The Walking Dead that we once loved and looked forward to each week finally made a welcome reappearance in this week’s midseason finale, and I have the feeling it’s here to stay for a while. Appeasement is no longer in the cards. “We’re the ones who live,” Michonne told Rick in the episode’s final minutes, borrowing a line from Breaking Bad’s Walter White and reminding Rick — and The Walking Dead audience — that after kowtowing to Negan for the last largely forgettable seven episodes, they are finally ready to fight.
It couldn’t have come soon enough.
The Midseason Finale Worked Because The Last Five Episodes Didn’t
It’s not a strategy that I would typically advise — and it has cost The Walking Dead a sizable drop in ratings over the course of the season — but this week’s episode worked as well as it did because showrunner Scott Gimple and creator Robert Kirkman had committed to driving the series’ characters to their lowest point and forcing them to wallow in it, much to the dismay of viewers. The death of Glenn and Abraham in the season premiere was only the beginning. We also had to see Daryl reduced to eating dog food; we had to see Carl humiliated into taking off the bandage around his missing eye; we had to see Michonne give up her hard-won deer; we had to see Aaron pulverized and Spencer gutted; and we had to see Rick broken, robbed of the one thing that has defined his character all series long: The will to fight.
It was only because Rick and his camp had been reduced to nothing that it felt so satisfying to see them finally regroup and decide to take their fight to Negan. It was only because they had been separated for so long that it felt so emotionally rewarding to see them together again. This is a common refrain in The Walking Dead: Keep the characters apart to achieve an emotional reunion. We see it nearly every season — Carol’s return after leaving the prison; the reunion of Judith and Rick; Glenn and Maggie’s reunion last season, etc. — but it never fails to achieve a cheap emotional high, and last night’s hug between Maggie and Rick was no exception.
“You told us to get ready to fight,” Rick told Maggie. “I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. I can now.” Cue fist pump.
Spencer’s Disembowelment Was the Victory We Needed
There has not been much reason to cheer on The Walking Dead this season, and ironically, it was the gutting of an Alexandrian — a so-called ally — that felt like the biggest win for Rick and Co. Spencer was a sniveling jerk-off. He was selfish. He’d nearly cost the community lives before. He sewed discord within the group, and he was the last remaining vestige of the Alexandrians who distrusted Rick. He was not a team player, which he illustrated when he tried to orchestrate a coup within Alexandria. So to see Negan do what Rick was not quite ruthless enough to do on his own was hugely satisfying. Negan had his own reasons for it, of course. He admires in others strength and chutzpah, which is why he didn’t kill Daryl or Carl or even Dwight; and he loathes fecklessness, which is why he killed Spencer. But in doing so, Negan not only brought Rick and Co. back together. He removed the poison from Alexandria.
It’s probably the beginning of the end for him, but killing Spencer was also the first likable thing that Negan has done all season long, and not just because we hate Spencer. It also illustrated that — deep down — Negan does have a sort of code. At the very least, it made up for the ill-advised decision to shave his beard, which was truly the biggest loss in the episode.
Father Gabriel’s Shining Moment
Before Spencer was the resident sniveling weasel, Father Gabriel occupied that role. Unlike Spencer, however, Gabriel has learned the error of his ways. He’s really become the most-improved character on the series. He was given a second chance after ratting Rick out to Deanna. He has since been entrusted with the life of Judith. He was left in charge of Alexandria, and Gabriel has repaid that trust by putting his faith in Rick and by becoming the spiritual advisor he should have been all along. “We’ll win,” he told Rosita, “but we need to wait for the right moment. Or create it. Together. And you’re a part of that together.”
Damnit Rosita, Why Don’t You Listen?
“Don’t do this,” Gabriel continued, referring to Rosita’s plan to use her one bullet to kill Negan. “We need you.”
Rosita should have listened, because her refusal to do so not only cost her a cut to the cheek, it cost Alexandria their pantry lady, and it cost them Eugene and his bullet-making abilities. Rosita took aim at Negan with that one bullet, it hit Lucille, and Negan took his revenge out by having Olivia shot in the face. Poor Olivia. Her death was inevitable, of course. But we’d only just learned her name, and while she was terrible at her job, she had shown a modicum of fight in slapping Negan last week.
The deaths of Olivia and Spencer also decimates the original Alexandrians. The entire Monroe family is dead now. The entire Anderson family is dead. Denise is dead. Heath is gone (and perhaps dead). There are a few redshirts left — Tobin and Eric, among them — but with Enid having moved on to The Hilltop, Aaron is essentially the community’s only major representative remaining.
You’re Either With Us, Or Against Us
It also represents a new attitude among the survivors to see both Michonne kill the Savior she had kidnapped and Daryl take out Fat Joe. Both Joe and the woman Michonne killed were somewhat sympathetic characters, but they were shown no mercy.
“I’m just trying to get by, just like you,” Fat Joe told Daryl before meeting the business end of a crowbar. “It ain’t just about getting by here,” Daryl said. “It’s about getting it all.” The implication here is that the Saviors will be viewed as the Nazis were: By refusing to stand up to their leader, they make themselves accomplices in his reign of terror. That may present an interesting wrinkle next season when it comes to Dwight and Sherry, who have displayed flashes of compassion, but who are ultimately on the wrong side of history, so to speak.
Carol and Morgan Take a Step Backwards
The one disappointing storyline in the episode had to do with The Kingdom. Not only did we not get to see Ezekiel, but we had to witness Carol and Morgan return to their old ways. Morgan — again — refuses to fight and kill, even where it concerns the Saviors, while Carol just wants to be left alone, unwilling to involve herself in the lives of others in spite of Richard’s pleas. It represented something of a regression for Carol and Morgan, who it seemed had reclaimed their willingness to kill in last season’s finale. I do wonder, however, if their attitudes will change once they find out about Glenn and Abraham?
The good news, at least, is that Carol has finally seen the light where it concerns pomegranates.
— Poor Eugene. I don’t know how he survives a day in The Saviors’ camp. We can expect to see a lot of weeping from him next season, but maybe he’ll grow a backbone (again).
— Over on The Hilltop, Maggie has essentially become the de facto leader of the community after standing up Gregory a few weeks back. Her power play in taking the apple from Gregory essentially confirmed it. Gregory, meanwhile, has been reduced to a glorified redshirt. Xander Berkeley deserves better, which is why in the back half of the season, we’ll probably see Gregory redeem himself through sacrifice. It’s The Walking Dead way.
— The cap that Maggie was wearing was a sweet nod to her late husband, Glenn, who wore the cap during the early seasons of The Walking Dead.
— True to their word, Gimple and Kirkman have not given us any fake deaths this season, and they didn’t end the midseason finale on a big cliffhanger.
— That said, we do get to speculate for the next three months about who was wearing those boots near the scene of the boat (and again, in the post-credits scene). It could just be the guy who lived in the houseboat. However, the way the boots were presented suggested a callback to an existing character, and if I had to take a guess, it would be someone from Oceanside, most likely Cyndie.
— This observation about Negan from our own Josh Kurp is spot-on:
— That said, “I brought him home safe and sound. And I made him spaghetti” was a terrific line from Negan. I also appreciate this show’s commitment to spaghetti.
— I liked the final seconds of the episode, and while I appreciate all the shots of individual faces to mirror Negan’s line-up in season premiere, the smiling and nodding also very much felt like the end of a cheesy ’80s movie. All it was missing was Judd Nelson’s fist pump.
— I also loved that Daryl returned Rick’s gun to him, but what the hell? He’s been wearing his holster this entire time without a gun?