It’s been a shaky seventh season of The Walking Dead, sixteen episodes over the course of six months that have put viewers through the wringer. So much has happened in the real world that it feels like Glenn and Abraham’s deaths were of a different era. The U.S. election hadn’t happened yet. Heath wasn’t starring in the Fox reboot of 24. We barely knew who Negan was.
It was a more innocent time.
For better or worse, the deaths of Glenn and Abraham have colored much of this season. The Walking Dead fans were already upset when the premiere aired last October because the series had cliffhanger’d us for six months in between the sixth and seventh seasons. Still, we all anticipated that Negan would kill someone in the season premiere — and most of us expected it would be Glenn — but few predicted the brutality of those deaths. The backlash was swift and punishing. Literally millions of fans abandoned the series. While it still remains the most dominant drama on cable television, it’s had to work all season long to try and regain the trust of its viewership. The miserable slog of the first half of the season didn’t help.
The AMC series began to turn a corner, however, in the midseason finale. The characters woke up. They got their fight back, they flashed the occasional grin, and while we still had to put up with a petulant Rosita, showrunner Scott Gimple threw us a couple of surprises along the way, namely Eugene’s decision to betray Alexandria, as well as a new community of garbage people who we new even to readers of the comic book. It was the combination of those two new wrinkles — neither of which come from the source material — that led to what was maybe the most surprising twist on The Walking Dead in seven seasons.
The Junkyard Gang double-crossed Rick and Alexandria.
I didn’t see it coming, and judging by the reaction on Twitter, few others did, either. It should have been obvious, especially for comic readers, because giving Rick the kind of numbers that Jadis and the Junkyard gang added would have taken away their underdog status, and the dramatic tension of next season’s All-Out War relies on Rick being an underdog. Moreover, it would have been hard to imagine the Junkyard Gang co-existing with the Alexandrians. Jadis has been creepy as hell from the moment she made Rick fight Winslow, the greatest zombie in the history of The Walking Dead. Hell, we should have known she would double-cross Rick the minute that Jadis asked Michonne if she could “lay” with Rick after the battle. Her name is Jadis (“Judas”) for God’s sake!
In the episode, all of Rick’s best laid plans go straight to hell the moment Eugene arrives with his megaphone (damn you, Eugene), the explosives fail to go off, and Jadis/Judas turns her gun on Rick. The entire storyline does a 180. Rick is no longer in control. The war is lost before it has even begun.
With Rick and co., confronted by the guns the Junkyard Gang are holding to their heads, it’s yet another television-only creation that helps Rick claw out of his jam: The death of Sasha. Granted, most viewers expected Sasha would die in the episode, but how she dies ends up being the neat surprise. Placed into a coffin by Negan to be handed over to Rick in exchange for the Alexandrians’ surrender is similar to the way Holly died in the comics but for two crucial differences: Sasha killed herself (instead of being killed by Negan), and Negan has no idea Sasha is dead, which leads to a hilarious near-death experience for Negan’s and the zombie-mauling of a Savior. It also inspires Carl to lead the rest of Alexandria into a shootout with the Junkyard Gang.
The episode, however, had one more surprise in it. After the Saviors and the Junkyard Gang regroup, collect all the Alexandrians, and force Carl and Rick to their knees, it looks like we might have another repeat of the season premiere. Negan, holding Lucille, is going to kill Carl right in front of Rick. When Negan pulls back his bat to deliver a fatal blow, most of us by that point are begging for The Kingdom or The Hilltop (or even the Oceansiders) to show up and save the day. I don’t think any of us expected it would be Shiva leaping out from nowhere to startle Negan, kill a henchman, and send the Saviors scrambling.
It was one of the most crowd-pleasing moments of the series.
The rest of the episode is a literal mess of chaos and bullets until Negan, the Saviors, and the Junkyard Gang beat a hasty retreat back to the Sanctuary. It’s a huge moment for the seventh season because Rick finally gets a win against Negan. Everyone will get six months to collect themselves before embarking on the All-Out War beginning in the eighth season premiere.
Between the episode’s surprise moments, showrunner Scott Gimple — who also wrote the episode along with two of the series’ most prolific scribes, Angela Kang and Matthew Negrete — also added an emotional layer to the episode with considerably less success. It is nice to see Abraham return for a series of flashbacks, which also bring the season full circle, but the writing in those scenes is heavy handed. It isn’t necessary to load up the episode with flashbacks; one nice moment with Abraham would have sufficed. I understand the idea is to build toward an emotional farewell for Sasha, but all the wistful feelings we might have had for Sasha quickly evaporate the second zombie Sasha jumps out of that coffin.
More effective is Maggie’s speech at the end of the episode, tying not only Sasha’s death back to Abraham, but the lives of everyone in Alexandria back to Glenn. “Glenn made the decision Rick… I was just following his lead.” It’s a nice to end the season with another callback to Glenn’s pocket watch.
— A moment that really stuck out in the episode was when Negan was expressing ambivalence about Sasha riding all the way to Alexandria in the coffin. He really did like Sasha, and I think it broke his heart a little bit when she double-crossed him. It was another brief moment of humanity for Negan. He thought they had a bond. Negan even brought Sasha pancakes. He should have known better than to bring them without syrup.
— In case you missed it, here’s an explanation for the wooden carving at the end of the episode, a callback to the sixth season. What it means is that Dwight is still on Rick’s side.
— I’m not sure what it means for the future of Eugene’s character that Rick was willing to blow him up to take out Negan, but I don’t think it’s good. I don’t know how Eugene can ever be accepted back into Alexandria after double-crossing Rick, and I don’t know how Eugene will ever forgive Rick after learning that Rick was willing to sacrifice him to kill Negan.
— The “little birdie” that warned Negan that Rick was planning something last week was neither Eugene nor Gregory, as most predicted. It was Jadis.
— Speaking of Gregory, we never saw him in this episode, but we do know that he’s on his way to the Sanctuary to align with Negan. I have no idea where that will go next season, but it was a seriously anti-climactic ending for Gregory’s storyline this season.
— Am I right that in exchange for double-crossing Rick, Negan agreed to give Jadis 12 slaves? What? That’s nonsensical. Where did that even come from?
— For all the good in the episode, that final battle was sloppy as hell. It was 50 characters randomly shooting guns until half of them decided to leave. All due respect to the episode’s director Greg Nicotero, but that was a really poorly shot battle sequence. Negan’s cheesy lines (“The widow’s alive, guns a’ blazin’!) only added to its amateurishness. Before the series heads into the All-Out War next season, it needs to work on choreographing those battle scenes better. The last five minutes nearly undid all the good work the episode had done until that point.