Negan will be spared at the end of the season. Scott Gimple even admitted as much to Chandler Riggs when he told him why his character was being killed off. It’s so that Carl can impart one final message — “May mercy prevail over my wrath” — which Rick will carry until the season finale. As suggested in a non-hallucinatory flash-forward, Rick will return to that message again while he’s sitting beneath a tree as he’s trying to talk himself out of killing Negan.
The Walking Dead is a lot of things. Subtle is not one of them.
The episode’s other storyline was marginally better, though no less restrained, as writers Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell sought to reiterate that Morgan’s PTSD-fueled insanity has returned. That which drove him to “clear” countless zombies in season three is now driving him to kill as many Saviors as possible in season eight, even when it’s unnecessary, as with Gavin.
Director Greg Nicotero is much better at directing action sequences, which makes him an odd choice to handle Carl’s death. He excels, however, with Morgan’s action-driven B-plot, which is heavily influenced by Nicotero’s mentors, Tom Savini and George Romero. The sequence looks more like a ’70s slasher film than a zombie series. It sees Morgan — who escapes from the Sanctuary after they cleared the zombies from the perimeter — return to The Kingdom to join forces with Carol and rescue Ezekiel. It’s a successful mission, as Morgan stalks Saviors like a horror-movie villain, but boy, I did not care for the racist overtones in Gavin’s speech to Ezekiel: “I liked you. You got it. You got that you couldn’t do better than you had it. You accepted things for what they were and you didn’t get any big ideas in your head.” For that alone, I didn’t mind that Morgan couldn’t stop himself from killing Gavin, although, in the end, it is the boy, Henry, who delivers the death blow.
That Henry could do such a thing with Morgan as his mentor is most likely what will snap Morgan out of his bloodthirsty funk, which in turn will drive him so far away that he ends up on a completely different show.
To its credit, The Walking Dead is usually good about ensuring that character decisions are rooted in their actions. Sometimes, however, the show doesn’t know the difference between an earned character turn and beating a dead horse. For those keeping score at home, this storyline crossed firmly into the latter category when Morgan began ripping that Savior’s intestines out of his stomach. We get it, The Walking Dead. Morgan has officially gone insane again.
— Although I hated Gavin after his racist speech, his death was actually sadder than Carl’s. Not because he died, but because of what it meant to Morgan. Lennie James does strong work in this episode, even if the writing doesn’t always live up to his performance.
— As overwrought as the writing was in this episode, Carl did deliver one line that landed perfectly. “A father’s job is to protect his son,” Rick tells Carl. “Love. It’s just to love,” Carl responds.
— The cast of The Walking Dead gave Chandler Riggs a very sweet send off. Riggs said on The Talking Dead that after he filmed his final scene he walked off and the entire cast was clapping for him while wearing eye patches. We wish the best for him post-The Walking Dead.
— In scenes from next week’s episode, it looks like we are not quite done with Carl yet because there’s still a letter to be read. Plus, Maggie’s zombie corpse makes its way to Negan, and it looks like Simon is going to kill one of the Garbage People to get them back in line.
— Finally, here’s Andrew Lincoln bidding farewell to Chandler Riggs via song.